Category Archives: Education

You may have never heard of a bioinformatician but there is a big demand for them.

Today while scanning twitter I came across two posts relating to the demand for data science/analytical/programming jobs in both academia and industry.

The first tweet was from the Royal Society and Royal Statistical Society promoting a report on the need for STEM (science,  technology, engineering and maths) skills in the workforce. It is the product of a conference which brought together academics, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and senior representatives from BT, Amazon, Jaguar Land Rover all united by their need for computer and numeracy literate graduates. They estimate that up to 58,000 data science jobs a year are created each year, and there are a large number of these positions which do not get filled because there is a lack of suitable candidates applying.  In industry there is demand to model data to make predictions and decisions on what trends to follow and demand to visualize this data in a way that allows those without such strong numerical skills to make sense of it. They require employees who can communicate effectively what they are doing and think creatively about what further information they can get out of the data that will improve the commercial aspects of the business. It is a worthwhile read for anyone wondering where their mathematics or computer science training might take them.

The second was a tweet from Barefoot Computing stating that in the UK we are losing £63bn from GDP as we don’t have the appropriate technical or digital skill. I don’t know where the statistic comes from, but Barefoot are using it to encourage confidence and enthusiasm in the teaching of the Primary School Computer Science curriculum which is their underlying ethos.

Both of these reiterated to me the  demand there is and will be, in a wide variety of disciplines, for individuals who have strong mathematical, or computer science skill sets. So if you are considering your career options or know someone who is, encourage them to pursue a mathematics or computer science degree as this demand will just keep on growing.

 

Taking maths beyond the classroom.

In this blog post I want share my thoughts on the differences between Maths taught in the classroom and that used in professional life.What often appeals about Maths is the routine of applying a clear set of instructions. Regardless of the context, this remains a large part of any mathematicians career. The big difference once you have left the classroom, is what comes before and after.

Generally in the classroom who are taught a particular statistical test: its assumptions, how to apply it and how to interpret the output. Then when it comes to the end of year exam, the question specifically asks you to perform said test, often on data generated (by a computer) to give a particular answer.

Now, once you are employed as a statistician (or any role where statistics forms part of the job description), the question no longer guides you in exactly what to do. More likely you will be given a data set, and some premise of what you required to extract out of the data. The level of detail of your task is highly variable and likely dependent on the statistical ability of the person asking. The less they know the more vague or far-fetched the question, whereas a fellow statistician is likely to set out a clear hypothesis having already worked through much of the thought process you would have gone through.

Before you can actually start any number crunching, you need to deduce what the hypothesis is. Then you need to decide whether it is actually testable in the data you have. If you think the data can’t answer the question in hand you may have to adjust the question, and present your superior with what you can establish sometimes leading to a protracted negotiation until you are both happy. Once you have finalised the hypothesis, you can then think about which statistical test to use and how.

What I think is missing in the classroom is this thought process of deciding what procedure to use and when. In my experience, I was always explicitly told what I was going to need to do. As a results of this I remember stressful interactions, when at university, friends on other courses would ask for advice on what statistics to use in their dissertations and I would grapple through what I knew to try to advise them. Since my degree, I have had to learn how to answer these questions for my own work, but also to help colleagues in their projects. It can be challenging to convert their biological question into the underlying hypothesis and the mathematical concept that may be represented by.

Experience is the key, but communication is what is going to get you through. Being able to decompose their question into the relevant parts (if they are asking you for help, they probably have overcomplicated it) allows you start thinking in terms more familiar to you. Keep asking them questions with the aim of getting them to refine their question into a testable hypothesis. While there may be moments of utter confusion or complete miscommunication, these interactions are good for both parties and can lead to some novel ideas neither party would have come to on their own.

The  other main difference I want to discuss, is that the way Maths is taught can be quite limited.  Not only what has been decided should be on the curriculum which is true of all subjects, but also in the structured style of exams. This means you can only do what you are directly asked to, and once you get to the require answer that’s the end. There is no opportunity to show off additional skills or explore further, the way you can with an English or History assignment. Within my role, I am given a lot of freedom to explore datasets beyond the primary purpose. I can generate and test additional hypotheses and try out more advanced or new routines. This creativity really helps improve my skill set and gives me confidence in adopting new areas of statistics I have not encountered before.

