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Mathematics Today June: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Careers resources

So far in 2009 around 450 students, 7 careers staff and 33 academic staff in 16 audiences have heard me speak on careers for mathematicians. My experience with staff is that they are very appreciative. Usually they either say “Thank you, that really reinforces everything we’ve been saying,” or “Wow, I’ve really learned a lot.” The former is very reassuring; good to know I am on the right track. The latter is extremely gratifying, particularly from careers staff. It pleases me to know I am doing my little part to improve the quality of careers advice given to mathematicians. I have had several requests to write up some of the resources used in my careers talk so here we go.

I frequently meet students who think that their only options are teaching or accountancy. Some realise there is more than just accountancy and widen their options to other parts of finance. I have seen examples of careers advice given out which reinforces this message. There is a document “Options with mathematics”, published by Prospects.ac.uk [1], which is the default document handed out as careers advice for mathematicians in many of the universities I have visited. This lists as directly relevant to a mathematics degree only finance and teaching options1. This is very damaging as it reinforces this incorrect impression of mathematics prospects for both students and their careers staff in a widely distributed document. In my careers talk, I make the point loudly and clearly that there is nothing wrong with either finance or teaching as career options, in fact I say that the country needs excellent mathematics graduates to become maths teachers and inspire the next generation, but that these options are not for everyone. I meet students who say “I don’t want to go into finance or teaching but what can I do?” Some students I talk to seem to genuinely think they have made a huge error in taking a degree that limits their options so thoroughly. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be hilarious.

I try to make the point in my talk that mathematics is a degree that doesn’t prepare you for a limited career path but in fact gives you skills that are so widely applicable they lead to a huge range of options. I try to stress the good news: according to the Maths Careers website, “Maths graduates earn more!” [2]. This gives some figures for a higher level of graduate average earnings over non-graduates and of mathematicians over the graduate average. Of course, this figure does not really stand scrutiny given the wide range of job types mathematicians are engaged in but can be a nice headliner. I point out that employment for maths graduates is below the graduate average, according to the Prospects graduate destination data [3], which shows what graduates are doing six months following graduation. I use a quote from careers advisor Sue Briault [4] to tell students: careers advisors say “Maths undergraduates are frequently targeted by employers because they have the key skills sought by business.” I do question “frequently targeted,” saying I don’t recall being “frequently targeted” by employers during my time at university! But I point out that if you present yourself in the right way the advice is that employers will be attracted to you.

Also on the subject of good graduate prospects, I point to an article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in January 2009 [5]. This article claims that mathematics leads to a career path that provides “a steady stream of lucrative, low-stress jobs”. This quote always raises a chuckle and I would be interested to know whether members feel their job fits the description! The article reports on a study which had ranked 200 jobs from “Best” to “Worst”. The top 3 are: Mathematician, Actuary and Statistician. There are, of course, a few caveats here: What exactly is a “Mathematician”? Well, I think they mean someone working in mathematical modelling from the context. Looking at the measures used, these jobs will fare well for not involving heavy lifting, dealing with dangerous chemicals, working outdoors, unsociable hours, etc. and this will inflate their ranking. But actually there are plenty of jobs that don’t involve these and yet the top three are Mathematician, Actuary and Statistician.

A useful report that I draw on is the Class of ’99 report [6]. This UK Government-commissioned study by Warwick University published in 2005 looks at early labour market experiences of graduates over a 4 year period and I draw three results from this for my talk. The study looked at whether graduates were in a job which required them to have a degree (a graduate job). Mathematics graduates (actually, “mathematics and computing” is the grouping used) were low for percentage in non-graduate jobs. In fact, over the four year period the only lines on the graph that are lower are education and medicine. Well, I tell students, if you’ve trained to be a teacher, doctor or nurse and you aren’t doing a graduate job then something has gone very wrong! I think this is an important message: many students in their second or final year will have genuinely made all the choices that limit their options on graduation already. In mathematics the field is wide open yet mathematics still fares very well for percentage in graduate jobs.

