The IMA regularly hosts informal online discussions called ‘Virtual Maths Teas’. The latest event was run by the Early Career Mathematicians Committee and was focused around ‘Skills in Industry for Early Career Mathematicians’.

The event was aimed at undergraduate maths students and recent maths graduates who want to work in industry. The discussion did however include a lot of material which is useful for maths teachers. It was a great source of up to date information on how maths is used in the real world – after all, what can be better than hearing from people who are currently working as mathematicians in industry?

Several different skill areas really stood out from the discussion. This is not a comprehensive list of the skills needed in industry, but rather it covers a few things which will be of interest to maths teachers and pupils who are studying maths GCSE or A Level:

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The mathematicians were drawn from a number of different industries, including engineering, nuclear, data science, retail and defence – and they all agreed that statistics is really important to their work. Many of the mathematicians also said that they had tried to avoid statistics at school or university and often couldn’t see the point to it, but now they are working, they use these skills all the time.

As well as more advanced statistics, they also said that GCSE statistics knowledge was really important and mentioned using averages, box plots and histograms.

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In the real world, most questions don’t come with a fixed answer. If you are asked to calculate the cost of a project it is unlikely that you can give an exact number. Instead, Mathematicians need to estimate and to be able to communicate how uncertain those estimates are. (The importance of statistics appears here again.) In industry the mathematicians are almost always working with estimates and approximations, which is very different from answering theoretical questions in the classroom. One of the mathematicians gave an example of calculating the noise which is coming from a ship’s hull. What is the worst-case scenario? What is the best-case scenario? Mathematicians are good at answering this type of question.

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In most situations, mathematicians need to communicate their work to ‘non-technical stakeholders’. This means talking to colleagues who may have never studied maths beyond GCSE level, and even if they did, they still might not know much about the area of maths being used. This communication can take many forms, it can involve writing reports, making presentations, and using simple statistics and graphs to get the point across. There’s no point in producing fantastically useful calculations if nobody in your company can understand their importance, or even what you are talking about to begin with! Communication is at the very heart of what it means to be a mathematician working in industry.

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The main message from this discussion was that mathematicians need to be good at writing code and being adaptable to learning different programming languages. For example, if you are good at coding in Python then you will normally be able to learn another language easily.

If you have A Level students who are heading off to university to study mathematics (or a related discipline) then tell them about Student Membership of the IMA. Student Membership gives access to events like Virtual Maths Teas where they can talk to early career mathematicians and receive up to date careers advice from people who are currently working in industry (or academia). It will provide them with an invaluable network of contacts and many other benefits!

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