School of Mathematics

Alumni reception

From the Contours magazine 2014-15 edition

Imogen Morris

Every year at the School of Mathematics, past maths students return to talk about their experiences of maths after university. Their careers have been surprising, interesting and never quite turned out how they expected. But most of all, each have them have managed to end up doing something they love.

First to speak is Robin Carmichael. As an undergrad, his favourite courses were in ‘Logic’ and ‘Philosophy of Science’. He took as little applied maths and computing courses as possible. When the time came for him to graduate, he had no idea what he wanted to do. He started off by joining the British Steel Company, and then a string of software companies where he learned the joy of programming, and ended up working for IBM.

According to Robin, the most important skills he learned from his degree were analytical thinking, structured reasoning and problem solving. In his job, he had only ever used one piece of mathematical content from his degree.

Roger Thomas reports a similar experience. Whilst a student, he became captain of the table tennis team, which he subsequently lead to victory. In job interviews, this was what made him stand out. His potential employers, seeing that he had a good degree, were pleased to see proof that he could lead a team, and get the best out of people. He got a graduate job at IBM, as a systems engineer, but later in life, he ended up as a manager again, this time for Scottish Telecom. Now, having realized that his skills lie in bringing the best out of people, he coaches others to cope with positions of responsibility.

Pat Hiddleston, now in her eighties, was the only woman in her honours class at university. She originally went to an all girls’ school where she felt free to indulge her passion for maths. ‘Nobody said a girl can’t do maths until university’ she tells the listeners. Winning a medal for her studies, Pat is one of the people who have changed that attitude today.

When she was newly wed and newly graduated, she went to Zambia with her husband, who was a teacher. Originally she didn’t want to teach, and got a job selling furniture. But after a while she decided to try, and found that she loved it! The boys that she taught were the only black children at school at that time in Zambia, and they were highly motivated.

However, what Pat truly wanted to do was a PhD in mathematics. None of the English Universities offered a distance PhD that she could do. Finally she managed to get one from Prettoria. She wasn’t able to be picky about the research topic, so she studied differential equations, and apparently it was a decision she will never regret.

After lecturing at the University of Zambia as soon as it was founded, and becoming a headmistress in Scotland, she now works as an independent education consultant for which she travels all over the world, writing curriculum and exam systems. ‘The most important thing is to be able to talk to people, no matter where they are in the world’, says Pat.

In his present job Michael Douglas combines mathematics with policing. He wanted to join the police even when he was at school, for idealistic reasons. However, when he left school they had height restrictions, so he was unable to join, and instead did a maths degree at Edinburgh. After his degree, he was finally able to join the police. Now he works as a road collision officer, where he calculates the angles and speeds involved in crashes.

Michael tells us he tries to approach his job as a scientist, but realizes that the work he does might have implications for who is to blame. He feels that he works for the friends and family of victims. The worst thing he has to do is wake someone up in the night, and tell them their son has died. But it helps if he can at least tell them why, and what happened, and that is the purpose of his job.

Every speaker at the event had inspiring advice for current maths students. Nora Mogey advises to take some risks, so we will not miss out on opportunities. Hamish Leiper tells us not to measure our progress against others, but to be true to ourselves. Their experiences also show us how we can get where we want in life. Cecelia Macintyre wanted a job with the Medical Statistics Unit. So she simply wrote and asked them. She asked at the right time, and they gave her a job, which she held for eight years.