The study found mathematicians were high for average gross earnings; top for women and second only to law for men. Finally, that the study reports a high probability of being in a “high quality” job. Participants were asked to self define whether they worked in a high quality job and a good proportion said they did. These two results are a little flimsy but hark back to the Wall Street Journal article; another little nod in the direction of mathematics leading to lucrative and enjoyable jobs.

I am very aware of the lack of academic integrity of many of the sources used here. I am not a disinterested observer; the results and conclusions are drawn selectively to support an argument. Still, this is maths promotion, not academic study. I am in the business of trying to get soon-to-be graduates excited about taking their maths further in life and not simply giving up because of the perceived lack of options. I think there is truth in what I tell students and I think that the message presented can be used to encourage students to explore their options more thoroughly. I encourage others to use the resources listed in the References in their own maths promotion.

Following this, I show students a list of sources for careers profiles. One of the barriers to careers advice for mathematics students is the wide range of options available. The mathematics student could very well be presented with half of the contents of the careers library to consider. This is good news but impractical and, I think, a real problem for careers advisers. It’s all very well saying students are presented with a limited range of options but when the potential range is so huge students will be scared away by the quantity of material potentially open to them.

I recommend students visit the Maths Careers website [8] with its full and every increasing list of careers profiles (contributions welcome: peter.rowlett@ima.org.uk). I am very pleased with the IMA’s new careers advice leaflet by Vanessa Thorogood, the content of which is excellent [9]. I hand out copies of this whenever I get the chance; I have probably given out near to a thousand since it was released earlier this year. Students who attend my careers talks or careers stalls often take extra copies for their friends. I also encourage reading of Careers for Mathematicians by Sue Briault [4].

I recommend the Plus careers library [10], which contains a good number (and growing) of careers interviews, some with audio. I also take the opportunity to push my Travels in a Mathematical World podcast [11]. This has interesting mathematicians talking about their work in some diverse applications of mathematics and I think it is a good resource for students wanting to explore their options. I tell students to read or listen to a selection of these and once they have a clearer idea of areas they are interested in they can go to the careers library and be in greater control of the range of options available to them.

Activities March-April 2009

In contrast to February, March and April were months in which many students had coursework deadlines, vacation or exam revision so the opportunities to give talks were limited. I gave my careers talk at London Met and my talk on spin in ball games followed by the chance to play pool and tennis on a Nintendo Wii (welcome relief from revision) at the Universities of Leicester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

The Easter holiday brought conference season. I was involved with the British Applied Mathematics Colloquium 2009 and associated Meet the Mathematicians outreach day from the confusing position of both an IMA and a University of Nottingham employee. I don’t mind having two separate employers; when one moves in with the other it gets a little confusing! Meet the Mathematicians was a good day of interesting talks which will appear in time on www.meetmaths.org.uk. The BAMC was, as last year, an excellent opportunity to talk to a large number of applied mathematics postgraduate students, IMA members and lecturers who might invite me to talk with their students. We even gave away a few membership application forms. I recorded a retrospective on the conference immediately following it with Professor Oliver Jensen and this can be heard as episode 27 of the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast (www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk).

Also in conference season, I attended the Young Researchers in Mathematics conference at Cambridge. This is the product of an exciting new initiative to bring together young mathematics researchers and was a vibrant inaugural conference. The organisers are to be congratulated. I rounded off the conference season with a trip to London for Mathematics 2009, which I would recommend to anyone as the IMA’s premier general interest conference, and the Women in Mathematics Day, where I felt conspicuous but was welcomed nonetheless.

You can find out more about my work on the University Liaison initiative by visiting the IMA Student page or reading my blog, both via: www.ima.org.uk/student. You can also now follow me on Twitter through twitter.com/peterrowlett.

