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01 October 2010 @ 03:48 pm
Failing to inspire  
I'm supposed to be giving a talk to misc year 10 and 11 maths students (that's O' level students, I think, to us ancient types) on mathematical careers in academia.

I have half an hour and I've been asked to cover: "career path, qualifications, University life, experiences, Job Spec, potential salary (the pupils always seems to ask how much people earn!)"

I think I have just written 10 of the dullest slides I have ever produced. My will to live saps just glancing over them, and I have 4 more slides than I have any right to for a half hour talk. I am also torn between wanting to stress that you should only consider a career in academia if you really want to know more about your subject, and wanting to bang the "study mathematics" drum.

But really, is anyone going to be inspired to study maths because I tell them I once worked on a project called "Proof and Specification Assisted Design Environments", that all these jobs want you to have a PhD, excellent communication skills and the ability to self-motivate research and that the pay scale at the bottom starts in the low £20,000 per annum and goes up to who knows what because Professors negotiate their own salaries.

Or should I ignore the teacher's request and just waffle about satellites and orbital debris?

Advice much appreciated, especially advice on what it would be useful and interesting for me (as an academic with a maths background) to tell some teenagers...

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/21026.html.
 
 
 
lukadreaminglukadreaming on October 1st, 2010 03:04 pm (UTC)
Focus on what they can do with the degree once they've got it. You're the subject expert. They can pull someone in from student services to give the other spiel . . . And anyway, satellites and orbital debris sound seriously cool!
louisedennislouisedennis on October 1st, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
I could cut some of the rubbish, like "Job Spec" and all the projects I've worked on. I don't honestly think they serve much purpose in this context and that might give me a little space to actually talk about "research questions I find interesting" which I think might be more important qualitatively, even if it's doesn't contain much information of direct use for the poor dears.
lukadreaminglukadreaming on October 1st, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
Or can you do a quick and dirty hands-on task with them?

Edited at 2010-10-01 03:08 pm (UTC)
louisedennislouisedennis on October 1st, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC)
I have an empty orange juice bottle and double-sided sticky tape. Now let's build a satellite!!!
lukadreaminglukadreaming on October 1st, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
That's the spirit! Come on, woman, you were brought up on Blue Peter, surely!
Kargicq: Neuromancerkargicq on October 1st, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
Oh God, I sympathise. I am always unclear what to do when people ask us to talk about academic careers. It seems churlish to point out how awful they are (disclaimer: no complaints on a personal level, but I've been extremely lucky). - N.
louisedennislouisedennis on October 1st, 2010 03:20 pm (UTC)
I'd be much happier talking about why and where maths is important in computing, than this career path thing. I did an undergraduate degree, then a masters degree, then a PhD, then I moved about a lot doing stuff to do with proof I've no time to explain to you, sounds unbelievably uninteresting to my ears. It's not like the qualifications you need to get into academia are particularly mysterious (although what they involve may be).

I think maybe I should throw out a lot of what I've ostensibly been asked for and focus on typical day and maths in (computer) science type stuff.
(Anonymous) on October 1st, 2010 04:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah, probably a good idea. I remember once giving a nice accessible talk on vision, lots of optical illusions etc, to a school in Gateshead where not many people were going to go on to university. All went OK, then the teacher asked me brightly, "So what qualifications do you need to be a lecturer in neuroscience then?" and I said, "Er, well you need a degree obviously" (could feel the temperature sort of drop, KWIM?) "er, and then a PhD - how long that takes? Oh 3 years at least" [some kids audibly gasp in horror] "and, er, then you need to spend several years on short-term postdoctoral contracts in different labs" [kids are all looking really "yeah right" by this stage] "and er, then [self-censors all the bad stuff and finishes brightly] you end up as an academic!" Definitely felt that did not go down well. - Neuromancer
sophievdennis on October 1st, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
I think your instincts are right on this one. I think go for the "study mathematics" drum, and all the different cool things that could involve doing. I particularly like your idea for "research questions I find interesting" which would give them a flavour of what the point of it all.

I'd certainly ignore the career path/job spec request. I imagine the teacher has sent generic guidance which would be useful if you were a doctor/lawyer/accountant, but not much help in your area. Mathematics doesn't strike me as a subject that has an obvious, singular career path or job spec, so describing what you, personally, have done in a factual sense is potentially irrelevant (on top of having found it comes out sounding rather uninspiring).

louisedennislouisedennis on October 1st, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
I'm reassured that other people feel the career path/job spec route isn't worth pursuing. I'll keep salary, since that was so specifically mentioned but try to focus the rest of the talk around "this is what I do, and this is why it's interesting"
Kargicqkargicq on October 2nd, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)
Hmm... I sometimes talk to sixth-formers about academic careers (which admittedly I've only experienced at second-hand)! I tell them up-front that things are pretty ropy unless you get to the moderately senior levels, normally in your mid-30s; but I then point out that the same thing is true about most other professions, and that in academia you (generally) have a lot more freedom to do what interests you, and much more flexible working conditions than in other jobs.
philmophlegm: ICAEWphilmophlegm on October 1st, 2010 11:02 pm (UTC)
"I imagine the teacher has sent generic guidance which would be useful if you were a doctor/lawyer/accountant..."


Trust me, they really don't...
joereavesjoereaves on October 1st, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
Are you implying careers in academia could be boring? I've seen Numb3rs, I know you're lying there! It's constant crime solving and space shuttle flights.
louisedennislouisedennis on October 1st, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)
Well, yes, obviously. It's just they generally don't put crime solving and space shuttle flights in the Job Specs...
philmophlegm: ICAEWphilmophlegm on October 1st, 2010 11:12 pm (UTC)
I'd be tempted to just ditch the slides and talk. That's what I usually do.

They will want to know about salary, but my experience is that even older teenagers don't really appreciate what £20,000 / £30,000 / £50,000 means. I would talk about salary in terms of lifestyle (e.g. where do you live / in what size of house / what car do you drive / where do you go on holiday).

Half an hour isn't actually very long. I'd budget to talk for twenty minutes, leaving ten minutes to ask for questions. That assumes this is a talk to people who have expressed an interest in this career. If this is a talk to a general group, they'll probably have fewer questions.

Something that I often get at accountancy talks is that your stereotypical nerd doing maths, physics and further maths A-levels comes up to me and tells me that he wants to be an accountant because he "really enjoys maths". They're always disappointed when I tell them that accountancy rarely involves any maths of even GCSE standard and that if they really wanted to be an accountant, doing something like Business Studies, Economics or even anything where you have to occasionally write sentences would have been a good idea. You could therefore offer maths academia as a career where "enjoying maths" is actually vital and where the maths is more mathematically interesting than monetary unit sampling and discount rates.
louisedennislouisedennis on October 4th, 2010 09:35 am (UTC)
Writing the slides is more a planning tool than anything else, but I'm going to need at least one for the salary figures.

I think the talk is for all year 10 and year 11 who are doing maths GCSE which, I suspect, is all of 'em. So almost certainly fewer questions.
philmophlegmphilmophlegm on October 1st, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)
Oh, one more thing - don't forget the importance of a good grabber.
louisedennislouisedennis on October 4th, 2010 09:35 am (UTC)
Does that mean a good first point or slide or something else?
philmophlegmphilmophlegm on October 5th, 2010 09:34 am (UTC)
Anything right at the beginning that tells them that your talk will be interesting and worth listening to. Maybe a really cool example of the sort of work a mathematician might do. Something about artificial intelligence perhaps? Robots?