Why maths equals opportunities

Mathematics is back in vogue and employers are crying out for numerate graduates. By Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Online

It was the Ancient Greeks who used pebbles for basic arithmetic and in terms of the career possibilities open to mathematics graduates versed in Pythagoras and Hawking, a pebbly beach isn't a bad metaphor.

Whether it's to help develop a more aerodynamic Formula One racing car, devise a world-beating engineering project or dream up an absorbing computer game, a maths degree opens up all sorts of possibilities outside the obvious routes of banking or accountancy.

Of all the available A-level options open to students, only one can demonstrably improve the average pay-packet by a good 10 per cent, according to Peter Cooper, executive secretary at the London School of Mathematics. And that's maths.

Yet while medical students become doctors and journalism students end up writing or broadcasting, there is no clear career blueprint for a maths specialism. That, says Cooper, could simply be because their way of thinking is so useful to so many different organisations.

"After a decline in interest in maths and maths courses, the subject has come alive again in recent months," he says. "Employers are crying out for maths skills and more and more jobs require the sort of numeracy, logic and problem-solving abilities that often go with them. Graduates and non-graduates who have these talents in abundance are being promoted fast."

To become a maths whiz, however, it is not necessary to have been top of the maths class at school. Cooper says that of the 5,500 undergraduates who began maths courses at university this autumn, a fair proportion will have been accepted on the strength of an AS, rather than a full A-level in the subject.

Some of the more obvious jobs open to graduates are accountancy - a blue chip profession which requires additional qualifications - and actuarial or insurance services, where a knowledge of probability and statistics is used to predict future outcomes.

In the City, mathematicians use financial modelling to help turn the wheels of the stock market, and they provide a similar role in politics; advising the treasury and other branches of the Government on budgets and spending.

Schools and universities too are crying out for inspirational maths teachers and lecturers and again, while demand exceeds supply, the financial rewards and golden "hello" can be attractive.

In the commercial world, engineering, IT and science firms all need input from the highly-numerate, as do pharmaceutical firms analysing the impact of new drugs and meteorology firms advising agricultural giants on coming weather patterns.

Big retailers hire mathematicians as analysts, and put them to work on the firm's buying data or the effectiveness of its marketing campaigns, while market research statisticians ponder over why a client's breakfast cereal sales are on the wane.

Dr Philip Aston, head of mathematics at the University of Surrey, says: "We have had students who have gone on to become accountants and teachers, but we have also had students who have left us to pursue careers in transport and even sport.

"At Surrey, our average undergraduate has an average of 400 UCAS points and the standard is getting higher. Maths is back in fashion and if anything, we are finding that more people want to study it as a single honours subject, rather than with something else."

Having said that a maths graduate is unlikely to be unemployed for long, stereotypes of socially inadequate boffins die hard, according to Denise Murray, dean of the school of technology at Oxford Brookes.

"Maths is still seen as a geeky subject but that is changing," she says. "The majority of our undergraduates don't really know what they want to do when they come here and to some extent, they rely on being inspired by lecturers."

Joint honours degree courses open to mathematicians who don't want to spend all of their time on the subject are wide ranging.

At Oxford Brookes, a favourite combination is maths with music - the link between strong numeracy skills and musical ability is well known - while for would-be business tycoons, mathematics with economics, statistics or finance may open the right doors.

Which brings us back to teaching. Would-be teachers looking to take a PGCE - and they still account for a large amount of maths undergraduates - who pick a second subject such as history or French can also significantly broaden their career horizons.


Sally Johnson, 24, graduated from the University of Surrey with a degree in maths.

She is now a graduate transport planner with the civil engineering firm Atkins.

"I'm in the multi-modal studies team and one of my jobs is to do traffic modelling for public sector clients such as the Highways Agency, which involves looking at patterns of use and predicting future trends.

I've also done modelling for Heathrow's Terminal Five - analysing passenger data and applying it to a range of scenarios that might be relevant for the new facility.

The big tasks in my job are to do with data manipulation and statistical work; both of which need someone with good maths skills. I didn't know much about transport before, but I find it very rewarding.

I like the job at Atkins because it's intensely practical. I've loved maths since I was a child and it was always my best subject at school, but I also love the modelling side of the role, which includes working on images and new designs. You could say that I am right brain as well as left brain in that respect.

There aren't many women in the engineering side of the business, but there are plenty of mathematicians around.

I don't know if I'll stay in transport for the rest of my career, but at the moment, it's great fun."