References

  1. PROSPECTS, 2008. Options with mathematics Via: http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/documents/Options_with_your_subject/Your_degree_in_mathematics.pdf?id=13969 [Accessed: 28/04/09].
  2. COUNCIL FOR THE MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES, 2006. Maths graduates earn more! [online]. Via: http://www.mathscareers.org.uk/post_16.cfm [Accessed: 08/10/08].
  3. GRADUATE PROSPECTS, 2008. What do graduates do? 2008 [online]. Via: http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/ShowPage/Home_page/What_do_graduates_do__2008/p!eLaFFee [Accessed: 08/10/08].
  4. BRIAULT, S., 2008. Careers for Mathematicians. Mathematics Today, 44(3), pp. 117-118. Also via: http://ima.org.uk/Careers/mt_june08_student_section_careers.pdf
  5. NEEDLEMAN, S.E., 2009. Doing the Math to Find the Good Jobs. Wall Street Journal, 6 Jan. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123119236117055127.html [Accessed: 23/01/09]
  6. PURCELL, et al, 2005. The Class of ’99: A study of the early labour market experiences of recent graduates [online]. Via: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/research/class99/ [Accessed: 08/10/08].
  7. LEWIS, C., 2008. Take Five. The Times, 10 Dec. Available at: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/career_and_jobs/article5315105.ece [Accessed: 23/01/09].
  8. Maths Careers: http://www.mathscareers.org.uk/
  9. THE INSTITUTE OF MATHEMATICS AND ITS APPLICATIONS, 2009. Mathematics Careers Advice. Available via: http://ima.org.uk/Careers/mathematics_undergraduate_careers_advice.pdf
  10. Plus Careers Library: http://plus.maths.org/interview.html
  11. IMA Travels in a Mathematical World podcast: http://www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk/

1. We are talking to the authors of this document through the IMA liaison with AGCAS, Julie Hepburn, about updating this document to be a little more realistic.

Conferences on Mathematics in London

At the end of the Easter conference season I spent two days in London for conferences.

The first was the IMA’s flagship general mathematical interest conference, Mathematics 2009. At this I was very excited to hear Sir Roger Penrose speak. Read an outline of Sir Roger’s work at Plus. I was also pleased for the second time to hear David Spiegelhalter speak on public understanding of uncertainty (I also attended his keynote at Young Researchers in Mathematics 2009). I also heard the following speakers at the conference: Ben Heydecker on transport modelling, John McWhirter on his research, Makhan Singh and Zia Rahman on the more maths grads project‘s use of video, Helen Byrne on mathematical biology and Fred Piper on cryptography.

The second was the Women in Mathematics Day 2009. This event is designed for women who are active in mathematics to get together, including plenty of talks and posters by PhD students.

On my way home to Nottingham I stopped by the University of Leicester for an IMA East Midlands Branch talk on The Physics of Finance by Iain Clark.

The view on careers from a tower overlooking London

I spent the day in London and gave my careers talk at London Metropolitan University. I had to modify this as the first and second year students had a class which started half way through my talk, while the final year students could stay for the whole hour (or hour and 15 as it turned out). I gave the skills development part of the talk and then talked, by request of my host Dr Amir Khossousi, about mathematics societies and what the students may gain by setting one up (as a commuity and individually). They might do just that, with the help of an IMA University Liaison Grant.

I told them student Mathsocs activities include events – social, mathematical and careers based – peer support sessions, newsletters, sports teams and generally building a sense of community among the student body. I gave a plug for the IMA RUMS blog in that regard, where people can find out what other societies are up to. I told them about the UL Grant funding and the electronic copy of Mathematics Today that I can send to student reps. Finally, I told them about the London group of universities, run on behalf of the IMA by Noel-Ann Bradshaw (and having a Facebook group “London University Maths Societies – IMA”). It was nice when saying what fantastic opportunities there are to attend mathematical events in London (not least Gresham College and the Lighthill Institute) to be able to gesture and take in the whole of central London with a sweep of my hand from the window in the 11th floor of the Tower Building (pictured below).

After the first and second year students left I returned to the usual talk, telling the students to look at career profiles (including Maths Careers, Plus and the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast) to find an area of mathematics that interests them and what a great benefit to their career IMA membership and chartered status can be. Actually the real hard sell in that regard was given by Dr. Pargat Singh Calay CMath FIMA CSci who gave a passionate speech on the benefits of association with the IMA.

