A day in the life: universities

We talk to four mathematicians at different stages of their careers


Mathematicians are a diverse bunch. As a group, they come from different experiences and backgrounds; they have different hobbies and aspirations; different preferences for computing software; and, as we recently found out at Chalkdust HQ, wildly different opinions on how to pronounce ‘scone’.

One thing they do all have in common is a love of mathematics. We strongly believe that a mathematician is anybody who does maths and wants to define themselves as a mathematician. And mathematics itself is full of variety and diversity. People can study a whole universe of different things! These things can be entirely unrelated—or even cooler, they can seem entirely unrelated but actually end up having deep connections.

This is why we can find it difficult to describe exactly what mathematics is: because it encompasses so many different things. Maybe we should stick with saying that mathematics is ‘what mathematicians do’. But then…what do mathematicians do?

Fear not: Chalkdust has the answer! Although our definition of mathematician leaves room for all sorts of people, doing all sorts of things, day to day, we’ve decided to focus on those doing mathematics in a university setting, and give you an insight into the daily life of four people at different stages of their mathematical careers:

  • Piper, an undergraduate student at Durham University,
  • Jessica, a PhD student at RWTH Aachen, in Germany,
  • Smitha, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool,
  • Helen, a professor of applied mathematics and the head of department for mathematics at UCL.

Piper Lane

I’m Piper, I like random walks on the theoretical beach and contemplating the viability of gravity being represented by a particle. I am a mathematics undergrad, having just completed my first year at Durham University.

Piper at her desk, the screen says "Important maths things"

Piper hard at work

My busiest and thus most exciting day of each week begins at 8am on a Thursday, with a cold shower and a hearty college breakfast. I am usually joined by fellow mathematician friends with whom I converse, and subsequently walk, to the maths and computer science department above the main science site for the first session of the day; a 9am calculus tutorial. I have found tutorials to be useful in helping consolidate the current content, as I am given the opportunity to collaborate with other students through new problems, with as much or as little guidance by the tutor as needed.

Afterwards, I have little time to make my way to the learning centre for calculus and linear algebra lectures, followed immediately by analysis and then linear algebra tutorials back atop the science site hill.

I find a space around the maths department to work for the next hour, often at a bench outside if the weather is nice, at which I can finally eat lunch while watching the designated pre-recorded probability videos for the week. Although there is a lot of content to cover per module, each lecturer provides detailed pre-recorded videos alongside a coherent set of lecture notes, as well as regular live lectures presented on Zoom and/or in person. This gives a range of options for students depending on their circumstances regarding Covid-19 and learning preferences.

Over time I have found that the best methods for my personal learning have been to annotate and edit the existing lecture notes during in-person lectures, and then watch the pre-recorded content videos in my own time afterwards should I fail to understand any part of the lecture.

A lit up computer setup in the dark.

Analysis I vibes

My last class of the day is a two-hour programming tutorial, during which students work through a practical sheet of ascending difficulty depending on the week. This is usually more relaxed due to existing programming experience accelerating my understanding.

Since my day ends around 5pm with limited time between sessions, I head straight back to college for dinner and a rendezvous with my friends. Evenings are often my favourite part of the day, as I still have some time to go for a walk with my friends around the city, enjoying the scenery and the challenge of navigating Durham in the dark. After returning to college, I like to order a toastie from the buttery—the gem of Trevelyan College—before winding down with a cup of tea and a good book.

Jessica Wang

Hi! I am a first-year maths PhD student at RWTH Aachen, Germany. I work in the field of symplectic topology, specifically on billiards. I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Durham University, before coming to Aachen. On a typical day, I go to the office in the mornings and start working, which could be either studying new materials or doing research. Since I am still at the start of my PhD, I have so far spent most of my time here learning background knowledge.

Jess sitting in front of a computer. Wikipedia is on the screen.

Jessica fixing the mistakes on Wikipedia

On Tuesdays, all the members in our geometry and analysis chair have lunch together with our secretary (who deals with all the admin work in our chair) to discuss maths-related stuff such as organising or travelling to conferences, social events etc. The afternoons are pretty much the same as the mornings, except that I go to ballet classes two to three times a week during late afternoons. My supervisor and I would sometimes meet to discuss my progress.

