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Yesterday I had a tearful encounter in office hours with the most avid participant in the math class I teach, in which she related the following situation.

She is an international student whose parents are well off by local standards but have made significant financial sacrifices for her to study abroad at the university where I work. Part of the plan was that she should have a scholarship, but it has recently been denied on the grounds her grades are not strong enough, and as a result she will have to switch to a nearby university in the fall. Part of why her grades aren't strong is because she is a very specifically focused student: professional mathematics is all she really wants to do with her life. She already knows. When she is able to do what she wants, she just studies math. She works extremely hard, but at end of the day she couldn't care less about her other courses and views the struggle to get good grades as a distraction from what's important to her.

Her parents disagree that there is any future in math for her. They tell her it's not worth it and that she's bad at it. They're medical doctors in a country where teachers are treated poorly, viewed as people lacking the talent to do anything better, and are worried that a career in math would be both unremunerative and undignified—which might be the case in her home country, but my student also doesn't hope to return home. Nevertheless, for because her parents are footing the bill and because she's not willing to openly defy them, my student will finish a pure CS major when she enrolls in her new university, and won't be allowed to enroll in any future math courses during undergrad.

I watched her just crumble as she told me this, weeping and apologizing for it, unable to make eye contact. She's about to embark, without any choice in the matter, on a course that's going to make her miserable for years, if not longer, and moreover, from what I know of her, she is just the kind of person who should be in math.

I've told her there's nothing anyone can do to stop her from learning on her own, and that absolutely no instructor would refuse to let her sit in on whatever math course she wants, so that at most this will be a hiccup resulting in her getting a sort of bachelor's degree she doesn't really want at the expense of what she'd rather do, and that at the time she's financially independent, she can really study what she wants, but one could tell she's not completely buying this. She's devastated, and I can hardly blame her.

What can I (or anyone) do to help in this situation?

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    What's her nationality? – Cœur Jan 19 '18 at 7:17
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    Please update this page to let us know what happened eventually (say, an update after a year and another one after 5 years if you can manage that). – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 19 '18 at 13:12
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    "will finish a pure CS major [...] and won't be allowed to enroll in any future math courses" I don't get it. I have a BSc and MSc in CS and I studied a lot of math. Computer science is heavily based on math (plus some other things, but still). How is it possible that she won't be able to enroll in math courses? Some of them are even mandatory for graduating in CS. – Andrea Lazzarotto Jan 19 '18 at 17:05
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    Not enough rep to answer -- but I would suggest talking to the scholarship committee and seeing if they'll award to her if she gets her grades up this term (more motivation to get good grades in the other classes). Sounds like if she fixes the financial issue, she can stay at your university... – user Jan 19 '18 at 19:01
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    I was in the same boat, and I eventually transferred out of the premed major that my parents wanted. I know this type of enormous pressure, and it is not uncommon for students to cave. I would suggest to her this: find a university where it is easy to transfer between majors. Then, she can appease her parents by giving CS a go. Perhaps she will like it, then everyone is happy; or it may strengthen her resolve to return to mathematics, then her parents are more likely to finally accept her aspirations, and ending up with a minor in CS may give her an extra edge. – Hui Wang Jan 20 '18 at 2:31

14 Answers 14

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Some thoughts:

  • Suggest counseling. They are much more likely to be able to help support her in expressing her goals to her parents, understanding their position, and perhaps in negotiating some sort of compromise with them. Family relationship issues are likely to be a pretty common concern for college students, and a university counseling service will have had lots of experience with them.

  • Suggest talking to the financial aid office. They may be able to explore other options for funding if she decides to go on without her parents' financial support, though admittedly there may not be a lot of options for international students.

  • Talk to your contacts at the other university. See if you can connect her with someone who may be sympathetic to her situation, and who might be able to help her with some of the other things mentioned here.

  • Help her explore degree and course options. Is there some other degree offered by the institution that might represent a compromise between what she wants and what her parents are willing to pay for? Are there ways for her to take more classes that she's interested in?