Tower Building, London Metropolitan University

Mathematics Today February: University Liaison Officer’s Report

IMA Prize Winners

IMA Prizes are awarded in UK universities which offer mathematics degrees, at the discretion of the university. In 2008 I conducted a survey of Prize giving practice among IMA University Representatives (27 responses; a 37% rate). All respondents awarded Prizes on some measure of academic excellence (all 22 who answered that question), either overall mark, or mark in an individual exam, project or coursework. Besides being recognition of academic excellence, the Prize also includes free IMA membership for one year.

Now for the shocking news. Caroline Irwin, who many of you will know as Manager of the Membership Department, has put together some data for me on uptake of the free membership included with an IMA Prize and on the renewal rates of Prize Winners in their second year of membership. The numbers do not make comfortable reading. The number of Prize Winners claiming their free membership is down towards 40%. I find this very difficult to understand: the Prize Winner has the offer of free membership and all they have to do is fill out an application form! Further, the number of those Prize Winners claiming free membership who renew for the second year stands around one quarter. So six out of every ten IMA Prize Winners don’t join the IMA at all and nine out of ten IMA Prize Winners are not IMA members by the second year after receiving their award. Think about this: if you gave out IMA Prizes this year, it is very likely one of the two Prize Winners didn’t claim their free membership. Even if either did, it is very unlikely either of them will be an IMA member by 2010.

I was asked recently whether I think it is worthwhile for the IMA to continue to award Prizes, given the cost to the Institute and relatively poor results. I believe Prize Giving can be a valuable activity for the Prize Winners, universities and the IMA and I will try to explain why.

In November, I was welcomed at King’s College, London to attend the Prize Giving ceremony. I met one of the IMA Prize Winners, Janine Walker. It is not a criticism of King’s particularly, but I found Janine completely unaware of the IMA or of what she had won. I explained who the IMA are and the benefits of membership and she seemed enthusiastic about her award. I sincerely hope she went home, filled in the application form and is reading this article (Hello, Janine!). IMA Prizes are awarded at over 70 universities to, usually, two graduates at each. From the point of view of the IMA, this is a lot of Prizes to administer. However, if you consider there are around 4,500 graduates of mathematics each year, Janine can claim to be in a minority of around 3%. I hope she will claim proudly on her CV that she is an IMA Prize Winner and point out: “IMA Prizes are awarded based on academic excellence to around 3% of graduates each year.” This is a good way for her to put her head above the crowd. Since the Prize brings with it free IMA membership for one year, she can also claim to be a member of the IMA and thus committed to her ongoing development. I feel sure the claim to be an outstanding graduate with a commitment to professional development beyond the lecture theatre would be an enticing one for a prospective employer.

I believe the benefits of the free membership go beyond simple CV enhancement. I didn’t join the IMA on graduation for cost reasons (and lack of awareness) but I revisited this two years later and joined. Prize Winners are awarded a free year and this is a kick-start to membership not offered to most graduates. As a member, the Prize Winner can begin to tap into the networking, mathematical interest and career development opportunities which can bring value to a member for their whole career, if they choose to make the most of their membership. So I believe the power of the Prize as a gentle prod in the right direction should not be overlooked.

Besides the benefits to the individual Prize Winner, I believe Prizes can offer value to the universities that award them. Making students aware in the early stage of their degrees that awards are available for academic excellence and the benefits receiving such an award can have on their careers should help foster a culture of attainment. Indeed, respondents to my questionnaire have told me they value the IMA Prizes. As for the IMA, besides attracting Prize Winners to membership, being presented as a mark of excellence among the student population has to be good news in attracting all students and graduates to membership.

So what can we do to make sure everyone gets the most out of Prize Giving?

I think it is important that the general undergraduate population is aware of the IMA Prizes. Some respondents to my survey said that their university just prints a list of Prize Winners and sticks this on a notice board. I would like to see universities making a bit of a show of their Prize Winners. This is a genuinely worthwhile award if understood and used to its potential, both as recognition of achievement and as a fast-track introduction to the wider mathematical community offered by the IMA. If you work at a university where IMA Prizes are awarded in some ceremony (during graduation or a separate awards ceremony) and think it would be good to have an IMA representative in attendance please let me know and I will see what I can do (peter.rowlett@ima.org.uk). If I attend 70-odd Prize Giving ceremonies a year I will never have time to do the rest of my job, but I feel optimistic that we will be able to find a member who is willing to represent the IMA.

