Getting Started

Answers to common questions asked by current students

What is Applied Mathematics?

Applied mathematics represents a quantitative liberal arts degree. The degree provides the opportunity for combing mathematical thinking with any subject for which mathematics can be productively applied.

In  some instances, combining applied mathematics with a particular subject can lead to a program of study that is quite similar to studying that subject itself. For example, applied mathematics with physics as an application area is quite similar to studying physics. On the other hand, there are other instances (combining applied mathematics with music or history) where the degree program would be completely different.

At a professional level the difference between an applied mathematician and a practitioner in a given field can be very small, when the two are working on problems in that field. However, the applied mathematician's primary interest is in the general way that mathematics is applied--and as such also could use [variants of ] the same methods to study other fields.

Why study Applied Mathematics at Harvard?

Applied mathematics moves beyond theory, blending the study of mathematics with a wide array of applications in many fields: biology, genomics, chemistry, computer science, decision and control, economics, electrical engineering, geophysical sciences, mechanical engineering, scientific computing, physics, social and behavioral sciences, and statistics.

"Harvard is really vibrant and exciting.

"One of the reasons I decided to come here (and it seems also to be a reason that many of my other friends in the program decided to come here) is the atmosphere that you’re in.

"You’re around people who will push you, who have a robust background, and whose opinions you would like to hear."

- Natalie Arkus, Ph.D. candidate in Applied Mathematics

Harvard in particular provides an ideal environment for pursuing such a diverse and interdisciplinary field.

  • Being at Harvard provides unmatched opportunities to use the latest tools and technologies—from fabricating and testing transistors in a clean room to working on grid-based computing. 
  • Undergraduate research opportunities (many with funding) abound—both during regular term and over the summer, through the Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE), an opportunity for Harvard undergraduates to join a 10-week residential research community here on campus.
  • Past senior projects in Applied Mathematics take full advantage of the collaborative nature of faculty: CEO Equity Initiatives and Company Performance; Multi-Stage Information Acquisition in Auction Design; Determining U.S. Black Carbon Emissions Using an Inverse Method; and Efficient Algorithms for Brownian Dynamics Simulations Based on Higher-Order Solutions of the Fokker-Planck Equation.
  • Learning happens beyond the classroom. Students participate in events such as the ACM Programming Competitions and the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP) Mathematical Modeling Competition.

Why should I study Applied Mathematics in a given area (like economics or computer science) rather than concentrate in that area?

One should study applied mathematics because one is fascinated with the power and impact that mathematical arguments have had on the world around us. This concentration is inherently interdisciplinary because it combines courses in mathematics with courses in an area of application.

How demanding is the workload for a typical course?

Concentrators can expect to invest the same amount of time in their courses as students pursuing the natural sciences (e.g., biology) or the physical sciences (e.g., physics and chemistry). 

Do I need a background in mathematics?

We encourage students beginning mathematics at any level to undertake this degree. Although many students start the degree program in Math 21a or Applied Math 21a, the program is designed so that students at all levels can complete it.

Can students "minor" in Applied Mathematics?

Yes. The secondary field in Mathematical Sciences is jointly sponsored by the the Mathematics Department and the Applied Mathematics concentration.

Secondary fields are a new program in Harvard College. They are intended to provide the opportunity for students to pursue focused study in one area outside of the concentration, without requiring students to combine their academic interests in a joint thesis project.

What are the requirements for Applied Mathematics?

The following publications describe the concentration in Applied Mathematics and its requirements.

  • Requirements
    Official requirements for students declaring the concentration in November 2015, as published in the Harvard College Handbook for Student.