Category Archives: Sandbox

So what is mathematics about? (aka avoiding blogging about my fieldwork)

While I’m doing my fieldwork (interviewing mathematicians and computer scientists!), and far too busy to actually write about how it is going (urgently need sleep! Too into the process to decide what I can publicly write about, and what I can’t!), I’m going to be spamming with mathematical readings instead… sneaky plan, eh? So here is a nice and very readable article discussing ” what mathematics is actually about”. I think it explains the complicated notions of nominalism. Platonism and Aristotelian realism pretty well:

Mathematics is…

I’m in Berlin now, doing the German part of my fieldwork. I’m also learning how to say various things in German and getting fascinated by cool phrases (which are probably totally run-of-the-mill for native German speakers, but fascinate me as a learner of the language). Today I’m reading various articles about “Mathematik als Beruf” (mathematics as a profession) and I came across some cool definitions of mathematics:

  • Mathematik ist beharrliches Ringen um endgültige Wahrheiten
  • Mathematik ist heute weltweites Teamwork
  • Mathe erfordert Geduld, Grips und Liebe zum Detail
  • Mathe ist abwechslungsreich, nichts wird doppelt gemacht
  • Mathe belohnt durch Anerkennung sachlicher Ergebnisse

The quotes are from this enticing presentation by Martin Oellrich. It looks so fun it made me think I wish someone had done a presentation like that to us, when I was still in school; and that partly because no one did, I ended up in the wrong discipline.  I must admit, I often have “discipline envy” when researching about what mathematicians do.  I think, however, that the third definition gives one reason why I’m not a mathematician – I most probably don’t have the required patience and love for detail. It’s ok – finding out about people’s working lives is also a fascinating subject to study.

P.S. If you’re an early career mathematician or computer scientist and reading this, melden Sie sich gerne! I’d love to meet up over coffee and cake to learn about your professional story 🙂

How many STEM PhD graduates will end up in academia?

Following up on yesterday’s blogpost, here’s an interesting question:
“What ratio of PhD graduates in STEM fields ultimately end up as (tenured) professors?”
Interesting critical discussion about how true this diagram is – here
stem careers infogram 2014

and a similar thread about maths PhDs and academic jobs.

Quitting academia

I keep coming across more and more articles by disillusioned young researchers quitting academia, like this one by a physics postdoc, or this one by a history postdoc

There is also an amusing recent debate in the form of two articles. The first one is wildly optimistic (although it makes some great points, it assumes that all responsibility lies upon the PHD student and completely disregards the fact that perhaps the system is a li-itlle bit toxic, if so many PhD students and postdocs feel so intensely disappointed. )
The sardonic response:

And here is an article by a more senior academic on a related, but opposite, subject: giving up tenure.

The comments sections are even more interesting than the articles themselves.

I can’t find any of the other articles right now, my Internet is very patchy right now. I am also too tired to reflect on why this proliferation is happening right now (like all other labour markets, the academic labour market is suffering from decreasing stability and security – stating the obvious, I know…). But here is a cool public discussion about the corporatisation of Dutch universities It is in Amsterdam on 24 May. Pity I can’t go.

Journal: science in culture

Turns out, I’ve missed three interesting conferences on mathematics in culture

Must keep an eye on this in the future!
More events at
AHRC Science in culture theme

Why do we (still) need to know more about female scientists?

Seemingly progressive posts such as “Eight women scientists that you need to know about” make my blood boil with anger. True, I had only heard about four of these eight scientists. You should read the article, it’s short, informative, and thought-provoking, and has inspiring historic portraits of the scientists at work – pictures which would have made at least one male relative of theirs mutter “she should be in the kitchen, not in the lab”. Their life histories made for an enjoyable and useful read on a Monday morning (and yes, that counted as research reading, aren’t I lucky). But this article was also a grim reminder of the fact that feminism has frozen in the first mile of a double marathon towards gender equality.

Why do we need to know more about female scientists?

Because of articles like this – how about some more female scientists? Are there really only eight?! And how about trying to read an article about the 800 or more male scientists who have made awesome discoveries that we also need to know about – I’m sure there’s lots that we don’t know about them? But no, that would not make for a nice news item or facebook trending post take because it would take longer than a Monday morning coffee break to read.

Because women who succeed in doing what they like and are good at (scientists or others) are still newsworthy. WTF?! Surely, not the ones who excel in anything related to the home, food or childrearing, that’s not news – women are just naturally good at it, haha.

Because becoming a scientist is a hard thing, and being a woman unfortunately continues to create more invisible barriers to a successful practicing of science than being a man does.