Jess in front of a fancy looking building

Jessica strikes a pose

Apart from being in the office, I attend some seminars and lectures during term time which are closely related to my research. I find the lectures particularly useful since I came from a very different academic background (my master’s thesis was on representation theory of braid groups, which is pretty algebraic).

Lastly, and probably the most fun part of my job, is attending conferences; you get to listen to lots of interesting talks, know more people from your field, and travel a bit around the city where the conference is in!

Smitha Maretvadakethope

The difficulty of trying to capture a day in the life of a postdoc at any institution, whether it’s at the University of Liverpool in the department of mathematical sciences (where I work) or halfway across the world, is that in academia every day is different from the last. So, if you read this and think “that is not a representative sample, Smitha” I challenge you to tweet @chalkdustmag what a typical day looks like for you!

Smitha standing in front of the gate to DAMTP in Cambridge.

Smitha on loan to Cambridge

Picture this:

It is a rainy day and campus is littered with students and teaching staff navigating their hectic time tables. That’s when I arrive on the scene. I arrive in the department and have a friendly chat with the building manager and everyone’s favourite cleaning lady. A warm greeting makes every day brighter.

Once the computer is up and running, the first port of call is the staff common room, a key fixture for everyone’s caffeine and tea addictions. This includes a water cooler for all obligatory water cooler talk.

Hydrated and ready? Time for the real work.

Stage 1: Emails, emails, emails (Part 1).

Stage 2: Chat to office mates.

Stage 3: Actually do some work. Depending on the day this is likely to be meetings, analysis/debugging, reading papers, or academic writing. The most time-consuming.

Has it hit 12pm yet? If yes, it’s time to drop everything and huddle around for lunch. Postdocs from other groups might drop by, PhD students might drop by. Anyone is welcome.
1pm? Back to work.

Stage 4: Emails, emails, emails (Part 2).

Stage 5: Chat to colleagues about emails that are confusing/strange/newsworthy.

Stage 6: Attend/organise seminars/workshops and become a pro at all things Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Stage 7: Repeat stages 2–3.

Is it past 4pm yet? If yes, move onto stage 8. If not, rinse and repeat stages 6–7 until it is.

Stage 8: Emails, emails, emails. (Part 3)

Stage 9: Turn off that computer and call it a day. A good work–life balance is important self care.

And… that’s it! If I’ve missed anything, please note that it’s not within the scope of this article.

Helen Wilson

My name is Helen Wilson. I’m a professor of applied mathematics and currently the head of department for UCL mathematics.

I have school-age children, so my working hours are unusual. I share the school runs with my husband: today I’m doing the morning one, so at 8.30 I’m walking across town from the school to the station. This is good ‘refocus’ time for me, when I move my head out of the family space and into planning my work day.

Helen sitting at her desk, laptop out

Helen fighting fires

I reach the office soon after 10 and deal with the most urgent emails (I get about 100 a day so I have to stay on top of them). I’ll be giving a tutorial at 11, so I print the example sheet and look over it, and check my whiteboard markers still work.

The tutorial is really enjoyable. The students are giving presentations, which they have worked on in their groups, so my role is very much in the background. Some students give an excellent display of how their question can be solved, and I need to do hardly anything. Others have struggled to find a way through, so I give small nudges to encourage them to work it out live at the board.

Back in my office, I log the tutorial attendance and eat lunch (I almost always eat at the desk these days) and plough through more emails. There’s a freedom of information request, which needs prompt action by law, so I get on with that one sharpish!

In the afternoon I work on teaching allocation for the next academic year. This is a hugely complex process, starting with gathering the views of the teaching staff, and ending with checking everyone’s happy with the changes.

Glasses and a pen on top of some paper

Helen wears glasses now

Last thing, I have a Zoom meeting with my most senior PhD student. He’s had his viva and is working on the minor corrections, so he doesn’t need much from me—but it’s nice to check things are progressing well and also hear how he’s getting on with his new job.

I leave the office around 5 and get home at 6.30, only about half an hour after my husband gets in with the children. It’s all about them for the next few hours, but when they go to bed at about 9 we get some adult time. We eat and chat and then typically both do a bit more work. I save easy, unstressful jobs for this time of day—writing student references, approving expense claims, anything that takes time but doesn’t require serious decision-making.

Lettuce know!

What does a day in your life look like? If you spend a lot of time doing mathematics in a non-university setting, tell us what you do at @chalkdustmag or contact@chalkdustmagazine.com, and your story could be featured in a future issue!

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