SIAM News Blog

Where Are Our Free Student Members Today?

By James Crowley

SIAM offers free memberships to almost all interested students. Only a small fraction of these student members go on to become professional (paying) members of SIAM. Because the SIAM Board of Trustees allocates a lot of money to provide the free student memberships, we naturally wonder why the fraction who later become full members is so small. To answer the question, we conducted a small study, sampling a group of former SIAM student members to learn where they are now. The study is illuminating with respect not only to the SIAM membership, but also to the early career paths of people who were once SIAM student members.

Remarkably, a total of 22,625 individuals have had free SIAM student memberships at some time in their careers. During the period from 2003 to 2013, 18,480 individuals had free student memberships. To put this in perspective: US academic institutions produce about 1000–1500 PhDs per year across the mathematical sciences. Also in 2003–2013, 1325 of SIAM’s paying members had had free student memberships at some time.

Why don’t more student members convert to paying members? What happens to these free student members? Where do they go? What do we know about their subsequent career paths?

Here’s the succinct answer to the last question: very little. Hence our small study, for which we took a sample of individuals who had free student memberships in 2005 and attempted to learn, from our own records and from publicly available sources, something about the individuals’ careers. In this information, we hoped to find clues that would help us answer the other questions.

The Study 

We did not intend to conduct a rigorous, statistically valid study. Rather, we gathered information from our own records and public sources (the web and LinkedIn) for a relatively small sample: 218 randomly selected individuals who had free student memberships in 2005. From our records we obtained the years and types (student, postgraduate, regular) of the individuals’ SIAM memberships. We also attempted to find, either from our records or from public sources, the highest degree earned, the year and the institution that awarded it, and the student’s major field. Finally, we searched public records for information about individuals’ employment after graduation—job title(s) and employer(s), which we categorized by type. 

To protect the privacy of individuals, we report only generic data. All data reported is as of the end of 2013. 

One of the interesting things about data in today’s world is that most people can be found on the Internet, and quite a bit of their history is available.

Inspection of general membership data for the 218 individuals in the study revealed that they had free SIAM memberships for an average of about 3.7 years;  for students in doctoral programs in applied math, the  average was slightly higher, at 3.9 years. 

The Bottom Line

The probability of an individual who had a free student membership in 2005 becoming a paying member at any time in the future is .17. The probability of such an individual still being a SIAM member (of any kind) is .11. It is these rather low numbers that led us to embark on our study of student members who did not convert to regular SIAM membership after completing their studies.

We began by looking for the highest degrees attained by the 218 individuals in our sample. For those whose highest degree could be determined, the breakdown was: bachelor’s (6), master’s (36), PhD or the equivalent (161).

We looked further into each category to see if we could learn what happened to the individuals who did not become SIAM members after completing their studies.

Easiest First: Terminal Master’s Degrees

When we mention SIAM student members, our first thought might be of students in standard doctoral degree programs. That is the case for many SIAM student members, but not all. Some complete terminal master’s degrees and find employment outside academia. And some who were student members in 2005 were still in degree programs in 2013.

What is the probability that someone with a terminal master’s degree becomes a paying SIAM member at some point? The answer, unfortunately, is close to zero. Not one of the 36 master’s students in our sample became a paying SIAM member. 

For many students, involvement in SIAM comes through chapters at their universities. Pictured here are members of the University of Manchester chapter in early May, at their 2014 student conference. Courtesy of Nicholas Higham.
Where did those 36 individuals go? Of the 26 for whom we could find information: Two teach at community colleges; two are computer technicians (full-time) at the universities where they studied; five are still students; 12 work in industry; and three took jobs in national labs. Following less expected paths, two are now technical/science writers.

Those working in industry have what appear to be good technical jobs, at companies that include Fluke Networks and Ericsson (Sweden); Comstock Canada Ltd.; and Signal Innovations Group, Nestle USA, Blue Cross, Northrop Grumman, Bloomberg, and Shell Upstream (all in the US).

Many of those with master’s degrees are “code warriors”—writing computer code or managing groups that do, with job titles like software development engineer or software designer. Their work does not tend to involve numerical algorithms or scientific computing, and SIAM thus becomes less relevant to their work experience. Others in this group work in fields closer to SIAM, using, for example, optimization techniques for scheduling or demand planning. Job titles include demand planner, planner and scheduler, financial software developer, software engineer, actuary, computer technician, and data security analyst.