Because, if you take ten minutes to read their bios on Wikipedia, you will notice that most of them were at some point excluded, denied recognition, or discriminated against on the basis of being women. Nothing to do with their research, that was OK – in fact, it was good enough for others to gain credit for it sometimes. WTF?!

Because yesterday, when I heard that some friends have recently had a baby, I instinctively asked “girl or boy?” even though I can’t think of even one reason why the answer to that question should make a difference. But of course it will. (Un)helpful statistics, stereotypes, expectations, images and key words describing the likely life course, appearance, occupation, interests and possible futures open to persons of the male and female genders spring to mind immediately upon determining the sex of a newborn. Will people still care about that when that baby is an adult and wants, for example, to work as an astronomer? I hope not, but I’m afraid that they will.

Oh, just one thing <clambers onto soap box again>. Wikipedia has a special entry on “Female scientists before the 21st Century”. It seems to suggest that it has become easy enough – or at least relatively easier – for women to be scientists in the past couple of decades than it was previously. And it has. But it has not become equally easy to men, and it has not become sufficiently easy. 

And then, intersectionality. Combine class, race, wealth, disability, sexual orientation, and a bunch of other things that also mess up with our futures, making sure that the most talented, hard-working or brilliant people don’t  have a better chance.

We’re still far from a time when a person’s gender will not be the first thing we notice about them. Yes, there are numerous exceptions – but the point is, we have gone far in promoting exceptions, but we have not yet managed to create a world that supports a regularity, a world in which the particular set of sexual organs, secondary sexual characteristics and learned behaviours have no bearing to how well someone does their job.

Now, off that soapbox and back to my research desk before I evaporate in a puff of angry steam.


P.S. Maria Mitchell – first American professional astronomer who was female. And another reason why Quakers are cool.

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Work and careers in mathematics: What exactly do I want to know?

In this post I try to summarise the main questions of my study.

This is a three-year study (official summary here) about the working lives and career trajectories of scientists in the mathematical and computer sciences in the UK and Germany.  My main focus is on the early stages of career  – whether in academia, industry, or elsewhere – and how career and life intersect in the “working life” of a mathematician. Think of it as an extended CV focusing not only on key events in the working biography but also including key life events (such as moving countries, leaning a language, having children) and all the decision making and chance involved in the actual unfolding of your life which remains hidden between the lines of the official CV.

I’m looking to interview mathematicians/computer scientists with a range of experiences – postdocs, before and soon after Habilitation, PhD students or people who started a PhD and dropped out, established mathematicians with longer careers (research and/or teaching, academia or industry…), researchers who are unemployed, on career break or new career direction, on parental leave, international and native students etc. I’m also interested in international trajectories, gender-related issues, family, health, “life outside mathematics”, and any other important aspects of a biography.

In order to see the bigger picture and get a better sense of historical change in how careers unfold, the study also looks at the biographies of more established or retired scientists, as well as younger university students in maths and related subjects and their career plans (whether they consider a future career in research or not). A comprehensive study comparing generations of mathematicians would be great…maybe that will be my next project!

Here are the initial research questions – which become more detailed as the research progresses. (I say “mathematician” for short, but I mean “researcher in mathematics or computer science”):

The life and “career trajectory” of a mathematician: What careers and livelihoods do people have in mathematics? How are actual lives different from common stereotypes? How is one’s working life shaped by working as a mathematician? What would have been different, if he or she weren’t a mathematician? What does the lifecourse of a mathematician look like – what key stages, events, breaks, dis/continuities does it have?

The work of a mathematician: What is it that mathematicians do? How do they work with research objects which are immaterial, yet real at the same time? What is the social, political and material “scaffolding” that makes their work possible: institutions, social relations, epistemic communities and cultures, daily routines, employment arrangements, etc.? Where do proofs come from? What is the role of different technologies, such as computers, blackboards or coffee machines? What technologies, tricks, tacit rules, institutional arrangements are needed for the creation, maintenance and transmission of mathematical knowledge?

Who is a mathematician: What does it mean to be a mathematician? Why do mathematicians do maths, and what else do they (have to, enjoy to) do? How do others decide that you are ‘fit’ to be a mathematician? How, in practice, does one get to become a mathematician? How does one choose in what bit of mathematics to specialise? How does one learn to speak like a mathematician? I want to know in what terms mathematicians talk about their own lives, how they make sense of their profession

Mathematical institutions and social environment: But I’m not only concerned with individuals. A sociologist cannot understand mathematical lives separated from the institutions that mathematicians ‘inhabit’ (in sociology slang, “institutions” here refers to the network of visible and invisible rules, spaces and traditions which enable humans to practice mathematics: such as universities, funding bodies, journals, conferences, invisible “institutions” such as mathematical notation, fields of mathematics and so on…)  How do these institutions function, according to what rules, and who makes up those rules? It is all very good to say that mathematics is the ideal objective science, or at least as close to objective as any field of inquiry can be. But even so, the living, breathing and thinking mathematicians that create and use and explain this beautiful and objective science also inhabit the same real imperfect world as everyone else.  Mathematicians also negotiate ‘mundane’ things such as finding jobs, writing down the stuff they have thought about, going to work, arranging childcare and so on. How do they square these two worlds, of ‘mathematics’ and of ‘everyday life’, and how do they translate between them? More importantly, how do they themselves see these two (or maybe just one?) world?

