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Mathematics graduates’ employability skills

Yesterday the BBC highlighted the issue of graduate employability with a story about a Government plan to offer graduate internships at top companies.

One of the things I do when I’m not University Liaison Officer for the IMA is some lecturing at Nottingham Trent University. As part of this, I am currently enrolled on the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) course, a 60 credit Masters level module for new lecturers. The most recent assignment involves the evaluation of a module on which I am teaching. I chose a module I will be teaching in the second half of the 2008/9 academic year which is a group projects, problem solving module focused on skills development rather than knowledge acquisition. As such, I have recently done a little reading from mathematical educational literature on employability and transferable skills and share some snippets below.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) publish Subject Benchmark Statements which describe what a subject offers its graduates. The QAA Benchmark Statement for Mathematics, Statistics and Operational Research (MSOR) [1] suggests skills MSOR graduates possess include:

“general study skills, particularly including the ability to learn independently using a variety of media which might include books, learned journals, the internet and so on. They will also be able to work independently with patience and persistence, pursuing the solution of a problem to its conclusion. They will have good general skills of time-management and organisation. They will be adaptable, in particular displaying readiness to address new problems from new areas. They will be able to transfer knowledge from one context to another, to assess problems logically and to approach them analytically. They will have highly developed skills of numeracy, including being thoroughly comfortable with numerate concepts and arguments in all stages of work. They will have general IT skills, such as word processing, use of the internet and the ability to obtain information (there may be very rare exceptions to this, such as distance learning students studying abroad in countries where IT facilities are very restricted). They will also have general communication skills, such as the ability to write coherently and communicate results clearly” (p. 11).

The Statement suggests it is because of these skills that MSOR graduates “find employment in a great variety of careers and professions” (p. 11). Hibberd [2] agrees that mathematics graduates “play an important role in meeting the demands of employers for skilled personnel to ensure the UK can maintain its competitive edge in a global market” (p. 6). While Kahn [3] regards it as “essential” that modules are “built around mathematical considerations,” he suggests module designers also need to take account of “wider considerations” such as “preparing students for employment” (p. 92).

Beevers and Paterson [4] describe “key skills” as “what is left after the facts have been forgotten” (p. 51). Challis, et al [5] define a subset of key skills as “transferable” (p. 80) and say as well as academic knowledge,

“professional mathematicians require good transferable skills, such as reading, writing, speaking and working with others. They may be applied mathematicians, in one or more of a variety of guises such as scientists, engineers, economists or actuaries, and will be working with others, using mathematics and mathematical modelling to solve problems and answer questions that may arise in industry, commerce or a social context. If they are pure mathematicians, they will almost certainly be employed by a university with some requirement to conduct research and to teach. Those mathematics graduates who become schoolteachers will certainly need good interpersonal and leadership skills … Some mathematics graduates will go into general employment, and they, like their peers will need all of the aforementioned transferable skills.” (p. 79).

The findings of MacBean, Graham and Sangwin [6] indicate some students may need convincing that they need to develop employability skills at all. Challis, et al say mathematics students “are often surprised to see the emphasis placed on the acquisition of transferable skills” (p. 89).

Challis et al report the findings of an employer survey (MathSkills project). This,

“suggested that a mathematics graduate is advantaged by being logical, systematic and rigorous, being able to take an abstract and broad approach, and being analytical, clear thinking and fast to understand. On the negative side, mathematics graduates tended to lack presentation and communication skills (including report writing and presentation to a non-technical audience), pragmatism in real problem solving, social skills and commercial awareness” (p. 81).

Communication is important; they say,

“professional mathematicians in industry will probably be working on problems that require their specialized knowledge and skills, and they will be working with others who have different specialities, or who are managing the project, or have commissioned it. They must converse lucidly with others, who are ignorant of mathematics, and they must know what can, and what cannot, be solved mathematically. They must simplify problems through modelling, and find or create suitable methods of solution. They must then convey their findings persuasively to a wide range of others, in discussion, in writing and through a presentation: with many audiences, a persuasive argument is more convincing than a rigorous proof!” (p. 81).

They also note that “most mathematics graduates do not go on to call themselves professional mathematicians, although they still bring their special qualities to their job” (p. 82). Finally, Challis, et al warn: “The effort involved in teaching, embedding and assessing [transferable skills] is considerable but cannot be avoided if the modern graduate is to be properly prepared for the workplace” (p. 90).

  1. QUALITY ASSURANCE AGENCY FOR HIGHER EDUCATION, THE, 2002. Subject benchmark statements: Academic standards – Mathematics, statistics and operational research. Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
  2. HIBBERD, S., 2005. Use of Projects in Mathematics. MSOR Connections, 5(4), pp. 5-12.
  3. KAHN, P., 2002. Designing courses with a sense of purpose. In: P. KAHN, ed. and J. KYLE, ed., Effective Teaching and Learning in Mathematics & its Applications. London: Kogan Page, 2002, pp. 92-105.
  4. BEEVERS, C., and PATERSON, J., 2002. Assessment in mathematics. In: P. KAHN, ed. and J. KYLE, ed., Effective Teaching and Learning in Mathematics & its Applications. London: Kogan Page, 2002, pp. 49-61.
  5. CHALLIS, N., GRETTON, H., HOUSTON, K., and NEILL, N., 2002. Developing transferable skills: preparation for employment. In: P. KAHN, ed. and J. KYLE, ed., Effective Teaching and Learning in Mathematics & its Applications. London: Kogan Page, 2002, pp. 79-91.
  6. MACBEAN, J., GRAHAM, T. and SANGWIN, C., 2001. Guidelines for Introducing Groupwork in Undergraduate Mathematics. Birmingham: HEA Maths, Stats and OR Network.

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