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AN21 Panel Guides Applied Mathematicians Seeking Careers in Business, Industry, and Government

By Jillian Kunze

A wide variety of exciting career paths in business, industry, and government (BIG) are available to applied mathematicians and computational and data scientists. During the 2021 SIAM Annual Meeting, which took place virtually in July, an industry panel discussed strategies for effectively pursuing these opportunities. The panel was chaired by Sharon Arroyo (The Boeing Company), moderated by Kevin Bongiovanni (Raytheon Systems), and organized by the SIAM Industry Committee. Panelists Marylesa Howard (Nevada National Security Site), Cosmin Ionita (MathWorks), Penporn Koanantakool (Google, Inc.), Lois Curfman McInnes (Argonne National Laboratory), Raymond Perkins (Facebook), and Nessy Tania (Pfizer, Inc.) encouraged attendees to consider BIG careers and provided advice for current and future job seekers.

Each panelist related their own unique experiences within BIG settings. For instance, McInnes noted that U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories offer many interesting positions in various domains of science and engineering for researchers to collaborate on impactful and reusable projects. Perkins realized in graduate school that his interests were more aligned with business than academia and has thus worked to leverage his quantitative background in industry. “Try to expose yourself as much as possible to opportunities,” he said.

Tania, who transitioned from academia to the biopharmaceutical sector, also urged attendees to explore their options. “Really think about what you want to do and imagine that there are different models of success,” she said. “Ask yourself early and often about your passions and what you like about your day-to-day job.” Ionita echoed this sentiment and added that anyone who has utilized the tools of applied mathematics can find opportunities in BIG. “There are fruitful careers in industry as an applied mathematician, even though your degree might not say ‘applied mathematics,’” he said.

The daily tasks of BIG mathematicians often vary widely, both between different individuals and over the course of a single career. Depending on the organization, positions may involve varying levels of collaboration, individual focus, and coordination with groups of people. In some cases, employees can tailor this configuration to their own interests. For example, there is a great deal of variety and flexibility in Howard’s average work day, though communicating with other professionals always remains a major component of her job. “I spend a lot of time not talking math, or trying to take math and put it into a language that other people will understand,” she said. “This allows me to communicate my ideas effectively in a physics sense or a management sense.”

Those who are pursuing BIG careers are sometimes intimidated because many jobs that are appropriate for applicants with applied mathematics backgrounds are not titled as such. Tania advised students to visit the career centers at their universities to learn about jobs for which they might be qualified and find information on the career paths of alumni from their departments. Career centers may even be able to facilitate virtual meetings between current students and alumni. In addition, the BIG Math Network provides articles that explain the role of applied mathematicians in industry, and SIAM’s career page lists a number of BIG organizations that hire mathematicians. Career fairs are similarly valuable. During the next SIAM Career Fair, which will take place virtually on November 9, employers will recruit for job and internship opportunities. 

A panel at the 2021 SIAM Annual Meeting, which took place virtually in July, outlined the preparation and application process for applied mathematicians who are seeking employment in business, industry, and government (BIG). Top row, left to right: Marylesa Howard (Nevada National Security Site), Cosmin Ionita (MathWorks), and Penporn Koanantakool (Google, Inc.). Bottom row, left to right: Lois Curfman McInnes (Argonne National Laboratory), Raymond Perkins (Facebook), and Nessy Tania (Pfizer, Inc.).

Conferences, workshops, and internships like Research Experiences for Undergraduates are also excellent ways to explore BIG careers and find job offerings. Poster sessions at in-person conferences are often especially beneficial for networking purposes. “Sometimes I ask students directly if they would be interested in an internship after chatting about their posters,” Ionita said. Furthermore, speaking to recruiters if the chance arises—no matter one’s level of interest in a job—can effectively build a network.

Another reliable method for identifying opportunities in BIG is to peruse the listings at professional societies, such as the SIAM Job Board. “Start paying attention to those advertisements,” Tania said. “It might be that you’re not on the job market yet, but start looking at the requirements and what types of jobs people are looking for.” Monitoring current job postings can help students who are seeking BIG careers focus on transferable skills and tailor their resumes for positions of interest.

When applying for openings in BIG, one should highlight a strong understanding of probability and statistics, a background in linear algebra, and some form of coding knowledge. “When I hire someone, I don’t care what coding languages they know,” Howard said. “Just the fact that they understand the logical process of programming [is enough].” The ability to communicate across disciplines and clearly express ideas both verbally and in writing is also essential, as is a willingness to continue to learn. “Open your mind to people who have different training and backgrounds than you as an applied mathematician, and who describe things using different terminology that you invest time in to understand and learn,” McInnes said. Participation in a SIAM Student Chapter can showcase one’s interpersonal skills, including leadership capability and teamwork experience.

Many BIG job employers expect applicants to demonstrate their software skills, and Perkins recommended creating a personal website or GitHub to show off past projects. Making software projects open source if possible allows prospective employers to view the code, confirms that people actually use the work, and counts the number of users who downloaded it. “Building a community that uses it, posts comments, and helps maintain it will show that you can develop something that people really need,” Koanantakool said. If making open-source code is not feasible, one might consider getting involved in a user community for existing software and providing input to the development team.

Applicants can still exhibit relevant skills even if they lack direct work experience in fields such as data science or machine learning. Hackathons and online competitions—like the machine learning competitions that are hosted on Kaggle—serve as examples of clear experience on a resume. “You need to somehow demonstrate to the recruiters and folks who are reading your resume that you actually know how to do a data scientist’s job,” Koanantakool said. A certification from an online course like Coursera or a boot camp program also bolsters an application.

During the interview process, prospective employees must be ready to draw connections between their backgrounds and the opening’s application area that are not immediately apparent. “Sometimes this requires you to think creatively,” Perkins said. “You really have to consider what that network of mathematics looks like. If you get the interview and have the skillset and understanding, you’ll be able to demonstrate that.” Expressing genuine interest in the project in question and speaking about it intelligently can convince hiring managers of one’s suitability.

To close out the session, panelists reminded students to actively pursue internships and similar opportunities that will help them explore BIG and ultimately decide on a career path. “Applied mathematics is such an amazing foundation for a career that’s exciting and enriching,” McInnes said. “It can go so many directions depending upon your interests, so focus on what you as an individual are passionate about. Don’t feel that you need to follow the model of anybody else; really be true to yourself and seek out what you enjoy.”

  Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News