Apparently English and history majors aren’t the only students quizzed by relatives and friends about what type of work they expect to find after graduation. Undergraduate females majoring in mathematics report in a recent study that they are frequently questioned about career options in mathematics, and even worse, they aren’t sure what the options are. Katrina Piatek-Jimenez interviewed 12 women in her study, “On the Persistence and Attrition of Women in Mathematics,” to examine in part why women who major in mathematics frequently move into careers not involving mathematics.
The students in this study seem to indicate women leave mathematics because they aren’t made aware of the career options available to them. The majority of the young women interviewed wanted careers that helped others. Beyond becoming secondary math teachers, they weren’t clear on how they could apply mathematics to helping. Several of the students in the study turned to their professors for career advice and discovered “their professors did not appear to know much about careers outside of academia either” (p.28). This isn’t too surprising, since the professors wanted to stay in academics, they probably never paid much attention to other careers.
Lack of knowledge about career options is a reason for STEM attrition that I’ve read again and again. There is a need for faculty, librarians, and career counselors to gather career information, make it accessible to STEM students in the first two years of college, and make them accountable for exploring it as part of coursework. We lose too many talented STEM students because they have no idea what careers are available, or because they have misperceptions of what STEM careers are like.