  • She needs to be able to succeed at things even when they don't interest her. You write "She couldn't care less about her other courses and her grades". Regardless of the degree she pursues, this is a recipe for disaster in US academia, where breadth is considered essential and degree requirements are designed accordingly, and overall GPA is widely used as a metric of success, e.g. for graduate schools and jobs.

    (I am guessing from your terminology that you are in the US. If not, please correct me.)

    She doesn't have to like all her courses, but she does have to be able to push through and do her best work even in those she dislikes. That's a necessary academic and life skill, and as a faculty member you may be able to help her develop that skill. Counseling services may also help with this, if she has some emotional resistance to get past.

  • She might find these courses more interesting if she gives them a chance. Even pure mathematicians can benefit greatly from knowledge about other fields, and you or other faculty members might be able to help her see connections with things that interest her more.

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    I've overstated "couldn't care less." She's aware that the grades are important, though she resents them, and studies hard, but her heart isn't in it. She feels, strongly, the tension between education as a series of hurdles and evaluations and education as learning, and feels like there's only value in the latter. I only know what she's reported about this. I'm in Canada now, although my vocabulary remains American from force of habit. These are all great suggestions. Thank you. – jdc Jan 18 '18 at 5:55
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    @jdc I’d also add that you could help her to see other career options opened by a mathematics degree, besides teaching. Even if she ultimately wants to be a professor, it’s relatively common to turn a Math PhD into a job as, e.g., a data scientist or analyst of some sorts. Having those as “backup plans” might help to assuage her parents’ fears. Depending on how she wants to play it, she could emphasize those sorts of paths over being a professor. Not pushing back too much if they latch on to those jobs as the goal might let her pursue Math without family strife. – Dennis Jan 18 '18 at 19:35
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    Fellow Canadian here: University in Canada is cheap compared to many other countries and is generally very open in terms of immigration. If she's willing to commit to staying here and start the immigration process she could very easily get scholarships, especially since her parents would be abroad. – William Perron Jan 19 '18 at 13:01
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    "Even pure mathematicians can benefit greatly from knowledge about other fields" - good programming skills (which she would hopefully learn during her undergrad years in computer science) are very useful to have as an applied mathematician. – Relish Jan 20 '18 at 5:27
  • No.1 life lesson I got from college. "She needs to be able to succeed at things even when they don't interest he" – Caterpillaraoz Jan 24 '18 at 9:53
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I have had a small number of students in the same situation over the decades.

My first rule is: Don't get between the student and the parents. That's a complicated and stormy dynamic and I can't do anything but harm there.

My second rule is: Advise the student to cede to the parents for the undergrad degree. To the student, the 4 years of undergrad study seems like a lifetime, but it's really just dust in the wind. I say, "Suck it up for a couple more years. In grad school you'll get tuition waived and a stipend and you won't need your parents' support. Do what they want now. Do what you want in grad school."

But mostly, don't mess with parental authority. It's a nuclear volatile area.

