Help me find … a course

When you come to choosing a degree you want to read for at university there are two main things you need to decide: degree subject and degree course.

Degree subject

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The single most important thing about choosing a degree is, of course, to pick something that you are genuinely interested in. Don’t allow yourself to be pressurised into choosing a particular subject by other people. A degree is vastly different from the structure of lessons and homework at school—you will be almost solely responsible for your studies and ensuring that you have understood material from lectures and the assignments. If you really want to, you will probably be able to get away without going to many lectures or putting much effort into coursework. You won’t be given detention, you’ll just risk failing your exams. So you need to be sure that you’ll enjoy learning about your subject, as this will give you the incentive to get the work done.

You should also take into account your career plans, and make sure your chosen degree will help you get the job you have in mind. Although a degree in Maths and Finance is by no means the only pathway into a banking job in the city, it will certainly improve your prospects. Don’t worry at all if you haven’t a clue what you want to do for a career—many people in maths jobs don’t decide until after leaving university.

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Degrees in mathematics

Courses are available either in mathematics alone, or in mathematics and another subject—the “joint honours” option. The possibilities for mathematicians are especially broad, as the subject can be studied on its own to a deep level in an undergraduate course, or usefully combined with an enormous number of other subjects. For example,

  • Mathematics and Computer science;
  • Mathematics and Economics;
  • Mathematics and Philosophy;
  • Mathematics and Physics;
  • Mathematics and Statistics,

are all offered by most universities. Other Joint Honours courses are also available, such as Mathematics and a language. This combination is especially common on four-year sandwich courses with the third year spent abroad. Some institutions offer more uncommon combinations, such as

  • Mathematics and sports science;
  • Mathematics and Theatre studies;
  • Mathematics and Tourism,

so if you look hard enough you are bound to find a combination that is perfect for you.

Combining two subjects is an excellent way to study two different areas you are interested in without focusing too heavily on one subject. You might find yourself being set large pieces of work from both departments at the same time, though, rather than having your major assignments more evenly spaced throughout the term they would be if you were taking a straight Mathematics course. The work load is roughly equivalent between degrees at the same university, but you may need to practice better time management than a student with a single degree subject.

Degree type

BA … BSc … MA … MSc … MMath…? There is a bewildering number of different kinds of degree. The most common kind of full-time university undergraduate programme is the three-year Bachelor’s degree (or four-year in Scottish universities). Depending on the university, this will be called a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Mathematics.

Many universities offer you the chance to take a three year degree over four years, with the third year of this sandwich course spent on a work placement or abroad. Some courses are a full four years, often with a major research project in the final year. In this case, you graduate with a Masters degree, such as a Master of Mathematics (MMath) or Master of Science (MSc), rather than a Bachelor’s degree. Oxford and Cambridge confuse the issue slightly by automatically awarding a Masters degree to all BAs a certain number of years after graduation. For example, a maths graduate from Oxford receives a degree called “MA (Oxon) Mathematics” 7 years after starting at the University. This doesn’t make any academic difference, but only MAs are allowed to vote in university elections.

You may even be able to find some departments that offer a MMath with a year on a work placement, yielding a full five-year undergraduate programme. These degrees are designed for stronger students wanting to study maths to a much more advanced level, although only knowledge of the core A-level Pure Mathematics syllabus is assumed at the start. These courses are ideal for people who are already considering a career in maths or related fields.

So as well as choosing a University and the degree subject you want to read (e.g. Mathematics and Economics), you also have to think about type of programme best suits you (such as a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree). For example, taking a year abroad in a four-year sandwich course is a wonderful opportunity, but the extra year spent unemployed can be very financially draining.

With a maths degree you can be anything!

If you’re not sure what you want to do after your degree, one thing you can be sure of is that a maths or maths-related degree will be really useful. Every field of human endeavour needs mathematicians, so you will be opening doors, not closing them.