Mathematics, a chameleon

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

With a solid foundation in mathematics, Lucy Zuo describes how she has been able to transition between different fields in her career thus far – from staffing and talent acquisition to educational technologies and data science.

I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from New York University (NYU) in 2019. As I approached my senior year, the inevitable pressure of finding a job was looming on my mind 24/7. I had previously held a series of parallel internships in a variety of industries—consulting, education, and even sales—with the goal of exploring what I enjoyed and what I wanted to do, but evidently the answer was yet to be determined. With a degree in Mathematics, I felt like I had an extremely versatile and powerful asset that can help me excel in any field, yet it was a subject that was mysterious and obscure enough that I did not feel like I had enough specialization to apply for anything on the job market. I was stuck in a weird place where human resource practitioners were impressed with my background in Mathematics, yet, to my surprise, no-one required me to find the Laplace transform of anything!

I was quickly pulled into a world of research and advisory for a niche industry I did not even know existed—staffing and talent acquisition. I was recruited by a small, fast growing startup that specialized in leveraging technology to help corporate companies improve their recruitment practices, an area which we know, as previous job-seekers ourselves, to be an extremely broken process. I assumed the hybrid role of a market researcher, writer, and consultant. I took on client requests and tried to solve their business challenges by surveying the market and leveraging nontraditional datasets. But I quickly learned that people tend to argue a lot. Delivering a recommendation or solution was not enough. I frequently had to sit through hours of grilling consulting sessions where I had to justify my opinions while having my work scrutinized. This was definitely not the most technical role and required minimum mathematical concepts to solve. It soon became obvious that the only indisputable part of any analysis was ultimately the quantitative portions.

Simple calculations can make drastic differences. With only a few data points you can generate charts, graphs, and forecast market trends using easy methodologies like moving averages and linear regression, all of which effectively and succinctly help you to support your claim, and definitely builds your credibility. Furthermore, mathematics equips you with essential soft skills that can be implemented regardless of the nature of your work, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to extract data and ideas from mundane pieces of information to support your hypothesis, all of which are skills that we were trained to perfect while performing advanced and rigorous mathematical proofs at university.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

For a long time, I was under the impression that once I entered the workforce I would completely part ways with mathematics, but I soon found myself yearning for more quantitative work. There is a wide usage for mathematics within computer science, data science, and so much more. I believe if we combine mathematical concepts with a coding language, the products we can create are endless. Simultaneously we would be able to demonstrate how useful the application can be to a wider audience. At the time of writing this article, I will be taking the next step in my career towards data science  in the education technology sector. I will be leveraging statistics and linear algebra concepts to study and model data, which would then be used to understand consumer behavior in order to inform  marketing and product development.

One of the most encouraging words I have heard in the past is that a mathematics degree will open up a wide variety of opportunities for you. In fact, it is much easier to transition from a mathematics background into any other field, than the other way around. In other words, mathematics forms the foundation upon which many other pillars and possibilities can be built, but it is much more difficult to try to build that critical foundation retroactively. To be brutally honest, I had not really appreciated the versatility of mathematics or its applications until I entered the workforce—I pursued the degree simply because I enjoyed mathematics, without taking the long-term future into consideration. However, I am fortunate that I have stuck by the subject and garnered the opportunities it has opened up for me.

Lucy Zuo

Former student of Dr Sophie Marques (2016)

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