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    Absolutely! From the many hints about her home culture, for a professor to contact the parents could be ineffective: “How dare he interfere with our reasoning our daughter!” Or worse, make things really bad for her: “How could you discuss family business with a foreigner and make us lose face!” – WGroleau Jan 18 '18 at 14:00
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    This started like a great answer, as I absolutely agree with your "first rule". But then the second bit hinted to some outdated ideas (as much as I protest about it, all staff at my institution undergo training on how to deal with student's ... more personal troubles if the situation arises). Telling the student to "suck it up" and "deal with it" comes across as so cold and disinterested. You don't know the situation - it could be anywhere between headstrong parents and psychological abuse, and telling somebody to "suck that up" could mess them up proper in the latter case. – penelope Jan 18 '18 at 16:16
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    I guess what I'm getting at is, I understand that most of researchers and professors are not qualified nor do they feel comfortable getting into issues like that, especially including parents - and that's perfectly fine. But somebody not just tearing up but "crumpling" before their advisor suggests that they do need help - I think acknowledging that, and maybe steering the them into a direction of somebody who could help and who is qualified to listen to their troubles just sounds like a much better idea than betting on the assumption that that person can take 4 more years of the situation. – penelope Jan 18 '18 at 16:20
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    The second point of this answer is probably the worst advice I've read in many years. – gented Jan 22 '18 at 22:24
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    I just don't think that sucking it up is ever a good advice in any situation, as it solves no problem - especially when it comes to University and career studies: those are the times you must enjoy the most, and the choices that build your personality: sucking it up won't ever do any good, neither to her, nor to her parents (who won't learn the lesson). – gented Jan 23 '18 at 9:59
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This is obviously a very difficult situation that raises tricky issues to do with psychology, parenting, and the sociology of the unnamed country the student is from, which are far above my StackExhange pay grade. I feel rather at a loss to suggest any concrete measures that would tip the scales in the student’s favor in a situation involving such powerful forces of adversity and delicate sociological factors.

However, one thing that I feel may be worth exploring is the student’s parents’ actual state of knowledge regarding the value of a higher education in mathematics. Are they aware that Forbes magazine declared “mathematician” to be the number 1 job in the U.S. in 2014? Or that the American Mathematical Society has a web page listing many examples of industries employing mathematicians? That page has links to many additional resources touting the virtues of mathematics as a career - for example, this web page on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website, which taught me interesting statistics and facts, such as:

  • The median annual wage for mathematicians was $105,810 in May 2016.

  • Employment of mathematicians is projected to grow 29 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Thus, the one concrete idea I can think of is for either you, the student, or maybe a senior professor at your university (if you are not one yourself) to communicate some of this information to the student’s parents, in writing or over the phone or Skype or maybe even a face to face meeting (if that can be arranged). I would be a bit more understanding if they wanted to discourage their daughter from pursuing an educational track with poor employment prospects (though that would still be sad and tragic from the student’s point of view), but as it happens, math is actually an extremely useful and even lucrative profession these days — so I’m wondering if by giving the parents some actual data about how attractive math can be as a career it just might be possible to persuade them that a comfortable life and their daughter’s personal happiness are not mutually exclusive goals.

In any case, good luck to you and to your student.

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    I upvoted this answer because it's an excellent one. However, I have a concern. What if the OP's student insists on pursuing pure math all the way and stay in Academia forever? Then the future may not look too good financially. – scaaahu Jan 18 '18 at 3:56
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    @scaaahu there are no guarantees in life. “What if” can work both ways, and she can end up unemployed and bankrupt with a medical or engineering degree as well. Or “what if” she goes into pure math and wins a cushy professorship and a $100K prize by the age of 34? Or she can just end up as a “normal” mathematics professor - some of us are doing all right, believe it or not. Anyway, glad you liked my answer. – Dan Romik Jan 18 '18 at 4:06
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    @scaaahu then they are, by definition, not in it for the money and will be happy doing what they love at a lower salary. However, that's not something the student would need to mention to her parents, and dangling this sort of information before them might be enough to convince them that math isn't some sort of dead end career. – terdon Jan 18 '18 at 9:59
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    @scaaahu that's precisely my point. This is an argument to convince the parents. This shows that, contrary to what they believe, math can offer remuneration. – terdon Jan 18 '18 at 10:27
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    It's probably worth finding out if the parents expect the student to return to her country. If so, they won't be swayed by US wages. – Mark Plotnick Jan 18 '18 at 10:45
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Depending on her mathematical interests, it might be worth looking for career options at the intersection of mathematics and computer science - there's a lot happening there, and some of it even pays quite well ;-)

My father has been a "Professor of Computer Science" for most of his career, but to a large extent he's a mathematician who uses computers as a tool and who applies mathematics to getting more out of computers.

Areas like operations research combine computing and mathematical concepts, and there's high demand for people who can master both.