I think it is important also that we work to ensure Prize Winners are aware of the benefits of what they have won (and of the benefits of membership to new members generally). Like most things in life, IMA membership is more valuable the more you try to get something out of it. If you work in a university, try to impress on your students and graduates the value of IMA membership. Outside universities, remember when you meet young mathematicians to find out if they are members of the IMA. If they aren’t, they should join! If they are, they might need a little push to get involved with the activities of the Institute. The Younger Mathematicians Conferences are an excellent place for early career mathematicians to start and I am always pleased to meet Younger Members who have been encouraged by their employer to attend these (perhaps with payment of travel expenses). The 2009 conferences are on 16 May in Oxford and 14 November in Birmingham. More details are available on the IMA website and there is a link on the student page at www.ima.org.uk/student.

Activities Nov-Dec 2008

I visited London to attend the 9th Younger Mathematicians Conference. This was an enjoyable event as always and an excellent chance to catch up with early career mathematicians and students. A group of undergraduates from the Greenwich MathSoc (University Liaison Grant recipients) attended. The Conference heard from mathematicians working in mathematical finance and topics such as the maths of Google, the restoration of the Cutty Sark and much more. A conference report is being prepared for Mathematics Today so I will say no more.

As I mentioned above, I attended the IMA Prize Giving at King’s College, London. This was a separate event from graduation and involved an Awards Ceremony of 45 minutes in which a range of Prizes across Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics and Physics were awarded. This was followed by a wine and nibbles reception where I was able to meet one of the Prize Winners, Janine Walker (pictured) and her family.

You might remember that the University Liaison project received some of its funding from a bequest of £20,000 from Professor Clement W. Jones, a founder member of the Institute, in 2007. The IMA chose to use the funds from the bequest to promote the applications of mathematics to University Mathematical Societies and to help students to be part of the mathematics community throughout their careers. The University Liaison scheme was designed to feature a series of ‘Clement W. Jones Lectures’ to be delivered at University Mathematics Societies. In November I travelled to Newcastle and gave a Clement W. Jones Lecture on “Coding and Cryptography”. This was an evening event in which I spoke on the history of a few methods of encrypting and decrypting messages and then split the audience into groups, who attempted to decipher each others messages. Speaking with students afterwards, the event seemed to have been well received. This is a format I am able to offer at other universities that are interested and I will be developing further Clement W. Jones Lecture formats in the coming months.

The IMA East Midlands Branch runs evening talks of general mathematical interest very successfully but attendance by undergraduates is not usual. In December the IMA talk was at Leicester, where the Student Union Maths Society (S.U.M.S.) has recently been awarded a University Liaison Grant. I proposed to S.U.M.S. that they advertise the IMA Branch talk and they did so via a Facebook Event and other means. I am happy to report that S.U.M.S. members made up just over half the audience at “An Eulerian Journey” by Emma McCoy. You can find out what they thought of it in an article in the Student Section by Mark Gammon of S.U.M.S.

Later in December I attended the British Society for the History of Mathematics Christmas Meeting, “Maths in View.” This aimed to look at the ways in which maths and specifically the history of maths have been portrayed in different media such as television and film (and podcasts!). I gave a talk with Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich, who listeners will know presents a monthly Maths History piece for my podcast, Travels in a Mathematical World. Out talk covered my attempts to make the IMA more visible to students and Noel-Ann’s work writing and presenting the Maths History podcast episodes. You can download the podcast at www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk.

Just before Christmas I visited Catherine Richards House, the IMA HQ in Southend-on-Sea for the Secretariat Christmas lunch. Despite working for the IMA this was only my second visit to HQ and the first for almost 12 months so it was good to see everybody and catch up. Also in December I had my regular University Liaison project meeting and personnel appraisal. I am happy to report both went well.

You can find out more about my work on the University Liaison initiative by visiting the IMA Student page or reading my blog, both via: www.ima.org.uk/student.

