Mastering maths

More and more students are opting for Masters degrees in mathematics. Alex McRae looks at the courses on offer

Crazy about chaos theory? In ecstasies over elliptic curves? For mathematics students wondering about embarking on a PhD, or aiming to wow employers at future job interviews, a post-graduate MSc in mathematics could be ideal. Employers in everything from aerospace to government are clamouring for maths graduates. As maths students become a rarer species, companies compete to recruit graduates as they emerge into the job market.

So why study for an extra year when you could be out earning big bucks? A masters degree fills in gaps in mathematical know-how that an undergraduate course might miss. Many academics believe that after three years of study, today's maths graduates just don't know as much as their predecessors 20 years ago. The problem starts at school. According to Professor James Hirschfeld, a senior tutor in maths at Sussex University, a shortage of maths teachers plus changes in the secondary education system equals problems at university level. "Students arrive with a lower knowledge base, so what they can learn in a three-year degree has declined."

Most British universities allow mathematics undergraduates the choice of a three-year or four-year course, resulting in a BSc or an MMaths. For students who've chosen the three-year undergraduate option but wish to remain in academia, a masters degree helps boost their career and funding prospects. At Imperial College in London, Dr John Gibbons, post-graduate tutor in applied mathematics, says that the numbers of students eager to do a masters in maths are picking up. "It's a way of allowing people who've done a three-year course to buy into the benefits of our fourth-year provision."

Meanwhile, Professor Peter Haynes, who is professor of applied mathematics at Cambridge University, says a masters degree can be a useful stepping stone to a PhD. "We think doing an intermediate mathematics course before a PhD is a very good thing. It's a big jump from the work you do in your final undergraduate year to PhD level, where you're looking at problems no one's ever solved before." It's also an insurance policy for would-be PhD students who change their mind, and resolve that a further three years of study isn't for them: "If you decide you don't like it, you still have a qualification to take away with you."

Alongside masters degrees in pure and applied mathematics, there has been an explosion of interest in how mathematics can be used vocationally, and courses in financial maths are proliferating. Imperial and Warwick run popular courses. "Our taught masters in financial maths was instituted in response to a global trend," says Professor Andrew Stuart at Warwick University. "There's a worldwide demand for people to develop tools to deal with the complex problems thrown up by risk."

But funding problems bedevil maths departments. Manchester University offers five maths masters courses, three of which receive research council funding. Dr George Wilmers, director of post-graduate studies, says masters courses in more abstract maths, which does not have obvious applications, are often sidelined. "You cannot get support for any masters training unless you can show it serves the need of industry. And universities are going to start bidding for funding packages. In the internal competition between big departments, maths may well lose out."

Even someone with a lowly maths A-level increases their long-term earning power by 7 to10 per cent, according to a 1999 study by researchers at the London School of Economics. When maths produces such financial dividends at the lower end of the scale, it would be a shame if students were not able to shine at the top end as well. As Professor Hirschfeld says, there's nothing like the satisfaction of solving a conundrum: "We are facing a culture where instant reward and gratification are what it's all about. With maths, once you put in the investment, you get huge rewards."