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    Hey, I've implemented a number of algorithms you dad came up with! Please tell your dad a rando on the internet appreciates his work! – Raff.Edward Jan 18 '18 at 22:22
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  1. Computer Science and Math are close already, especially if she chooses specializations like theoretical computer science. Tell her that many of the subjects can be seen as applied mathematics. And later in work she will probably need at least programming anyways. Other subjects like set theory, logics, signal processing, cryptography, automata and formal languages, complexity theory either contain large amounts of Math or can be useful for a mathematician. I think Math is even one of the biggest reason for CS students to drop out at my University. If she for example takes a Bachelor Thesis topic like cryptography she can do Math for half a year.
  2. She can still do a PhD in Math with a Master in CS.
  3. She can still study Math after studying CS.
  4. She can still study Math in parallel to CS and also online during semester break.
  5. In Germany we have a main subject and a "subsubject" ("Nebenfach") where you can take whatever you want with a much smaller amount of hours, is that possible there as well?
  6. If all that doesn't help and she really wants to change the subject and it is to expensive to pay for studying on her own she can try to come to Germany where studying is nearly free (around 200 € / semester). There is a "Studienkolleg" where foreigners learn German for a while and then they can attend University.

So I would not try to convice the parents, it sounds as if they have their fixed opinion, but instead try to sidestep the issue and give CS a chance while choosing as many Math or Math-like courses as possible. If you want to support her more, can you give her a job as a teaching assistant or something similar? Also for the relation with their parents I would refer her to student counceling, they will be better trained to help with this sort of problem.

  • The asker clearly said that the student will not be allowed to take any more math classes for the remainder of her undergrad studies. – Daniel Allen Langdon Jan 22 '18 at 16:47
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Theoretical Computer Science (and issues like finite automata, formal grammars, complexity theory, graph theory) are mathematics-laden to a degree where they prevent a number of people from making careers in that area.

Many courses labelled "Computer Science" are instead glorified programming courses particular in undergraduate tracks. If your student focuses on the right kind of courses, she'll have a career in Computer Science involving a whole lot of heavy-duty mathematics. It may not be kind of "Computer Science" with good job prospects in her home country but may fit the currently prescribed course of action.

  • Here are some more "CS" topics she might be interested in: discreet mathematics, the halting problem, the Y-Combinator function (which still hurts my head to contemplate), the Church encoding. The list goes on. – Daniel Allen Langdon Jan 22 '18 at 16:46
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Seems clear that the relationship between parents and daughter is a major factor, and some answers are missing the fact that this is a bigger thing with her and with her home culture than it would be in USA or Canada.

Her parents may be rightly, or erroneously, trying to do what’s best for her. Or they may be trying to protect themselves from the embarrassment of having an unsuccessful daughter.

However, IF she is willing to risk a break from her parents, might there be someone in Canada who would vouch for her to obtain immigrant status? My parents are far from wealthy, but their “sponsorship” was enough for a young lady from an Asian country to be allowed to stay. That’s USA, though, and her parents were not opposed.

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I'm assuming this is a US question. I would suggest the student a double major: math and economy, CS and economy, for instance. Also, I would suggest to try biasing the subject of the other major towards math applied in economy, which is something banks and overbearing parents love.

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    Any reason you're not suggesting math and CS? – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Jan 18 '18 at 9:49
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    One major is math because she likes it and the other is economy/CS/whatever can convince her parents that she'll bathe in money upon graduation. Economy is useful to some degree if one wants to argue they plan to go in quantitative finance. CS is good for people living in places with lots of IT industry. She'll be tricking her parents, but for the greater good. It's a good training anyway for the moment they'll want to marry her off to someone she doesn't like. – user21264 Jan 18 '18 at 15:57
  • @Sumyrda sounds like parents have specifically forbidden math, at least when it's explicitly identified as math. – Geoffrey Brent Jan 18 '18 at 19:51
  • Per a comment above, this is in Canada. – Nate Eldredge Jan 19 '18 at 1:37
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Well, life is hard.