Related to the last question, in what direction is the mathematical world changing and how have political and economic realities in the UK and Germany (and Europe and the world) affected it? In particular, I want to know to what extent the overall trend for insecure academic jobs and complex career paths spanning multiple countries is affecting the men and women who do research in the mathematical or computing sciences.

Germany and the UK
The fieldwork will be conducted in the UK and in Germany and will also look at the different pathways in which marketisation and internationalisation of science (pure and applied mathematics in particular) is happening in both countries. Germany and the UK are the two largest mathematics research communities within the EU, and leading partners – and competitors – for each other. Within UK’s collaborative mathematics research portfolio, collaborations with Germany are the second most significant ones after those with the US (followed by China, France and India); for Germany, the situation is the same. The relative average impact of papers co-authored by UK and German researchers is higher than that of UK-authored papers, or of UK collaborative papers with researchers from other countries; the same holds true from a German standpoint. The two countries are part of a global mathematics community and participate in a lively exchange of mathematical ideas and of mathematicians, but their different education and science policy trajectories mean that German and British mathematicians get exposed to very different institutional environments. There are complex interactions and permeable boundaries between the German and UK ‘mathematical worlds’ in terms of job opportunities, research funding, conferences, collaboration structures (interestingly, especially at early-career level, these are mostly one-directional: German graduates into UK jobs). From both a German and a British perspective, comparisons between Europe’s two largest and most prolific national mathematical communities are useful. In Germany, the neoliberal narrative has only more recently coexisted with that of university as a public good. In fact, marketisation is sometimes seen as a superior alternative and as a panacea to the problems created by the hierarchical rigidity, administrative complexity, and inefficiency of traditional German universities. From a German perspective in particular, it is interesting to study the bad as well as the good effects of marketisation on academic work, labour and careers in Britain.


For now, I define “mathematician or computer scientist” narrowly: as a scientist working professionally in the mathematical and computing sciences (regardless of whether it is pure, applied, both, or somewhere in between, or whether the mathematician rejects the pure/applied divide). S/he is usually attached to a university or research institute. S/he may be, or have been until recently, involved in teaching and/or writing and/or research. At the moment I focus mainly on mathematicians who do research, although it is interesting to see alternative pathways, e.g. mathematicians who have wanted to do research, and have ended up branching out in other activities, e.g. specialising in school teaching.


Basic premises

I’m starting this project with two very simple conjectures.

First, working in mathematics is just like any other job. It can be described in terms such as work, employment, career, labour, profession, livelihood, labour market, or vocation. It involves things that one does every day, and things one must (or must not) do, in order to qualify as a mathematician. It combines aspects of intellectual, physical, and emotional labour. It can involve mundane tasks, creativity, management, reading, writing, public speaking, publishing, editing, advising younger people or one’s peers, thinking, discussing, presenting ideas, experiments (physical or imagined), the need to organise people, things and ideas, travel, job-hunting, and much more. Mathematical research and teaching is organised into a sectoral ‘labour market’ with its own sub-labour markets – or at least can be analysed in labour market terms or as a “subsector” of science, as is common nowadays. The mathematical community has its internal formal and informal networks. It has rules and freedoms, and usually-taken-for-granted truths (or conventions, as the French sociologists Boltanski and Thevenot would put it). A sociologist can discover trends and compare mathematical (working) lives to ones in other careers and jobs.

Second, however, working in mathematics is different from all other jobs, in and out of science. It has specifics which make it special and distinct. Working as a mathematician affects your career, your life course, your options and choices, your difficulties, your social and spatial mobility, potential circles of friends or partners, the meaning you attach to work, the reasons and motivations that urge you to work, and the variety of typical and unique life-paths that you are likely to experience throughout the span of your working life. In other words, being a mathematician shapes your identity and your biography in a unique way, as well as just providing you with something to do and putting bread on the table (how easy it is to earn one’s livelihood as a mathematician, man or woman, is a related question).

Nonmathematician studying mathematicians: an “outsider” researcher

I am not a mathematician which makes me an outsider to the world of mathematics.

