In this morning’s Higher Education Supplement, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb was given prominent coverage for his marketing of maths courses (it was based on this speech). The HES reported:

“Unfortunately for Australia – though perhaps fortunately for you – demand in Australia for maths graduates has outstripped supply,” the professor told the gathering at the University of NSW.

It meant that every one of the 100 or so mostly honours students in the crowd should be able to get a good job on graduation.

But as I have pointed out before, there is reason to be sceptical about these claims. While not poor, work outcomes for male bachelor degree holders who majored in maths are nothing special.

And the Graduate Destination Survey, which investigates employment outcomes for recent bachelor degree graduates, finds in most years their full-time employment rate (as a % of those seeking FT employment) is below the average for all graduates.

I haven’t investigated outcomes for people with postgraduate maths qualifications. I expect that they might be better. But for undergraduates, a maths major is no guarantee of easily finding a good job.

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And presumably, maths graduates are brighter than average graduates, so the relative value of studying maths (compared to, say, accountancy, actuarial or finance) is lower still.

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I’d imagine you’d have to look at the figures for Hons maths students.

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As is noted by Sasha, looking at the figures for all maths graduates hides the fact that there are really two quite different cohorts here. Many students end up in maths as the BSc often has a relatively low cut-off, but they didn’t really do much other science at school (and their language skills aren’t up to a BA). Those with only moderate mathematical skills and poor communication skills are naturally going to struggle. The 150 or so students who complete maths honours degrees each year are a completely different kettle of fish, and my experience is those that are not going on to PhDs are having no trouble getting good jobs. (BTW: most of the data for maths graduates is very unreliable as so many students now do it as part of a double degree and that never gets counted properly.)

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On the publicly available data, I can’t isolate the honours students. I am wary of drawing too many conclusions from the postgraduate data – only 72 people in the sample – but for both coursework and research maths graduates employment outcomes are worse than average.

Many maths graduates do well, but to date I have not see any data that supports the conclusion that we have a shortage of maths graduates.

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I think perhaps the maths community in Australia should start collecting or presenting their own data (maybe keep tabs on where your graduates end up?) if they want to refute analysis of the data that is currently available.

It’s quite insulting to maths graduates to say instead that if they are having trouble finding work upon graduation, it must be because they are members of some inferior cohort of former students.

Personally, when I graduated from a BSc in maths (admittedly way back in 2001) I had a lot of trouble finding work that used maths – instead I just picked up extra shifts at two of the part-time, low-paid, unskilled jobs I already had before heading overseas for work after about eight months.

I don’t think it is because “my language skills weren’t up to a BA” for the simple reason that I did a BA as well. It could be that my mathematical skills were only moderate – but they were good enough for a HD average, and also good enough that I eventually completed a PhD in maths as well. Also, the low cut-off wasn’t relevant to me because I ranked in the top 1% in my HSC results. I did however find a lot of employers said they “couldn’t really use a maths person.”

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Maths grads that, like Lucy, are having trouble finding math-related work should probably take a look at DSD.

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