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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.

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.

Wii ball games in Newcastle and Sheffield

At the end of April I made a trip to Newcastle and back via Sheffield to give my talk on Spin in Ball Games and play on the Wii. Both of these events were fun and I think provided some welcome revision relief for the students. At this time of year a lot of universities have ceased all but revision lectures and the appetite I found for careers talks in February is much reduced by now. Both of these talks were organised by the student societies and I think it is useful for me to have in my repertoire more fun events to engage with students in these situations.

Below are the posters used to advertise my presence in the two universities (click to enlarge). Apart from the completely made up title and abstract at Sheffield (my fault for not sending the real one), I think it is interesting to note the differences in approach taken. At Sheffield, an attempt is made to make the talk appear like a serious mathematical lecture on the physics of spin in ball games and how these are modelled in video games, using ‘examples’ on the Wii. On the other hand Newcastle make no bones about it, using a large photo of a Wii on the poster! In reality, the Newcastle interpretation is closer to reality; this is intended to be a fun night out of tenuous mathematical relevance in which the students have a laugh and go home a little more aware of the existence of the IMA. The ‘serious’ talk at Sheffield had to pause at one point when one of the players had a call from his girlfriend who, with the noise of the Wii in the background, would simply not believe he was at a maths event. “No really, it’s a serious maths lecture from the IMA” he said, with Mario Power Tennis sound effects in the background.

Newcastle:

Advert for my talk at Newcastle
Sheffield:
Advert for my talk at Sheffield

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