I studied mathematics until the end of high school and very much enjoyed it – but the only career option I could think of using a mathematics entrance exam was economics, which I didn’t like at the time. The thought of becoming a mathematician just hadn’t crossed my mind. Perhaps this was because I come from a relatively small, industrial Bulgarian city, and I didn’t know any scientists or researcher in real life  Or perhaps I just wasn’t that good at mathematics. Anyway, now I am convinced it is very important for school students to be exposed to as many career ideas as possible, because who knows how many better choices could be made by young people after school.

I went to university to study European Studies and later Sociology which had no mathematics courses (apart from very little applied statistics in 2001-2). But I find mathematics fascinating and have often wondered what it would have been like to study mathematics in university and this project gave me an opportunity to find out more. This past academic year I attended lectures and seminars with the first year cohort of mathematics students in a British university, in order to understand a little better what it is that mathematicians do. I also read anything I can understand, and talk to many professional mathematicians as often as I can.

And, as the long-term partner of a former PhD student and current academic mathematician, and a postdoctoral researcher myself, I guess I am also a “participant observer” or “insider” in a certain limited sense.

Long story short, although I’m very much a non-mathematician, I can hopefully understand something of what makes mathematicians love their job.

How do we learn: inside that mystery called “learning”

I spend a lot of time thinking about how it is we learn things. In particular, how people learn mathematics. I spend too much time thinking about it and not enough actually doing it – although last term I changed this by moonlighting as a first year undergraduate maths student. I attended all 1st year, 1st term mathematics lectures, two weekly support classes (in mathematical analysis), plus a more advanced lecture in history of mathematics (for 3rd and 4rd year students) and lots of talks by internal and visiting lecturers. I have not solved the riddle of how we learn, but a friend linked me to a new mathematics blog today and my experience was very similar to this post in which Baez talks about “levels of exellence. I love his idea of playing “teacher/student”. I’ve done that so many times without being able to put an accurate label on it. I would say, however, that there are many more intermediate levels (or “stripes”) in the large ones such as “mastering elementary algebra”. And that you undergo changes during all of those microlevels. Before we know something, it can seem scary and unattainable – but that is because we fail to recognise that with each thing we learn, we change a little and become a little more able to go forward.
One of the central insights in my experiment in learning some mathematics as an adult is the importance of giving up hang ups and learning to get on with stuff without getting stuck on something I don’t understand. It made me realise that people who do science are just like everyone else, apart from the fact that they didn’t stop when they hit their first (or thousandth) wall, and just kept on going. I studied sociology for so many years and I still think I don’t know much. Yet I know much, much more than someone who hasn’t studied it at all. In that sense, sciences are a lot like sport. Learning develops your learning muscles (if you are careful not to get injured). Baez talks about that, too, with the example of swimming.

Bullshit jobs

Today I came across a good article by David Graeber about why there are so many really bad jobs around: On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

Why is it that “in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid“? According to the author,

“[t]he answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.”

On the face of it, the problem of “bullshit jobs” has nothing to do with the work of scientists. Aren’t scientists those select few who are lucky to work in clean and well supplied institutes, practising a science which they feel is their vocation, so engrossed in the practice that they do not even know what the phrase “labour market” means? And yet, all jobs, good, bad or ugly, are part of the same system. And the subjective value we attribute to different jobs is also judged against the backdrops of other existing types of activity. In other words, we cannot understand the work done by scientists without paying attention to what goes on in other parts of the global labour market:

“If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.”

Read the rest:

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What does “work” mean in the 21 Century? (grand title, small rambling post)

Fascinating (if somewhat scattered) post on the Cyborgology blog about hyperemployment, technology  and femininity. The link makes sense once you read it. Read it! (

In a nutshell, it takes up the term “hyperemployment” (= we all work all the time and not just in the workplace) and argues that women have always had to work all the time but now thanks to new technologies and the increasingly precarious and competitive labour market  we all have to work all the time, attaching second and third and fourth shifts to our working lives. Think about checking your work emails on your Blackberry. Think also of self-grooming practices or housework (which is no longer restricted to women). So basically we are all hyperemployed, and the real price of this is time. Fascinating stuff and some great ideas in that article.

However, I have a major quibble with the way this argument relies on the idea of “traditional employment”. Don’t take me wrong, I’ve also fallen prey to this idea, especially when I studied the marketisation of seafaring jobs. But actually it’s important to realise that the”golden age” of masculinised and standardised “full employment” never quite existed, and that its partial existence is but a short blip in the history of labour. Historically, everyone has had to work to survive – apart from those very thin socio-economic elites who controlled the power and resources and didn’t have to work). So perhaps technologies have destroyed that temporary standardisation of labour and reverted humanity and the nature of labour to the usual state of things – but we now notice this and call it “employment” because we have begun to think in market terms about everything?


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