Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


One could argue that I went into it with a negative attitude

File under: Know Thyself, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:57 pm.

Because I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life teaching precalculus to students who can’t compute 5*0 without a calculator, and because the local colleges don’t seem intent on letting me do that anyway, and because a temporary lapse of self-awareness made me completely forget the “independent to a fault, don’t need nothin’ from nobody” aspect of my character, I decided to pay a visit to a career counsellor.

Summary: big, fat waste of time. Upon reflection, I think the biggest problem is that I’d assumed, incorrectly, that an employment counsellor was an expert on jobs. It turns out that an employment counsellor’s expertise is actually a step removed from, and hence a step less useful than, that: mine clearly specialized in the “job-seeking process”. Which meant that when I came in with a list of my skills, interests, and possible employers that I’d like to research (this last one is non-trivial, as there are confidentiality issues involved with the employers I’m interested in; I’m not going to go into details), he couldn’t help me with that. He could, however, refer me to a “career exploration program”, where I’d be able to “explore my strengths and weaknesses”, “discover my interests” and other somesuch; this would be explained in greater detail in the pamphlet he gave me. Leafing through it, I noticed that the first day of the three-week program would be devoted to discovering my Myers-Briggs personality type.

INTJ,” I told him. “And I know what my interests and strengths and weaknesses are. I’m a highly analytical, independent worker with no patience for small talk and routine. I have some types of careers in mind; I need more specialized direction than this.”

From the look on his face, I gathered that no one had ever made such a request before.

That wasn’t the only problem. The meeting, actually, started going poorly even before I shook hands with the man: I arrived on time, and spent the next thirty-five minutes in the waiting room while the counsellor was “almost done, really, we’re sorry about this.” At the stroke of n-thirty, he finally emerged from his office and presented himself to the (newly-hired) secretary, and proceeded to admonish her gently for booking half hour appointments instead of full-hour appointments. He needed a full hour, he explained, for new clients. Somehow this didn’t translate into my own consultation lasting for more than twenty-three minutes, or involving the counsellor doing things like actually reading the resume I’d been instructed to print out, but I was ready to leave after twenty-three minutes (see above) anyway, so I wasn’t about to object.

Once in the room, he took a minute, literally, to scan the form I’d filled out in the waiting room. Like all government forms I’ve ever filled out, this one contained an optional section in which one can identify oneself as belonging to one or more of various groups; like all government forms I’d ever filled out, I opted to leave this part blank. Noticing that I am severe-featured and dark-skinned, the employment counsellor quickly proceeded to engage me in a variant of Twenty Questions that I swear to God I play every other month:

“So, where are you from?”
“You were…born there?”
“Where were your parents born?”
“I see…”

Just his luck, I’m third-generation, so he reluctantly abandoned that line. But seriously, I understand why there’s an ethnicity field on these sorts of forms, but I understand even more so why filling out such a section is optional, and I resent it when people who really should know better try to coax such information out of me. Am I the first person who has ever chosen not to fill in a few optional fields on a government form? Shee.

(Aside: every now and again someone asks me, point-blank, “What is your ethnicity?” I’ve had bad luck answering honestly, as my experience has been that more people fancy themselves experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than is warranted, and a lot of them are just dying to give their input on the matter. Finding out that the bloodline of their interlocutor intersects with that of some folks who live in that region, by the way, apparently constitutes a capital opportunity to do so. So when the Swedish hosts of a B&B on Denman Island posed the question, I responded in my preferred way: by selecting, at random, a country that lies roughly on the line joining Warsaw to Bombay, and claiming ancestry. “I’m half Turkish,” I lied, and the Swedish wife turned to the husband and said something rushed and excited that had the cadence of I told you, didn’t I tell you? and the husband turned to me and smiled weakly, as though to say, No she didn’t, but what can I do?)

Back to the meeting: the best I could say about it is that unlike almost all of the academic types who have counselled me on employment, Employment Counsellor was not of the mind that I’d never get anywhere without a Ph.D. Alas, he opted for the other extreme, and wrote off my education altogether: “Oh, I see you can use a computer,” he remarked approvingly, as he glanced at my resume, skipping over things like the title of my thesis (understandable), my Dean’s List placement at my alma mater (less so), and a description of the ceramic dinner set I’d been commissioned to make (ok, fine). And, yes, I can use a computer to a degree that puts me in direct competition with only three quarters of the youth in my province, rather than all of them, but, my lord.

