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"I’m not a mathematician, the maths I’m doing is really just basic modelling"

Last week I attended the first Institute of Mathematics and its Applications Employers’ Forum. The theme was ‘Employability of Mathematics Graduates’. This was an interesting event with many useful views and viewpoints on display.

One speaker, talking about how mathematics student applicants to the graduate training scheme fare, mentioned that during the technical interview some such applicants seem to expect that they will be asked detailed questions about their final year modules. In fact, the questions asked are more like A-level mechanics and this trips up many students. This chimes with a problem I’ve thought about previously about attitudes to mathematics from mathematicians.

I have noticed that many graduate mathematicians who work in mathematical jobs will tell me “I’m not a mathematician, the maths I’m doing is really just basic modelling”. Students and graduates (including, if I think back, me when I graduated) seem to think that if the mathematics they are doing after graduation isn’t at least as hard as final year undergraduate mathematics, then it can’t be ‘real mathematics’ and they can’t be a ‘real mathematician’. As they haven’t moved onto a higher degree to do more advanced mathematics, they must have failed as mathematicians.

I came across this problem somewhat when I worked for the IMA because someone who doesn’t consider themselves a mathematician might ask: since I’m no longer a mathematician, why would I join the mathematicians’ professional body?

I think it is terribly sad when graduates think this. I must be careful here: of course there is more advanced applied mathematics but many graduates find themselves applying fairly basic mathematics to problems and therefore think that they have regressed to an earlier stage of their mathematical development. This rigorously hierarchical view of mathematics – particularly from people who are using mathematics to make a substantial contribution – seems to me to be a real shame. In fact, final year undergraduate mathematics is pretty far up the tree – so far, if we continue the analogy, that it can’t support very many people – but it’s hard to appreciate this when, to overuse the analogy, you’re only looking at the few academic researchers balancing on higher branches.

“If I apply for a job using mathematics, they must want to quiz me about what I learned at the culmination of my degree. And since they’re asking me questions about forces and moments using techniques from A-level, then this can’t be real mathematics and I can’t be a real mathematician.” It’s a real problem.

This is part of where I think the value lies in the IMA series of conferences for the ‘Early Career Mathematician’. Since many mathematicians in industry think of themselves as ‘someone who used to do mathematics’ and may well be the only mathematics graduate in their team/department/company, it can be a very powerful experience to come together and meet others in similar positions. If you’ll excuse a small plug, I am chairing the next of these conferences, the IMA Early Career Mathematicians’ Autumn Conference 2012, in Greenwich in November. Registration is now open. Come along!

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