You're reading: Travels in a Mathematical World

What a nice job you have

Much has been made on Twitter of the recent list from and posted at the Wall Street Journal of the 200 “Best and Worst Jobs of 2012” (a tweet on this from the IMA has been retweeted over fifty times). The reason? Mathematician is in the top ten, at number ten in fact.

There are a few issues with this, such as the simple question: what is a mathematician? If you take this to mean academic mathematician then this is a fairly specialist, niche area with few options for most graduates. Wider than this, there aren’t many jobs called “Mathematician”. I used to have the equivalent result from 2009, when mathematician was top of the list, in my IMA careers talk. The Wall Street Journal article then featured a mathematician working on 3D graphics behind Hollywood movies. I’m not sure she’s who you think of when you hear “mathematician”. Either way, I’m left wondering precisely what this job “mathematician” is and how realistic an option it is for most mathematics graduates.

I also wonder about the methodology, explained in detail at but based in part on fairly subjective values. You might wonder, with mathematician (#10) and jobs that could be taken by maths graduates such as those in computing (#1, #9), actuary (#2) and financial planner (#5) at the top of the list, and lumberjack (#200), dairy farmer (#199), soldier (#198) and oil rig worker (#197) at the bottom, whether mathematician is benefiting too much from being a low-risk, indoors job.

Another issue is consistency. Between being first in 2009 and tenth in 2012, mathematician was sixth in 2010 and second in 2011. Have these jobs changed so much in the four years the survey has taken place or is there so little between the top candidate careers that minor variations are exaggerated?

Perhaps I should just be happy that mathematician is a top ten job and not worry about these niggles. Of course, if mathematician weren’t in the top ten then we wouldn’t pay the survey any notice so perhaps that’s bias enough without questioning how the flattering result came about.

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