Like many members of my demographic - gifted kids of professionals, who were directed to seek scholarship, rather than employment, in their studies, and who were never given much guidance with regards to the latter - I am finding myself suspended between two distinct groups that are, for opposite reasons, ill-suited to help me. On the one hand are the intellectuals who can’t fathom a universe outside the academy, and hence cannot help me find my way in that world; on the other, the folks who never studied a subject as abstract and as technical as mathematics beyond the high school level, and consequently can’t provide the specialized direction I need to apply my own abstract and technical interests and skills outside the academy. Frustrating, because I know that there are math folks employed in statistics and in finance and in the military and elsewhere, and they didn’t hatch ready-made inside their cubicles.


  1. Most of the math grads I know (who aren’t in Academia) work in insurance (generally actuarial science grads), finance (mainly stats) or for the big utilities like Bell/Telus/Transmission Grids/Gas Campanies etc. Generally, a company has to be pretty big before the economies of scale justify hiring mathematicans which has the unfortunate (depending on your perspective) effect of generally making the concentration of math-requiring-jobs proportional to the size of the city (that is, I suspect few people are employed as mathematicians on the gulf islands).

    The government hires some as well, mostly finance type stuff from what I’ve seen.

    It always helps to find an ‘in’ via a co-op position or by knowing someone or by finding the perfect posting online but in the absence of all these, I’d say the types of companies I mentioned above are the best targets. As far as qualifications go, a masters in a related field is probably optimal for most jobs, but it’s not generally required in my experience (although government tends to get hung up on degrees sometimes). For financial stuff, a CFA or MBA might help (or might not).

    One frustrating thing is that people tend to want to hire someone who knows the industry and can talk in their industry code even though that usually isn’t all that relevant for a math based job.

    Pharmaceuticals also hire lots of statisticians but they’re mainly based in the U.S. (they usually want a masters in stats, or at least they used to). And I’m guessing that with oil at the prices it’s at, oil companies are probably in hiring mode all over the globe. Imperial is in the process of moving it’s head office to Calgary so they probably lost lots of skilled people who chose to stay in Toronto. Ports and airports are another (outside) possibility - they’ve got money anyway and they deal with a lot of combinatorics type problems (even if they don’t always realize it).

    Presumably you already knew all this, but it’s all I got. If you have a more specific question I might be able to help more (but probably not :)

    - Declan — 7/23/2005 @ 6:49 pm

  2. The most amusing part of this story: this is probably the *best* career counselling story I know, in the sense of “most helpful”. Yes, seriously. The second most amusing part is that I realised I could probably figure out the Myers-Brigg of most bloggers I know.

    I know some people who have the kinds of careers that are big secrets; usually the next major qualification is knowing the right language(s).

    - wolfangel — 7/23/2005 @ 7:08 pm

  3. I haven’t spent enough time on this to know how useful the following sites and I suspect you probably already know most of it, but I am mentioning them anyway, just in case:


    Also, by far the most helpful career counseling I’ve received in my life has been from people I knew (or [knew someone]^N who knew them) who had a job similar to what I wanted. I highly recommend that approach (which you are taking to some extent by virtue of having posted this).

    - Ben Artin — 7/23/2005 @ 7:43 pm

  4. I had considered seeing a similar person but had not due to my assumption that it would be a waste of time.

    There is, of course, what I shall euphemistically call government work. I was never able to fall into the routine of it, but that’s just me.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 7/24/2005 @ 2:40 am

  5. [ Postscript: I went and followed the link for the INTJ description. For me the best part was learning that Donald Rumsfeld is an INTJ because everytime I hear him talk to the press and use that “What are you, children? Do you really not understand what I just said?” tone of voice, I feel great empathy for the man — as I assume that I sometimes come off equally incredulous when fielding questions in the course of my job. (My Meyers-Briggs results are inconsistent, oscillating between INTJ and INTP.)]

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 7/24/2005 @ 2:53 am

  6. RH: Your results are inconsistent? Heck, I can get any result from it except the ones with “F” in them. (So far)… and not lying, either. It just depends on my mood.

    So, all I can say is that I am T, considering it’s a toss-up on the other three dimensions. Do they allow single-letter personalities?

    - meep — 7/24/2005 @ 5:13 am

  7. Back to nonacademic jobs:

    Too bad that your grad school field is not exactly marketable in the non-academic arena… the only non-academic employer who likes that kind of background (that I know of) is the NSA, and they hire only American citizens (Top Secret stuff and all.)

    - meep — 7/24/2005 @ 5:18 am

  8. Canada has its own version of NSA. (As I would suspect most countries do.)

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 7/24/2005 @ 5:29 am

  9. Declan, I did know some of that, but your comment was more helpful than anything that the employment counsellor said in his twenty-three minutes of counselling. Fortunately, I am in an urban centre and plan to stay here for the time being; alas, my visits to the Gulf Islands did make me wish that I were employed in a trade.

    Ben - thanks, I will have a look at those links, though I should mention that I really, really want to stay in town, and I have no intention of moving to the US. Which really restricts my options, unfortunately.