Student Section

In the student section this time is the piece I have mentioned above from Mark Gammon of the University of Leicester on attending the IMA East Midlands Branch talk and a piece from Felix Rehren of the University of Birmingham Mathsoc on activities supported by their University Liaison Grant.

London University Events

Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich has been trying to get a group of London Universities together to cross promote events. In London there is such a concentration of universities and such a lot going on that it makes sense to cross-promote events between students at different universities. Anyway, this group is going well and Noel-Ann has posted 3 new events on the Facebook group “London University Maths Societies – IMA”, namely:

“The man who invented the concept of pi: William Jones and his circle”
by Patricia Rothman
William Jones was important in his lifetime primarily for three things: he was the first person to use the Greek letter π in its modern sense; he had acquired such a significant archive of manuscripts that he was appointed to the Royal Society committee, to investigate the invention of calculus; and he was influential as communicator in a network of mathematicians, astronomers and natural philosophers in the early eighteenth century.
This lecture will also touch on the lives of some of the notable characters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who contributed to his story.
22 January 2009 13:15 – 13:55
Darwin Lecture Theatre, UCL
Facebook event; UCL page.

Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Symmetry”
by Marcus du Sautoy
Symmetry is all around us. Our eyes and minds are drawn to symmetrical objects, from the sphere to the swastika, from the pyramid to the pentagon. Of fundamental significance to the way we interpret the world around us, this unique, all-pervasive phenomenon indicates a dynamic relationship between objects. In chemistry and physics, the concept of symmetry explains the structure of crystals or the theory of fundamental particles. In evolutionary biology, the natural world exploits symmetry in the fight for survival. What’s more, symmetry – and the breaking of it – are central to ideas in art, architecture and music. This talk takes a unique look into the mathematical mind as Marcus explores deep conjectures about symmetry. These conjectures have culminated in the most exciting discovery to date – the summit of mathematicians’ mastery in the field – the Monster, a huge snowflake that lives in 196,883-dimensional space with more symmetries than there are atoms in the sun.
3 February 2009 18:00 – 20:00
Oliver Thompson lecture theatre, City University
Facebook event; City University page; The book; Marcus’ blog.

“Bertrand Russell: Man of Dissent”
by Ivor Grattan-Guinness
16 February 2009 6.30-8pm
New Theatre, East Building, LSE
Russell argued against the Great War, but he also wanted to drop atomic bombs on the Soviet Union after WWII, and later advocated nuclear disarmament. How could a great logician accommodate such inconsistencies? How, as a private citizen, did he make such a world-wide impact?
Ivor Grattan-Guinness is Emeritus Professor of the History of Mathematics and Logic at Middlesex University, and an associate member of CPNSS. He has written widely on Russell’s logic and philosophy, and has been an Advisory Editor on the Russell ‘Collected papers’ edition since its inception in 1979.
Facebook event; LSE page.

If you are in London or can get there sometimes I would recommend joining the London Maths Facebook group for event notifications.

IMA Prize Giving at King’s

King's Building, King's College, London
Today I attended Prize Giving at King’s College, London (pictured above). I was invited to attend as the IMA was giving two prizes to mathematics students. One of the students, Janine Walker (pictured below), was in attendance and I was able to meet her and her family afterward the ceremony.

Universities that offer mathematics are able to offer IMA Prizes, generally to two of their graduating students at their discretion. These are often given out based on academic excellence – to the student with the top marks in exams, a project or overall. The Prize is a years membership of the IMA, although I believe it could offer far more to the student terms of prestige. My information suggests the IMA Prizes are offered at something like 74 universities, which is a lot Prizes but relative to the number of graduating mathematics students (something like 5000) this is a small number of graduates with this accolade. The correct wording on a CV could, I believe, produce a very positive effect.

Practice for awarding IMA Prizes varies; at King’s there was an Awards Ceremony (seperate from Graduation) of 45 minutes in which a range of Prizes in Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics and Physics were awarded. This was preceded by a tea and coffee reception and followed by a wine and nibbles reception.

Janine Walker and Peter Rowlett, Prize Giving, King's College, London

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