Mathematics, what you need to know

Do you enjoy solving mathematical problems and puzzles? Are you thrilled by the perspective of exploring the infinite possibilities of mathematics? Are you looking for a subject that will open to you a wide range of career paths? If so, choosing mathematics at university is your best bet. Here are a few things you need to consider before you make your choice.

The first thing you should know about maths at university, is that it’s quite different from high-school maths, both on a structural level, and in terms of work approach and content.

There are usually two types of classes at Mathematics departments: Lectures and tutorials/workshops. Simply put, lectures are one, two or three hours long classes where the lecturer will go through chapters of the course, laying out proofs and working out examples. Tutorials are usually one hour long sessions, given by a postgraduate student, with the aim of correcting a problem sheet given a week before, in a small class. These tutorials present an opportunity to ask more precise questions and discuss particular parts of the course more informally. While it certainly takes time to get accustomed to lectures and their sometimes impersonal nature, a student coming from high school will surely find the format of tutorials and workshops to be familiar enough.  Adding up time spent in class comes to about 13 to 20 hours a week of taught classes. This might seem like a relatively small number if you’re coming from a demanding high school programme, but you will notice that the time spent at the library, catching up on lectures and preparing yourself for incoming class tests and problem sheets quickly compensates…

Another fundamental difference between high-school and university maths, is the work approach and the amount of time you’ll spend studying outside of class, figuring out that one proof that the lecturer chose not to cover because of its “trivial” nature.

You’ll also notice that apart from a few modules in your first year, the emphasis will be on proofs and reasoning based on brand new concepts, instead of methods and applications. But enough about the technical details, what is better than feedback from current maths students, to get a better idea of what studying maths at different universities in the UK is like?

Interview 1: Mamoune, Mathematics with Management and Finance, King’s College London

Mamoune has agreed to give us an insight about his experience as a Maths student at King’s College London.

-Could you first give us a quick introduction about yourself?

My name is Mamoune Chaoui. I’m a second year Mathematics with Management and Finance student from Morocco.

-Why have you chosen this particular programme?

I have always loved playing with numbers and functions, solving limits and integrals, but I was also seduced by the many possible ways in which maths could be applied in our everyday life. When I learnt about this programme, I immediately made it my firm choice.

-Could you now tell us about a typical day?

I have 15 hours of class per week with 2 to 5 hours per day. So far, I have had a combination of 3 maths modules and one management/finance module each semester. In terms of classes, each maths module is taught in three hour lectures and one hour tutorials where you can ask the tutor any question related to the module. On the other hand, management and finance modules are taught in two hour lectures and one hour workshops/tutorials.

During a normal day, I wake up around 8am, have my breakfast and get ready for uni. Once the first class is finished, I either have lunch at home or at one of the restaurants at my university, depending on how long is the gap between the two classes is. After I have finished all my classes, I go to the gym for about one and a half hours, take a shower and go for a drink with friends. I usually spend my weekends at the library to catch up on any classes or lessons I missed, work on examples that were shown in class and go through parts of the course I don’t fully understand yet.

After my studies I would like to get work experience in investment banking for a few years before going back to my home country and have my own company.

Interview 2: James, Mathematics, Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

To put this into perspective and to get a better idea of how maths might be differently addressed at another university, I have asked James, a former maths student at Queen’s College, Cambridge, a few questions.

-How is your course structured?

In first year, you have 12 lectures per week (10-12 Mon-Sat) covering all areas of pure and applied maths. The majority of your time is spent doing sheets of maths problems (called “example sheets”) – there is one sheet per 6 lectures. Then for every example sheet, you have a supervision (thus about two supervisions per week). This is where a maths fellow/postdoc/PhD student goes through the example sheet questions, showing how the questions are ideally tackled and answering any questions. At some colleges (e.g. Queens’) you may also have example classes. In later years, you have a wider choice of courses and more flexibility to how many courses you take.

-Which modules do you find to be the most engaging?

Personally, I found the applied courses more interesting and I was also better at them. In my second year, I concentrated on the applied and probability/statistics courses, and in my third year I did mostly theoretical physics. My favourite courses were General Relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity, where mass causes space and time to be curved) and Statistical Physics (how large scale phenomena such as ferromagnetism, phase transitions etc. in 10^23 particles can be derived by considering individual particle interactions and the applying statistical arguments). However, the year seems to split fairly evenly among pure/applied/stats courses, so your interest may take you anywhere! It’s worth saying that what is called “pure” maths at school is actually considered applied maths at university: university pure maths is all about rigorously defining mathematical concepts and proving theorems about them.

-How many hours do you spend studying outside class?

This is a tough one. In my final year, I think I was studying more than 40 hours a week in addition to all my supervisions and lectures. In my first year I worked hard, but not very consistently and did a lot of extra curricular activities and social events so it’s hard to estimate how many hours I actually did!

Studying Mathematics at university doesn’t mean you will spend most of your time performing dull, repetitive, obscure tasks on your own, day and night, without clear purpose. You will improve your communication skills, your creativity and of course your analytical skills while being surrounded by passionate, highly skilled, like-minded individuals. Mathematical studies at university level are as diverse as any other academic path, ranging from “straight maths”, to mathematics and philosophy, and mathematics and finance. So if you are up for the challenge, hesitate no more!

Ali El Bedraoui, 19 Feb 2017