    Wolfangel (I’m guessing you’re INFP, and my second guess is INTP - am I right?) and RH - my experience is that math geeks almost always tend to be INTJ’s or INTP’s. The INTJ’s are the arrogant bastards, and the INTP’s are the ones who sit around all day and say, “I dunno, what do you want to do?” Most of my friends during undergrad were INTP’s. They always left me to choose where we would go for lunch. I’m a pretty easy one to guess - I’m strong on all four parts - and if you are curious about what I look like, the description here (first two paragraphs) has me nailed, which I find pretty creepy. Re Rumsfeld - oh, I laugh. I know I come across that way in my job, despite every effort not to. (And, in all fairness, the career counsellor said one useful thing: that I should rework my resume. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked, not out of defensiveness, but out of curiosity. He said something about layout, and told me that I could get more specific feedback during the three-week career exploration program.

    Meep - hey, you’re not employed in your grad school field. And I have a broader mathematical background than most people with my degree - I’ve taken graduate level classes on number theory and probability, neither of which were at all useful for my program…

    - Moebius Stripper — 7/24/2005 @ 11:28 am

  10. I always test as strong-INT weak-P, but if you look at the actual descriptions of how they act, I come across more as weak-I strong-NTP. Not sure how that works.

    On the subject of jobs, have you thought about looking into R&D-type work? Not that I have any idea how you’d actually go about getting into it (I just managed to be in the right place at the right time).

    - dave — 7/24/2005 @ 12:39 pm

  11. I once confused a social worker by telling her part of my problems was that I didn’t give myself enough negative feedback. What did she think feedback was anyway?

    - Eric Jablow — 7/24/2005 @ 5:31 pm

  12. I am INTP, but I am weak on T and I (yes really); INTP fits me better than anything else, though. I am half my mother (IFTJ) and half my father (ENSP), though they’re both weak on the opposite two that I am weak from. It’s like Mendelian, except not.

    - wolfangel — 7/24/2005 @ 7:04 pm

  13. Ah, but my grad school field did involve doing lots of probabilistic modeling (involving neurons)… and I’m doing lots of probabilistic modeling (involving finance… and death). I’m not that far off. Alot of the programming I did in my research is directly transferable to my current job.

    - meep — 7/25/2005 @ 3:05 am

  14. Military math, apart from the crypto stuff that NSA (and the Canadian equivalent) do, is basically modelling. Most exercises don’t involve actually shooting at an opposing force, so the battle that would have occurred is modelled, a result spit out and everyone carries on from there. Models need to be built, maintained, improved. Don’t know who in the Canadian Defense Forces does that. Probably someplace near Ottawa. There is a Canadian Defense R&D outfit that has civilian researchers working for it. There are pieces of it scattered across the provinces (I worked with one in Quebec once, but don’t remember exactly where in Quebec; I don’t recall any in BC, but that may be because I never looked at the left hand side of the overview slide :)), but the main shop is either in Ottawa or Kingston (Tunney’s Pasture is the name that comes to mind, but I’ve tried to forget all this stuff and I may be confusing it with something else).

    - jim — 7/25/2005 @ 8:15 am

  15. Funny thing is, I think I remember my answers being differently at a time.

    I’m a ENFP, I’m not sure what that means about me, but I’m about to read tons on it. I’d say those are pretty non-telling letters though. The Feeling/thinking numbers are pretty almost even (55/45) but everything else has a larger gap.

    Something will come up for you MS, I know it will. You could always try out business-type stuff for a while. Do some consulting or something. They pay well and love math people, or at least that’s been my experience.

    Or you could beef up your Stats and do stats work for a while… just a thought.

    You could help people with personal finances for a while. It never gets boring and you still get to instruct in a way. It might open up a new door for you too. AND, no relocating.

    - Vanes63 — 7/25/2005 @ 3:28 pm

  16. Meep - but that’s not why they hired you now, is it? And the other actuarial students don’t have half your background, IIRC.

    Jim - thanks! - I’m going to email you later, if you don’t mind, because I have some questions that you might be able to answer, if you’re willing. I know there’s one (or something Defense-related) near where I used to live, but I wouldn’t have known as much if I hadn’t seen it on a map; it’s pretty well-hidden. Which I guess is how these sorts of things should be…

    Vanes63 (and others) - I’m actually not that worried. I mean, I’ve been out of work for all of three months, and truth be told, I haven’t even been looking that hard. (Once it starts raining all the damned time again, I’ll get more serious. For the time being, there are bikes to be ridden.) I’d much rather do stats than business, though; finances bore me to tears. Right now I just don’t want to go back to school right now unless it’s for an explicit job-related purpose - I’m willing to do some stats, or other stuff not quite in my field (Aside to Jay, thank you for your detailed email - reply forthcoming), but only if I know it’s going to lead somewhere. Somewhere with a salary, that is.