It is worth pointing out that people with terminal master’s degrees are not necessarily dropouts from PhD programs. Providing confirmation are individuals with multiple master’s degrees in fields relevant to their work.

Bachelor’s Degrees

SIAM does have student members who are undergraduates, perhaps through the student chapters at their universities. The very small size of our sample makes it hard to distinguish trends. One person became a fairly well-known science fiction writer, and another is teaching at a community college. It seems fair to say that people who are undergraduates in math or related disciplines go on to pursue diverse careers.

Doctoral Degrees

We are most interested in the group who eventually received PhDs, as these are the individuals most likely to become regular SIAM members. Of the 218 individuals in the study, we know that at least 160 (73.4%) received PhDs in SIAM-related disciplines. There may be a few more, but we suspect that a large proportion of those who could not be found on the web did not complete PhD programs. 

The 160 who were identified as receiving PhDs represent a diverse set of departments/majors: mathematics (42); applied mathematics (32); computer science (21); and mechanical and electrical engineering (11 each). The remaining individuals were scattered among operations research, aeronautical or astronautical engineering, materials science, earth sciences, nuclear engineering, biomedical engineering, and others. Indeed, SIAM student members are a diverse lot.

We were unable to identify where 17 (10.6%) of them went. Some clearly left the discipline; one, for example, went to vet school and now works at an animal hospital. Of the 143 whose paths to relevant careers could be tracked, 60.1% were in academia, 30.1% in industry, 3.5% in national labs, 3.5% in medical centers; one each (.7%) was working in government, national academies, or not-for-profit organizations, or was unemployed. The actual percentage of unemployed subjects is likely to be higher—they could be among those who could not be found in public sources.

Of the 86 in academia, 19 were in small colleges/universities, and 63 were at institutions that grant advanced degrees in a relevant discipline. Of the individuals at PhD-granting institutions, a fairly large number were still in what appear to be temporary positions (as postdocs, visiting lecturers, or research associates). Only 30 individuals listed positions with titles like associate or assistant professor; for nine of them, the position title could not be identified.

Forty-two of the PhDs (19.3% of the total sample, 26% of the PhDs, 29.4% of those we could identify) were working in industry. The companies occupy a diverse set of industrial sectors: computer hardware, consumer products, consulting, engineering, banking/finance, health care, Internet services, manufacturing, petrochemicals, software, and telecommunications. The others were in miscellaneous fields—one person, for example, was working at a field station for a geophysics company.

Each year, representatives of SIAM student chapters share their experiences over breakfast at the SIAM Annual Meeting. Shown here are participants in the 2013 event in San Diego. Photo by Susan Whitehouse.
Given the relatively large number of individuals in this group, we wanted to know the probability of a PhD who took a job in industry becoming a paying SIAM member at any time. The answer: .09. And of such an individual still being a SIAM member: .07. Obviously, our retention of PhDs who find employment in industry lags behind that for people who stay in academia.

The department/major of an individual’s degree also makes a difference: Those with PhDs in applied mathematics are more likely to remain SIAM members after receiving their degrees than those in other fields. The probability that an individual with a PhD in applied mathematics remains a SIAM member after completing the degree is .25; the probability drops to .21 for PhDs in mathematics or computer science, to less than .1 for electrical or mechanical engineering.

What Did We Learn?

While the conversion rate of free student memberships to regular (paying) memberships after graduation seems low, we believe that there are reasonable explanations. Certainly, completion of a relevant graduate degree is important. An individual’s major, and type of employment after receiving a degree, play a role; people in jobs unrelated to areas covered by SIAM are unlikely to continue as members.

Clearly, those who are working or closely involved in SIAM-related areas are more likely to continue in SIAM. To approach this hypothesis from another angle, we looked at 32 individuals who received student travel awards in 2005 or 2006, on the assumption that people who participated in SIAM conferences as students would be more closely engaged in SIAM-related endeavors.

Of this group, eight were never SIAM student members (student membership is not required to compete for a travel award); 15 (47%) eventually became paying SIAM members, and nine are still paying SIAM members. This is a much higher conversion rate than that for our free student members. The reason is most likely that SIAM activities are more aligned with the interests of conference-goers.

SIAM student members can be first-year graduate students, who often change direction or move on to other activities before completing degrees. Some take jobs of various types in industry, where SIAM programs may be less relevant. They form a very diverse group. Those who do complete degrees and find jobs for which SIAM is relevant to their careers have a much higher probability of retaining their association with SIAM.

   Jim Crowley is the executive director of SIAM.
blog comments powered by Disqus