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Foreign Office gives Bletchley Park £480,000 and announces GCHQ apprenticeships

Having neglected the home of wartime codebreaking since it packed up and left with the end of hostilities, it looks like the Foreign Office is Turing over a new leaf – Foreign Secretary William Hague paid a visit to Bletchley Park on Thursday to make a couple of announcements that will please both amateur and more serious codebreakers.

"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!

New Careers section on Plus Magazine

Plus Magazine have launched a new careers section. Aimed at teachers, students, career advisors and parents, the section offers a glimpse of where maths can take you. For a long time these have been the best sources of careers advice for mathematics in the UK so a collaboration should be very fruitful.

This gives information on the wide range of careers that use mathematics – from avalanche research and planning the Olympics to designing computer games or saving lives in developing countries – containing career profiles and in-depth career interviews, as well as advice from employers and information on how to enter a career with maths.

The new careers section is a collaboration between Plus and the MathsCareers website, which was developed by the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the London Mathematical Society and the Royal Statistical Society.

What a nice job you have

Much has been made on Twitter of the recent list from CareerCast.com 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 CareerCast.com 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.

Math/Maths 89: Remark on a Theorem of Hilbert

A new episode of the Math/Maths Podcast has been released.

A conversation about mathematics between the UK and USA from Pulse-Project.org. This week Samuel and Peter spoke about: Pi day; US judge rules that you can’t copyright pi; Drug Data Reveals Sneaky Side Effect; Researchers Send “Wireless” Message Using Elusive Particles; Computing Power Speeds Safer CT Scans; Mathematics Matters UK Parliament meeting; Mario is NP-hard; ERC rejects ‘impact agenda’; Article Titles Make a Difference; Half of children find science and maths too difficult or too boring; Careers advice cuts could be putting kids off science; and more.

Get this episode: Math/Maths 89: Remark on a Theorem of Hilbert

Survey finds pupils rate STEM jobs but find STEM subjects too difficult or boring

The Telegraph reports that a survey of career aspirations of 1,000 pupils aged six to 16 by the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre has been published to coincide with the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham this week.

Findings reported  include:

49.4 per cent of children thought STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) were too difficult or boring while 15 per cent thought they were only relevant to jobs in medicine.

The Telegraph gives the “top ten dream careers” given by pupils in the survey (remember the age range is six to 16!):

1. Professional Athlete
2. Performer
3. Secret Agent
4. Firefighter
5. Astronaut
6. Veterinarian
7. Doctor
8. Teacher
9. Pilot
10. Zoo Keeper

The Mirror, coving the same story, highlights that this list includes “being a vet, an astronaut, a pilot, a doctor or a zoo keeper”, and points out that all of these need STEM qualifications.

The focus of both articles is on cuts to careers advice since the election. David Porter, Manager of the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre, is quoted saying: “Face to face careers guidance is extremely important, but this survey shows that students are not all receiving the right guidance to lead them in the right direction.”

Sources:

Telegraph: Half of children find science and maths too difficult or too boring.
Mirror: Careers advice cuts could be putting kids off science.

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