Be a mathematician! It’s fun! … or is it?

An interview with me has just gone up here on the Maths Careers website.

Being a mathematician in the academic world has been a great career for me, without a doubt.

But on the other hand, I probably come over in a lot of recent posts as sounding a bit gloomy about the present status of the profession. In particular,

  • my department bosses think that excellent teaching should be discouraged, and that a half-baked scheme to put on a Masters in Financial Mathematics (a subject we have no experience in) is a get-out-of-jail-free card;
  • my institution bosses think that all new appointments must have business plans showing that they will earn as much as they cost, and that they can aspire to be a top-ten research institution at the same time as having a new structure for the teaching year requiring us to be here for a big chunk of the summer;
  • the Government think that the only beneficiaries of higher education are the students, and that they should carry the full cost.

So is it hypocritical of me to encourage young people into the profession?

Perhaps my escape route is that, I believe, the pendulum will one day swing back the other way; our teaching and research will be valued by society as they once were. With luck, this will happen before the current 11-14 year olds reach the end of their second post-doc and start looking for permanent academic jobs.

What do you think?


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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5 Responses to Be a mathematician! It’s fun! … or is it?

  1. cicek guven says:

    this is very dissapointing, probably there exist a huge number of people (probably could fill a stadium) who look for positions in pure math sooner than 15-16 years :/

    • casshern says:

      not absolutely necessarily, math isn’t what it always used to be, i still think it’s a very great thing though, i talked with mr. gilbert strang some months ago…

  2. Jeff Burdges says:

    I think virtually all mathematics related industry jobs are considered fun and satisfying. So you’re still free to tell undergrads to “Be a mathematician! It’s fun!”. You just need to mention software development, engineering, finance, actuarial work, and GCHQ.

    There cannot however be any real improvement in the academic job market in western nations because our whole notion of a “good job market” is based on a phase of exponential expansion in higher education that occurred in Europe and the U.S. We simply cannot continue to expect that most professors will have more than one successful offspring now that we’re already educating almost anyone who’d benefit from a university education. See

    In fact, we’ll eventually see the academic job market get much worse once non-western countries start training more of their own PhDs, especially assuming that U.S. institutions continue to admit large number of PhDs for cheaper teaching labor.

    To *stabilize* the academic market, we should tighten the requirements for a PhD while directing more PhDs towards industry. We need not necessarily graduate more applied math PhDs, but more pure PhDs should be familiar and comfortable with applied mathematics. UCLA has achieved some success through a summer program in which math graduate students work with engineering faculty. We could also require more courses in subjects like differential equations and probability at both the undergrad and masters level.

    As for academic working conditions, we’ll likely see more strong researchers doing longer and longer postdocs, and often ultimately taking jobs with excessive teaching, poor pay, and no benefits. We’ll change this only by encouraging those young PhDs to choose industry jobs over postdocs or adjunct teaching.

    As an aside, France has an enormous problem with corporations that actively discriminate against hiring PhDs.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Peter, unfortunately I share a lot of your gloomy views about the academic profession these days. As can be seen from your own posts this is a worldwide phenomenon. But the UK is certainly not legging behind in adopting policies that transform universities into businesses.

    However, some part of the blame falls on our shoulders. We cannot expect politicians and administrators to respect universities as a place for intellectual development and intellectual achievement. It is our job to protect academia.

    So for instance this idea that all new appointments must have business plans is outrages. Suppose all the heads of departments in QMUL would have threatened to resign from their position as heads if it will be implemented. What do you think would have happen?

    Another example, I think the huge majority of academics strongly opposed the use of “impact” in the coming REF. What will happen if the LMS, the Royal Society and other professional bodies will recommend their members not to be part of the REF committees as long as “impact” is used?

    Individually we are weak, but as a group we might have a chance to change things.

  4. Let me clarify a couple of things. The Maths Careers interview is specifically about the career of a mathematician in academia, so while I completely agree with Jeff Burdges on directing PhDs towards industry etc. (which is increasingly happening anyway) it is not what I was addressing there.

    The problem with both “business plans” and “impact” is that there is a strong element of divide-and-conquer about them. Departments which think that they can do well out of this, either because their research is closer to market than ours or because the stars can get big grants from non-public sources, are likely to support such moves. Anyway, the chances of academics standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the impact issue are probably fairly remote, judging on past form. I have had my say on impact here before, but you should certainly look at some of the cogent arguments put forward by Don Braben, a passionate and intelligent advocate of unconstrained research. (In fact I am a co-signatory of a letter from Don Braben published in The Times today, 6 December, but because of the paywall I won’t give you a link to it.)

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