I think unless you're able and willing to directly fund her, you can't help her and she'll have to help herself. The main ways to do this would be:

  1. Persuade her parents. It sounds like she's given up, in which case you'd probably have even less chance of being successful.
  2. Get a loan of some kind, or another scholarship. Your institution (or the new one) might have some scheme to help students facing financial difficulties. Alternatively, there might be a scholarship out there for mathematics students. I did a quick Google search and found this; something similar might be available for her.

Having said that there're some caveats. If she breaks with her parents to fund her own education, she'll likely be facing lifelong consequences. This might be culturally acceptable in some countries, but in others, their relationship could be permanently damaged.

The other issue is that if she's completely convinced she wants to be a mathematics researcher, her career path won't be lucrative for quite a while - perhaps until she gets a permanent position. She might have difficulty paying off loans. This is also risky in the sense that if she later realizes how hard it is to get a permanent position in mathematics and / or how different graduate studies is from undergraduate, she might get depressed looking at the student debt she's accrued - all for naught.

On a personal level, I'd suggest she follow her parents' wishes. The risk of permanent damage to their relationship is too high, and besides they have her best interests at heart. She can still have a fulfilling and possibly better-paying career outside of mathematics. You could even show her the compound interest chart and how fast exponential growth is, and suggest that she start saving money after graduation. Eventually, she can fund mathematics research directly. She might not be able to do it herself, but she can still have a direct positive impact on the field.

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    I strongly disagree with the last paragraph. The damage her parents are doing now may be far greater than the damage of fighting this battle. – Austin Henley Jan 18 '18 at 1:45
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    @AustinHenley I suspect we're from different cultural backgrounds then =) – Allure Jan 18 '18 at 1:48
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    Not doing mathematics isn’t the end of the world either. I find this a very presumptuous and offensive statement. It’s not your place to tell someone else what is or isn’t the end of the world from their perspective, especially when the thing in question is a choice of vocation, which is something that some people feel extremely strongly about. The rest of your answer is sensible and well-written, but I am downvoting because of the last paragraph, and especially the “not the end of the world” statement. I’ll reverse my vote if you make an edit to fix this. – Dan Romik Jan 18 '18 at 2:47
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    Very likely to be cultural differences ... for illustration, I know a woman who left home in her 20s to work as a maid in a foreign country. She sent a large chunk of her salary home, which was used to set up her siblings. Her family would constantly ask for more and she would oblige. She effectively gave up her own life and dreams (too old to have children now) for the sake of the family. Against this kind of background, breaking with the family is almost incomprehensible. The consolation for giving up her own life is the ones she helped enable, which might sustain the student here as well. – Allure Jan 18 '18 at 4:24
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    You could even show her the compound interest chart and how fast exponential growth is — Seriously? Do you really think explaining exponential growth to a mathematician would do anything other than insult her intelligence? – JeffE Jan 18 '18 at 15:20
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Hopefully I can provide a different outlook here as I’m a CS major trying to get into software development, not an academic. But this question touched me so much I had to answer.

It’s less common, but certainly not impossible to get a job as a software developer as a math major. So she may be able to sell that to her parents. She should tell them that employers will like to see that she did so well in such a hard subject and it will give her an advantage over CS majors (this is probably stretching the truth a bit, but not a complete lie).

I’ve also heard that medical schools and law schools like math majors. But I don’t know enough about either of those to verify if it’s true.

So I would say plan A is for her to try and convince them that there are other things she can do with a math major besides academia.

Plan B would be to find a compromise. Maybe applied math or statistics. From what I understand those are heavy on the math, but a little more practical than pure math.

And if all else fails, CS involves a lot of math too. Especially when you get to the more theoretical side, such as algorithms and language theory. If she’s going to get a masters or phd, that’s even better as she can focus more on the mathematical side and less on the hardware side. Find out if she has any interest in machine learning, data science or artificial intelligence. She may enjoy it more than she thinks.

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The main problem here is what is going to happen in the new school. If she doesn't study and do well she might as well be defying her parents.