The reality is, I have probably learnt more about how Maths really works outside of my initial education and training. You can never discount the value of experience. I would advocate, therefore, that more Maths assignments or assessments take on a more flexible framework. We should give students a chance to follow a project through from design to completion, rewarding the thought process as much as the ability to compute the answer. The skill most employers value from Maths is problem solving, and how can we really teach that if when we set the question we tell them how we want it answered too?

Oh I’m rubbish at maths.

Few people look back at school and list Maths lessons as a highpoint. There is also a fairly automatic response to classify ourselves as either good or bad at maths, with the majority of people assigning themselves to the second category.

Part of the problem is that we associate Maths with being put on the spot. In school we had to recite times tables or answer quick fire mental arithmetic questions, with the pressure of then finding out whether we were right or wrong.  In adult life, we have to navigate the complicated set of rates and fees during an interview with the bank or calculate the 10% tip while the waiter or waitress watches over.

What attracts a lot of people to Maths is there is always a right answer. But this can be a double-edged sword as there are plenty of wrong answers too. These days you often also get credit for showing how you get to the answer. Although you are still expected to provide this in the pressurized environment of exam conditions, within a time limit and with no help from anyone else, textbooks or notes.

In my mind being good at Maths is not the same as reciting Pi to 14 decimal places, or listing the first 20 square numbers. Maths, like all sciences, is about understanding concepts and applying routines. There is no rule that you must hold all this information in your head at one time.

As I admitted in my previous post, I use the Internet on pretty much a constant basis to support my work. Often, I like to check that the test I have in mind is appropriate and that I can remember how to do it correctly, or sometimes I want to try something new and I want a step by step break down of how to implement this. None of this takes away from my mathematical ability.

So if you don’t have the best memory or respond well to exam situations, don’t let this cloud your judgement.  If you enjoy Maths but didn’t do so well in your exams, don’t write yourself off. Yes, it may take a bit of effort but there are plenty of great resources out there to help you. And, like with most things, if you repeat it a few times, sometimes it starts to stick.

 

It’s all out there.

My job is essentially a office job, I spend most of everyday sat in front of my computer. The reality is I do most of my maths with the help of statistical programming packages, however that is not to say you won’t find scraps of paper with hand written algebraic derivations littered around my desk – it just helps me think!

Predominantly, I work with one called R, which is free to download. Programming is an important part of my job and is a natural progression for anyone mathematically minded as it is essentially based on logic, and you get the same sense of satisfaction creating a working computer programme as you do solving an equation. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in a career in statistics to take a look at the tools out there as it may put you one step ahead in the jobs market.

I and most of my collegues are self taught programmers. Intially small things can be incrediably fustrasting, what really flummoxed me early on was working out how to read my data from an excel spreasheet into my R session. But, this should not deter as,  your ability accumlates quickly once you have made the initial breakthrough.  Further, these skills are so transferable (once you understand the principles of programming in one language, picking up a second, third, fourth etc is much easier) and valued by employers, it’s worth the early pain as it can open up so many alternative careers.

There is so much advice and many tutorials online, one I would recommend is https://www.datacamp.com/ which is great starting point for beginners, there is no reason why anyone can’t give them a go as all the material is accessible and FREE. Google is an essential resource for any programmer, it’s often quicker than looking up functions or commands in reference books and can save you a lot of time in debugging errors. ‘Have you Googled it?’ is a common retort when presented with an unseen before error message. The challenge is sometimes knowing what to search for, as the terminology may not be obvious, particularly if you don’t have any formal trainning but you will pick it up. It can also be helpful to know others are struggling as well. Stumbling across forums where people are publically declaring that they have hit the same wall as you, reaffirms you are not completely inept and on the right track. Remember we learn more from the mistakes we make than from our successes – which is a good thing as you will get lots of errors in your programming career.