What is a career in maths really like?

20 January 2017

At a special event held at the University of Sydney, students from around the country were given the chance to grill academics about the realities of working in the maths field.

Four out of the top six best jobs of 2017 were maths and stats jobs
Professor Jacqui Ramagge

As part of the AMSI Summer School, the School of Mathematics and Statistics hosted a special panel session and networking event Highlighting the contribution of Women in the Mathematical Sciences

Attendees were encouraged to provide questions for a panel made up of University of Sydney academics Professor Jacqui RamaggeDr Michelle DunbarProfessor Andrew MathasProfessor Mary Myerscough and Dr Anne Thomas as well as University of Technology Queensland Professor Kerrie Mengersen.

The panel’s candid answers are relevant to any student looking at pursuing maths at any stage of their education and career.

A selection of notable questions and the panel responses are included below.

The panel responds to audience questions

Aside from maths skills, what other skills have you found valuable in your career?

Mary Myerscough: “You need to be able to write good English prose. You need to be able to put together a sentence and engage people.”

Kerrie Mengersen: “Learn to communicate well. Communication skills are essential.”

Anne Thomas: “I did an Arts degree as part of my undergraduate study, so I learnt how to write. It’s proven to be a very valuable skill.”

Dr Anne Thomas chatting with students

What advice would you give undergraduates studying maths?

Michelle Dunbar: “Attend more workshops, conferences, seminars. There are many times that a seemingly random introduction  has prompted a fruitful collaboration.”

Kerrie Mengersen: “Get out, get known. It opens opportunities to work with other people.”

Anne Thomas: “Network, network, network.”

Professor Mary Mysercough tells it like it is

What are the advantages/disadvantages to being a woman in maths?

Andrew Mathas: “Unconscious bias is a problem. So men have to support women. You have to help shut up the alpha males in the room and make sure everyone gets a voice.”

Mary Myerscough: “The advantage of being a women in maths is that people notice you – you’re not just another guy in boring clothes.”

Kerrie Mengersen: “Maths can be a good place to be a woman. Because we can really work on an equal footing – there is no difference between a male or female brain.”

Andrew Mathas: “The SAGE initiative has been launched here (at University of Sydney). I think this will really help us improve the endemic problems of unconscious bias.”

You have to help shut up the alpha males in the room
Andrew Mathas
AMSI Summer School attendees

AMSI Summer School attendees

Will maths enable you to get a good job?

Jacqui Ramagge: “According to CareerCast, four out of the top six best jobs of 2016 were maths and stats jobs.”

Michelle Dunbar: “There are so many different areas in which maths is essential– I’ve been blown away by how many industries want to employ mathematicians.”

Michelle Dunbar: “Mathematics is a universal language – it opens doors to job opportunities around the world.”

Andrew Mathas: “Maths is one of the most employable fields. All the major increases being predicted in jobs of the next 15 to 20 years require maths.”

Andrew Mathas and Kerrie Mengerson

What attributes are looked for in a graduate?

Lucy Goulopoulos, industry representative from Optiver trading firm: “We look for applicants with a strong maths background or a graduate of a math degree. We want quick decision makers who can calculate approximations and make data driven decisions on the fly. Teamwork and communication skills are also very high on our list of attributes. And it’s not just our industry – all industries want these skills.”

Mary Myerscough: “For PhDs or post-docs I want someone who is comfortable dealing with an open-ended question. I want someone with the ability to take something on and make something of it.”

Jacqui Ramagge: “A lot of people in industry want graduates with computational skills. It’s becoming clear that many large businesses want to recruit mathematicians or computer scientists.”

We look for applicants with a strong maths background
Lucy Goulopoulos, Optiver

The speakers and organisers of the Women in Science panel

Do you love what you do?

Michelle Dunbar: “I had no idea maths could be so interesting. I’ve never been more excited about what I do.”

Andrew Mathas: “I never planned to be a mathematician, But the more I saw the more I was hooked. It’s a beautiful field and I’m glad I got stuck with it.

Anne Thomas: “I can’t imagine not doing research - nothing else has the same combination of creativity, rigour and beauty.”

Event photography by Vincent Chu

Related articles