You do big sums, right?

Note: This post was originally posted over at Medium on 10th February 2016. I am reporting here because I have decided to consolidate all my blog plots on my own site.

Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington by Michael Matti

Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington by Michael Matti


When I tell someone that I’m a mathematician, their first response is usually

I was never any good at maths at school

closely followed by, somewhat jokingly,

So you just sit there, doing really big sums all day?

And therein lies one of the major problems in communicating mathematics to the general public: Most people have no earthly idea what mathematicians, and academics in general, do all day. The mathematics we do so very different from the maths encountered at High School or even Undergraduate level, which makes it incredibly difficult to explain precisely what we do.

The difference between High School/Undergraduate mathematics and research mathematics is a whole other kettle of fish and one which I won’t tackle here. For now, I will just focus on what I actually do on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully, this will take away some of the mystique and illustrate that being an academic isn’t too different from a “normal” job.

So, here is what I did this week:


In the morning, I made arrangements (including hotel reservations) for an academic visitor who will be coming to the department next month to give a seminar and discuss the possibility of working together on an interesting problem. I met with a colleague to discuss the implementation of a computer simulation that he was running. I also met with a PhD student to help out with some code.I spent the balance of the morning preparing notes and handouts for the first class meeting of an undergraduate group project module. After lunch I, and the other three lecturers for the group project, met the students and gave summaries of the projects that they could take. The students then ranked the projects in order of preference.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on research (more on this in a later post).


I started by drafting an abstract for a talk at this year’s British Applied Mathematics Colloquium (In order to give a talk at a conference, you usually have to prepare an abstract, which summarises your talk. The conference organisers then select which talks to include based on these abstracts). After drafting and submitting the abstract, I registered for the conference, booked my accommodation and filled in the necessary paperwork.

For the remainder of the morning, I worked on a couple of different research problems.

After lunch, I met with the other lecturers who were offering projects as part of the undergraduate group project module and we distributed the students into groups according to their preferences. The balance of the afternoon was spent preparing for the project module: finding a timetable slot when all my students were free, booking a room, splitting my large group into two groups, and finalising the project material. Finally, I emailed all the students and uploaded on the necessary documents to the University’s online teaching environment.


I look after one of the Departmental servers that is used for intensive computations. I started the morning by doing a little bit of housekeeping and admin on the server. After that I spent pretty much the whole day editing some Matlab code to improve the speed an accuracy of the results produced. I also had an office hour.


On Sunday evening I spent a few hours triaging my inbox and sending a couple of emails.


This semester I have arranged things so that most of my teaching is timetabled for a Monday. I started the morning by spending a few hours redrafting a section of an article that me and my co-authors have been working on for the last few months. I then held a tutorial for the first group of undergraduates taking the project module. I then met with some colleagues and a PhD student on a joint research project that we have been working on; discussing the progress made so far and the next steps.

After lunch, I held another tutorial for the second group of undergraduates taking my project. Once this was finished, I prepared some additional teaching material and distributed this to the class. I met again with a PhD student to try to diagnose some problems we were having getting some code to run. I was contacted by another academic who was interested in working together, so we spent sometime discussing possible research problems we could look into.

Finally, I fielded some email queries from students about the group project module.


On Tuesday I spent the entire day working from home, further modifying the Matlab code that I mentioned earlier. It is quite rare to get several hours of uninterrupted time to work on a single problem. In this case, the time paid off and I managed to fix a couple of bugs that had plagued the code for almost a year.


Today my morning did not start well: we were notified that a paper we submitted to a journal had been rejected by the editor. Although this sort of thing is a common occurrence in academia, it is still extremely frustrating when it happens. There-followed an email discussion amongst my co-authors on how best to proceed. It was decided that we should make some changes to the manuscript and submit it elsewhere.

The first part of my morning was therefore spent editing the manuscript. Following this, I held an office hour for students.

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