  1. She could talk to her parents about taking say 1 extra course in math at the same time as she does her main course. Offer to pay them back after she graduates. However, this will likely fail as she blew off her other courses and her parents have learned she can't be trusted. If she had established good faith with her parents by completing the existing courses with good grades this would be an easy sell.

Maybe if she succeeds in the new school this can be revisited.

  1. Get a part time job somewhere and pay for her own math classes. Danger: She has to do well in all her classes or this will back fire. Her parents will see she failed again, and probably cut her off and bring her home. Where she will have to take up a terrible job in her own country until she is old enough to strike out on her own.

Your only hope of changing things is to prove math is a viable career field. Using actual job listing and a significant body of evidence.

Another issue is "doesn't hope to return home". The big question here, is does her parents know,understand, and accept this fact, because it is critical. Their main argument is that in their own country her math skills will be wasted. If her parents were to accept this, then she could produce articles from countries she is thinking about moving to on how math and/or teaching is highly valued in that country.

However, "doesn't hope to return home" I am assuming she is there on a student visa or some such permit. After that expires then what? Will she have already applied for citizenship in the new country? Otherwise she will be forced to return to her country. The citizenship process can be multi-year process, hope doing her homework on this process now.


Maybe its time to impress on her how badly thing can get if she doesn't temporarily do what her parents want. Then if she turns her grades around maybe her parents will be receptive to what she wants.

We aren't give hardly any cultural information, so I am just making up a worst cast ending.

She fails, or does not succeed to her parents expectations, they bring her home. Then what probably no math jobs, and she will be forced to take another job, maybe even a house maid. Maybe even forced into an arranged marriage, have children and never do math more advance than the math needed for cooking dinner.

I am not a fan of scare tactics, but if she does badly another semester her parent are going to be mad. They may take action that make her life 10x more miserable than they are now.

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I just read the question and realized that it could be quite a specific case if your student is from China. If she is from China, do NOT try to convince her to go against her parents will. I've been teaching thousands of Chinese students and majority of them study what their parents chose for them, not what they want. Their family culture is very complicated. Parent-child bond is pretty much sacred and maintaining it is essential for the child happiness in life.

What I do is usually find a way they can use their passion in the profession that was chosen for them. Math is easy actually, it is used everywhere. She can apply math to any profession. Give her some ideas, examples, advice on math applications in her field. Chinese parents choose professions for their children mostly using two criteria: expected income and lifestyle suitable for their culture. It's not that bad if you think about it.

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    FWIW, I noticed that the asker said that the student's parents are doctors and that teachers are looked down upon in her country. I recently read an unrelated article that stated that Chinese typically see teachers as being on par with doctors, so that would suggest the student's parents are likely from somewhere else, but it's all speculation. Google Fu: bbc.com/news/education-24381946 – Daniel Allen Langdon Jan 22 '18 at 16:58
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I'd council not getting too involved in family conflicts.

However it sort of sounds like they're of the belief that math can only lead to a job as a math teacher and are trying to push her into a "safe" major.

Perhaps giving the student some tables of income projections by major along with the kinds of jobs they open up might give her something to reassure them with.

Math does pretty well on that score and in her shoes I'd probably be asking "why are you asking me to step down into a (likely) slightly worse-paid, slightly lower status career path? If I was training to become a doctor would you demand I step down to nurse?"

http://www.naceweb.org/job-market/compensation/physics-projected-as-top-paid-class-of-2016-math-and-sciences-major/

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With all due respect to her parents and difficult situation, it is she that must do the academic work, and later, practice in a field she finds rewarding. I'd hope her parents wish her to find happiness long term, yet they believe she 'doesn't know what's best'.

There's no easy way to combat this, but here is one potential route: 1) Student states unequivocally her desire for a different path 2) Student proves sincerity by applying for (but not necessarily accepting) financial aid to render her independent of the parents support.

The parents can then either double down and allow her to incur debt, or back down and let her follow her interests.

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