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Mathematics Today December 2009: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Improving graduate skills through an undergraduate conference

When I give my careers talk to undergraduates I talk about the skills their degree offers and those it may not. I highlight the skills employers think maths graduates do and don’t have, based on commonly held stereotypes. On the plus side a mathematician is logical, systematic, rigorous, clear thinking and analytical [1]. These are logical, analytical problem solvers, highly valued in many areas of employment [2]. On the other hand, employers think mathematicians are lacking in certain areas, including communication and social skills [1].

I believe the soon-to-be-graduate mathematician needs to be aware of the preconceptions held by the people who are interviewing them for positions. I tell students the person hiring them thinks they are a logical problem solver and worth hiring, but they believe that if they do so their new employee will need to be brought up to speed on communication and social skills. If the mathematician can demonstrate they conform only to the positive side of the stereotype they have the opportunity to surprise the interviewer and this may give them an edge. Of course it is not sufficient to simply make unsubstantiated claims: “I am an excellent communicator”. The student must be armed with experiences to provide evidence of their range of employability skills: “I have done x and this shows me to be an excellent communicator”.

It is against this background that I was approached by Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich with a plan to provide graduates with appropriate experiences and evidence of their skills: an undergraduate conference. Students are invited to propose short talks on a topic of their choosing, which will be approved through an abstract submission process. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear we were very happy to support this initiative through the University Liaison Project.

The conference, Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today: an Undergraduate Mathematics Conference in London, supported by the IMA, is to take place on 6 February 2010 at the University of Greenwich. Abstracts are invited –by 1 p. m. on 18 December 2009 please to tmt@gre.ac.uk – and the students will be notified whether they have been successful in the new year. Students looking towards further study and research will benefit from having experienced (endured?!) the process of submitting an abstract to a conference. All student presenters will benefit from a skills enhancing experience and will return the better for having attended with clear evidence to demonstrate to potential employers what employable people they are. All attendees will find they have an enjoyable, enriching experience hearing about some interesting mathematics and mixing with their peers. As an added bonus Noel-Ann has managed quite a coup in getting IMA-LMS Christopher Zeeman Medal winner Professor Ian Stewart to deliver the keynote address.

The conference title – Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today – reflects the idea that the conference is designed to attract delegates who will become the leading mathematicians of tomorrow. In part I think this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy; having benefited from this conference the delegates are armed to go into the world and become the next generation of leading mathematicians. I highly recommend encouraging your students to attend. There is more information on attendance and a call for papers elsewhere in this issue of Mathematics Today or you can visit the conference website at http://mathsoc.cms.gre.ac.uk/tmt/.

References

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Activities Sept-Oct 2009

In September I returned from my summer break and started planning for the new academic year. I provided comments to Julie Hepburn, the IMA’s liaison in the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, on a rewrite she has conducted of the widely distributed careers advice leaflet “Your Options with Mathematics”. This leaflet had many limitations and Julie has made a substantial improvement despite severe restrictions on the style, length of individual sections and types of jobs that can be recommended. With the wide distribution and knock-on impact of that leaflet among careers advisors I think Julie has managed a substantial leap forward in improving the quality of careers advice offered to mathematicians. Also in preparation for the new year I arranged a print run of leaflets highlighting the benefits of membership to students that will be distributed to all departments and careers services where mathematics degrees are offered. I would be grateful if you could assist in distributing these and please let me know (peter.rowlett@ima.org.uk) if you need more!

In October I resumed my visits to universities. I gave my careers talk at the University of East Anglia, twice during induction week at Nottingham Trent, at Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool, Kingston, Lancaster, Manchester Metropolitan and Bolton. I also gave a talk on puzzles at Liverpool and one on cryptography at Lancaster. I took an IMA stall to a careers fair at Kingston and to the ever-successful “Calculating Careers” Fair at Manchester. I was shadowed to Kingston by new IMA Assistant Director, John Meeson, who wanted the opportunity to learn about students and their motivations re. membership, Altogether these events have put me in contact with over 500 students in October.

Mathematics Today August: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Enthusiastic individuals and persistent institutions

Recently, on Twitter no less, I came across the following quote:

“Without individuals, nothing happens; without institutions, nothing survives.”
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

This quote attracts me for two reasons. Firstly, I recently met a young mathematician interested in meeting others with similar academic interests. When I suggested he might want to join a learned society he told me “oh no, the learned societies are just for old people and I don’t want to be part of anything like that.” I consider this a tragic statement. Without being so specific as to identify him, I will say this person was a dynamic, enthusiastic person and precisely the sort of “individual” able to make things “happen”. It is a real shame he didn’t feel the natural step was to align himself with an established “institution” to ensure the fruits of his enthusiasm “survive”.

I do not know how widespread this viewpoint is but I have had others tell me that membership bodies (in general) are going out of fashion. This is sad: in and of itself, that an organisation which does good might not survive; that the enthusiasm of individuals may not be carried forward and amplified by affiliation with an organisation; and, in the case of the IMA, that membership of a professional organisation might decline at a time when individual professional development is increasingly well valued by employers.