    - Moebius Stripper — 7/25/2005 @ 8:48 pm

  17. MS, have you tried going through issues of SIAM News (newsletter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) to get some idea of industrial math activities and companies? (As an added bonus, SIAM News is the most interesting academic society organ I know.)

    If not for the cost, I’d even suggest schmoozing at the SIAM Conference on Mathematics for Industry in Detroit, October 24-26.

    - Jonathan — 7/26/2005 @ 2:37 am

  18. That’s an understatement (about my math background vs other actuarial students…)

    And they’ve gotten to use my math expertise quite a bit (well, not measure theory), which makes all involved happy. Also, if anybody comes across math they don’t understand, they ask me about it. I still get to teach! But in smaller spurts, I don’t have to grade, and the people I’m teaching really want to know what I’m talking about.

    I’ve always wanted to moonlight as a consultant to a casino, I must say. Or do sports stats for somebody. Death and taxes are interesting, but it would be nice to figure the odds on something else every so often.

    - meep — 7/26/2005 @ 4:15 am

  19. Maybe you shuld take up acting.
    see: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/19/science/19math.html?

    - Jayrtfm — 7/26/2005 @ 7:05 am

  20. Meep’s comments about the casino reminds me of an idea tossed around by some former coworkers of mine when I worked in Maryland. Many of the bars in the area have Keno. The numbers obviously come from some sort of pseudo-random number generator; someone who could figure out the pattern would be able to win a lot of money. I don’t think that they actually DID anything about it (as their wives would have been annoyed if they spent that much time in bars and our employer would have been annoyed at, well, everything about the plan).

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 7/26/2005 @ 6:15 pm

  21. Jonathan - no, haven’t looked. Are they US-only, or is there anything based in Canada there?

    RH - actually, a couple of mathematicians in Hull, Quebec did exactly that with the slot machines about a decade or so ago. They played, studied the pattern, and finally won something like $10000. Then they went back, played again, and within a few days, won another $10000 or so. They made the front page for that, and were promptly banned from the casino. To which they said, meh, whatever, we had fun and won $20000. (Oh, and if you and Meep are wondering why your comments were moderated - it’s because I think yours are the first non-spam comment I’ve gotten that contained the word “casino”; just about everything gambling-related gets flagged. Aside: if anyone wants to segue into a discussion of strip blackjack, their comment will go straight into the trash.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 7/26/2005 @ 8:25 pm

  22. My uncle and a friend (both ex-engineers) did the same with online betting — on, I think, horse races — they won lots of money writing a program that looked at all the earlier bets (with the theory that the group will get things right, later info is better: I forget the details) until it became too easy to make last-minute bets and they were running short of information.

    - wolfangel — 7/27/2005 @ 8:51 am

  23. A few other fields that have math-intensive areas:

    Telecoms: Information packing and spread-spectrum information transport are very math intensive.

    Game design (not the kind that meep et al. were talking about): Most well-designed games have deep roots in mathematics. As an example, Wizards of the Coast’s hit game, Magic: the Gathering, was designed by a mathematician whose specialty is combinatorials. Fascinating if you like the field, but this is probably not the place to look if you are interested in serious money. (Translation: You’d better like ramen unless you get really lucky.)

    E-Commerce: Reputation, referral, and suggestion seem like ripe areas for really talented mathematicians. It looks like they know this too, if the Amazon is any example.

    Web-search: Google seems to actually want really smart people with math backgrounds, I suspect the same is true of their competitors. FWIW, here’s their idiosyncratic job app. page: http://www.google.com/jobs/great-people-needed.html


    - Doug Sundseth — 7/27/2005 @ 12:54 pm

  24. lengthy reply posted here: http://www.livejournal.com/users/pixie_of_spite/131964.html

    - rosona — 7/28/2005 @ 8:57 am

  25. I’m Whatever the Type Is That Forgets a Lot

    Was reminded of the Myers-Briggs tests by this, so I took a version for, what, the 46th time in my life? The 47th? I forget. Anyway, I’m only writing down what type it said because that way, the next time…

    - Ilyka Damen — 7/29/2005 @ 1:30 am

  26. I guess I’m the only one in this crowd who feels that the MBPI is pretty much like astrology or palm-reading. Yes, it’s good that they actually ask you questions. But I am skeptical that you can deduce much of use from the answers, much less from a four-bit redaction of those answers. I’m an ACW.

    - ACW — 7/29/2005 @ 11:24 am

  27. I think the MB is of limited use — it doesn’t tell me much I don’t already know — but it’s quite unlike astrology, because most of the descriptions don’t really fit me at all, while some do quite well.

    - wolfangel — 7/29/2005 @ 7:19 pm

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