DECATUR – Joe Stickles believes that a math major can lead to almost any career.

“Being a math major gives you the skills to succeed in almost anything that's science-related or business-related because it teaches you how to think,” said Stickles, the chairman of the Math Department at Millikin University. “In fact, some math majors go on to law school because law is very logical, so choosing a math major to go to law school is a good choice. Philosophy is a good choice, but also psychology. Psychology programs love math people because they don't have to teach them all of the statistics.”

A lot of students who enjoy math and are good at it, Stickles said, don't realize how many things a person can do with those skills.

At Millikin, math majors are planning careers in a number of different fields. Ryan Sikora, a junior, chose actuarial science, the discipline that applies mathematical and statistical methods to assess risk in insurance, finance and other industries and professions.

“The kind of path I'm trying to look for is either working in property or casualty (insurance),” said Sikora, who is from Hickory Hills. “Or working on the consulting side, which is having companies hire you out. That's a little more on the communications side, talking with clients. The reason I chose math and particularly actuarial science is that growing up, I was a good numbers guy. It just made sense to me. My senior year in high school, I took my first statistics class and just fell in love with the material.”

After reading articles and doing some research, plus a friend who was already at Millikin pointed him in the direction of the discipline, Sikora was sure he'd made the right choice. One of the biggest hurdles for students in that field is certification exams, which are difficult, but Sikora passed his first one in September, on his first try. The pass rate on that exam is about 20 percent, and most students have to take it more than once to get a passing score.

Mount Zion native Carrie Barrick, a senior, said she's the “complete opposite” of Sikora.

“I didn't really know what I was doing (for a career) when I came to college and I still don't know what I'm doing, but I'm graduating in May,” Barrick said with a chuckle. “I learned all my math skills from (Stickles). I know a lot about math but not what I want to do.”

She failed the certification test on her first try, but blames a failure to allow enough study and preparation time. In acutarial science, she said, the learning never stops. Actuaries have to keep their skills sharp and keep learning and taking tests throughout their careers. Employers often allow them to use work time for that study and taking exams, and provide materials and exam fees. Median pay for an actuary is $97,000 annually, and increased experience equals increased salary, with two distinctly different specialties within the field.

“There are five exams for the associate level and another three to be a fellow,” Stickles said.

Sikora jokes that before he took his exam he was “a hot mess,” spending every spare moment on his laptop studying and doing practice problems. It pays off, though, Stickles said, because Sikora has been offered an internship at Liberty Mutual in Boston. A Millikin board member is a senior vice president at the company.

Even if Barrick decides against becoming an actuary, Stickles said, the coursework and the degree will open business doors for her.

“When our students do actuarial science, they also take a lot of courses in the business school,” Stickles said. “Most of them get a finance minor. Some of our students invent their own jobs. We have one alum who does pricing for different experiences in Las Vegas. It's a start-up company out there, using different data points to come up with pricing for these different packages.”

Barrick said the business classes cover all aspects of business, and because Millikin is a small school, there are opportunities to get experience in other areas. One of the things she's been able to learn is managing a portfolio of stocks.

“It opens up a lot of doors for you and you meet a lot of higher-up people,” she said. “I'm not worried about finding a job, because having that math degree carries so much weight. And there are connections I can make on the Tabor (School of Business) side that will put me a step ahead of so many of my peers.”

Other students, like Krystal Reyes of Menifee, Calif., plan to teach. Julie Krull of Menomonee Falls, Wis., is a "pure math" major, still undecided as to career path, and Korbin Farmer, of Columbia, is double-majoring in math and philosophy, minoring in communications, with several business certificates already under his belt, and he's only a sophomore.

A cornerstone of the math major, Stickles said, is that students understand how to apply the knowledge.

“From the math education side, our actuaries need to be able to do finance things, so they're taking classes in finance,” he said. “Other math majors are going on to graduate school, so we're preparing them with classes above and beyond our curriculum.”

Some are focusing on data and information systems to pursue computer science fields. If someone wants a pure math degree and to go on to graduate school, it's still important for them to know how math applies to other disciplines.

“We want to make sure we expose our students to different experiences so they have the background, the foundation, to do pretty much anything they want to do,” Stickles said. “Our students figure it out. We're very big on getting our students to be able to do things independently.”

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Staff Writer

Education and family reporter for the Herald & Review.

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