We have to do all we can to rout this viewpoint among young mathematicians. If those with enthusiasm and similar outlook and aims to the IMA don’t feel it is worth joining then there is trouble ahead. This is broadly what I am trying to do as ULO, to improve the chances a student has heard of the IMA and some of the benefits of joining before they graduate. I believe that if they understand the benefits it is a natural choice for many to join. I can’t personally see every graduate and every young mathematician in employment so this is where I ask you as a member to evangelise on behalf of the IMA. This is a valuable organisation for mathematicians to be a part of and it benefits from a strong membership. The IMA Younger Members activities are the envy of representatives I have spoken to from professional bodies in other subjects and attendance at the Younger Mathematicians Conference (next in Birmingham in November) is an excellent first step into IMA activities for a graduate just starting their career in mathematics. There is presumably a barrier in communicating this information to the enthusiastic individual I met and others like him. You might find inspiration for your evangelising in the latter half of my careers talk slides, available through www.ima.org.uk/student

The second reason this quote spoke to me is I have met some extraordinary young mathematicians and mathematics students in my time as ULO. The students with the drive to set up or revive a university student mathematics society at the same time as completing their studies are always pleasing to meet. I have rarely seen an organised collective effort to set up such societies; rather such societies owe a debt to the work of enthusiastic individuals. There is a piece in the Student Section from one such person, Mike Ross of Heriot-Watt University, with his tips for others thinking of setting up a university mathematical society.

Of course, the nature of student life means the enthusiast who set up the society will move on very quickly. Usually first year students are not sufficiently well established to set up or run a society until later in the year and final year students have other issues about which to worry (there are exceptions). I know several individuals who have been the driving force behind student societies who are moving on this year. The problem becomes: how do they ensure the continuity of their work?

The successful model is usually to find a group of younger students who are willing to form an organising committee and take this on – forming a persistent “institution”. Sometimes this works and sometimes the enthusiasm decreases in the following year. A model I have seen work well is to involve a postgraduate student or member of staff in the organisation of the society. As they are generally better established and around for longer they can usually provide continuity and drive that a one year student committee might otherwise lack. Societies who manage this transition well can enjoy years of activities that are to the benefit of the students and the whole department. Such societies often include an element of peer support and community spirit which can help a department with issues such as retention. Departments that act to ensure a healthy society able to capture and build on the enthusiasm of individuals are to be commended.

Of course, funding can be an issue and the IMA can help here. University Liaison Grants are available to university societies to support their activities. If you are interested in supporting your students to set up or revive a mathematical society this is an ideal use of a University Liaison Grant. If there is already a society then a grant may help extend their range of activities. An application form which includes some guidance on the types of activity that this money may be applied for is available through the website at www.ima.org.uk/student

Activities May-June 2009

The post-Easter period is an interesting one. A majority of universities have finished or are finishing teaching and the appetite for a careers talk was reduced. However, the student societies are looking for fun activities to take a break from revision for exams. I gave my talk on spin in ball games followed by playing on the Wii at the Universities of Newcastle and Sheffield.

An exception to the semester-based system is the University of York, who were at the start of the third term. I went to York and gave an evening lecture on puzzles to the Mathsoc and opened the Maths Careers Fair with my careers talk and ran a stall (pictured are students “having a go” after my talk). The attendance for the careers talk was so great people were sitting in the aisle and others had to be turned away so I gave a second sitting of my talk for those students. I received positive feedback on my talk from staff and students. Other stallholders at the Careers Fair told me the students came out of my talk with enthusiasm and with a real pragmatism about what they needed to do, qualities the stallholders felt they didn’t usually see in undergraduates. The maths-specific careers fair format is a valuable one that I think works much more effectively for mathematics students than an untargeted fair.

Puzzles at York

I attended and spoke on my activities at the 10th IMA Younger Mathematicians Conference in Oxford which was, as usual, a useful and enjoyable occasion. I spoke at an event on new technologies for maths promotion to the Maths Promoters Network. I gave an introduction to the day and spoke about use of social networking (mostly Twitter) and gave a podcast live recording demo with Matt Parker (which can be heard in episode 31 via www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk). I was joined to speak on social networking (Facebook) by Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich and on podcasting by Marianne Freiberger of Plus. Also speaking were Zia Rahman of more maths grads and Richard Browne of MEI who both spoke on online videos and DVDs.

I made a visit to Kingston University to meet careers staff and postgraduates and attended the NUMS EGM at University College London. I ran a stall at a postgraduate conference at the University of Surrey. The University is in Guildford where Alan Turing lived as a child and he is honoured by a bronze statue outside the Austin Pearce Building where the conference took place (pictured).

Alan Turing StatueI had my 6-monthly meeting with my steering group in May and am happy to report this went well.

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