Career Profiles

Penny Holborn

Penny Holborn, Lecturer in Mathematics

Organisation: University of South Wales

Qualifications: PhD in Operational Research , First Class (Hons) BSc Mathematics, Operational Research and Statistics, Distinction Postgraduate Certificate Developing Professional Practice in HE, Associate of the OR Society, Fellow of the HEA

What subjects did you enjoy at school and why? I very much enjoyed maths, IT and the sciences at school. I always got on well with solving problems, thinking logically and playing with technology. I struggled with more creative subjects and very much preferred numbers to letters! I always had lots of energy too, so PE was always one of my favourites.

What did you study at University? I originally started by studying BSc Maths in my first year of university, although even this wasn’t a course I originally applied for. I think I questioned whether I was good enough to study maths and what it would be like. I think there are still some stigmas around girls in STEM but my course along with many other maths courses across the UK was pretty much 50/50. On starting my degree I quickly realised that I enjoyed the subjects where problems could be related to the real
world and had real life applications. I therefore transferred to a BSc in Maths, OR and Stats with a one year Industrial placement. This was definitely the best decision I ever made and the placement was invaluable, even if it did make me realise that I didn’t want to leave education.

Can you tell me about your job history and how you ended up in your current role? Finishing my degree I really wanted to keep learning and always had a passion for teaching others and felt as though academia may be a career for me. I therefore applied and was lucky enough to obtain funding to study for a PhD in OR looking at scheduling real world dynamic routing problems. Following this I went on to a research assistant post applying a wide range of OR techniques to support projects for a local Health Board. This involved using simulation, optimisation and a number of other techniques to investigate bed numbers, waiting times and allocation of staff and resources. This was a great opportunity to work on a wide range of projects which utilised different OR techniques on a number of different projects. I did however still feel the draw to academia and the enjoyment I got from teaching others. Therefore less than 10 years after starting my first degree I progressed to an academic post as a Lecturer in Operational Research & Statistics. I’ve now been here 3 years.

What skills (both O.R. and non-O.R.) do you use in your job? My job requires me to utilise a whole range of skills. Obviously I teach a wide variety of OR techniques to students. I’m also required to keep my knowledge and skills up to date, so I’m always looking for training courses, workshops and conferences to make sure my teaching is current and relevant. I think this is important for the employability of my students. I’m obviously  required to communicate well, present information and guide students in their problem solving.

What does an ‘average’ day look like? There is no such thing as an average day in academia. During term time I’m lucky if I sit down long enough for cup of a tea during the day. It’s crazy but I love it, the buzz of students is what I enjoy most. There is also more to it than that, I’m involved in a number of other initiatives across the university including my role as Faculty Athena Swan Champion. The Athena Swan charter among other things focuses on encouraging and recognising commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEM employment in higher education and research. I then undertake outreach events and volunteer for the OR Society in a number of different ways. It really is a very
rewarding career path. 

How do you think your background helps you in the day to day aspects of your job? Working in OR both in Academia and Industry has really helped me bring the “real-world” thinking to my teaching. Having worked with people from varied backgrounds and those of different numerate skills has also helped me develop my skills of explaining problems and applications to students. The networks and contacts that I have also gained from my varied roles has really helped me inform my students and promote opportunities.

Were you aware of the range of the different STEM careers available when you were applying for jobs?
When first starting my degree I had no idea what OR was however I undertook an excellent programme of study which really showed me the variety and scope of the opportunities available to me. I spend a large part of my time as a Lecturer informing students of the possible career opportunities for them, I think this is an important part of my role. We have a number of speaker’s visit students, case studies & careers events. 

What advice would you give to a younger you about a career in Operational Research? It really is the perfect area for me, it opens so many doors and there are so many rewarding careers. The fact that you can utilise your skills to have a real impact on people’s lives, the economy and the environment is something you wouldn’t find in many other roles. I love being able to use my maths skills in such an applicable way.

Were there are any resources which you found
particularly limited or particularly useful? I have been a member of our Regional OR Society since I was an undergraduate student, this really opened up a wide #network of contacts and career opportunities to me.

What are some of your hobbies in your spare time? In my spare time I play a number of team sports, in particular Touch Rugby and Netball. I also enjoy hiking.

Fiona Roche

Fiona Roche, Research Analyst

Organisation: NATS

Qualifications: MSc Operational Research (University of Southampton) and BSc Mathematics with Business Management (Aberystwyth University)

About me: I am from Basingstoke and am currently working for NATS as a Research Analyst. I spent three years studying in the beautiful seaside town of Aberystwyth and then went on to complete my masters at the University of Southampton. I am a social person and enjoy going out with my friends and I also play netball with a local team.

What subjects did you enjoy in school and why? I was in year 9 when I discovered that I really enjoyed maths. At the time, it was mostly because my teacher brought fun into the lessons by introducing games and magic tricks. In fact, the teachers I had throughout GCSE and A level really brought the subject to life and whilst in college I learnt how maths is needed for pretty much everything we do today. When I was in school I found that I enjoyed solving problems and this has stayed with me since. I also enjoyed Business Studies as business is a key part of all our lives and learning about various strategies in different types of organisation is something that I found interesting.

What did you study at university? I studied Mathematics with Business Management at Aberystwyth University. This was a “major/minor” degree programme with approximately two thirds of the modules being mathematics. It was the perfect course for me as it allowed me to spend most of my time developing my mathematical skills whilst gaining a greater insight into how business works. In addition, I had more opportunity during the business modules to obtain skills in report and essay writing due to the manner in which the modules were assessed. As I went into the final year of my BSc and thought about what I would want to do next, I decided that I wanted to tailor the type of Mathematics I was learning to incorporate actual business problems and this is where I discovered operational research. In 2016 I started my MSc in Operational Research at the University of Southampton.

Can you tell me about your job history and how you ended up in your current role? Like most students, I held a number of part time and temporary positions from the age of 16, serving fast food and working in various hotels and restaurants. This earned me the extra cash I needed, but also introduced me to the world of work. It made me curious about why particular processes were set up and how this was decided.
During the summer break before I started my MSc, I was fortunate enough to work for a large cruise company based in Southampton. I held a temporary position as a forecast analyst and this gave me a real insight into how mathematics and data are used within a company. I was working with specialist software, and many of my colleagues had mathematics and operational research qualifications and were happy to share their experiences with me. After completing my MSc in Operational Research I started work as a research analyst for NATS in the analytics safety team. Although I have only been with the company a couple of months, I have already learnt that there is extremely high demand for operational research within the business. If you want to find out more about the NATS Analytics department please go to the NATS website.

What skills (both OR and non‐OR) do you use in your job? I am using operational research skills on a day to day basis. I am coding in R and using company specific statistical software (e.g. Excel, ArcGIS and R) to format data and to build models. I provide data analysis and interpret results for others. Good communication is essential as at times I need to explain results to people with limited knowledge of the software and/or analytics. In addition, I am working on a number of projects with different deadlines, so good time management is essential. The great thing about working for NATS is that my job will evolve over time, for example I’ll be able to learn different tools and applications for a wide range of different projects as well as working with a wide range of people with differing skill sets. This will allow me to display and teach my OR skills to others. 

What does an “average” day look like?
My days are pretty varied, due to the number of different projects. Even when I am working alone with the data, I will be talking to colleagues and sharing knowledge about the best way to tackle something. I also have regular checkpoints with my supervisors to ensure everything is “on track”. I like to meet with my internal safety customers as regularly as possible as this helps me build up a good relationship with them and better understand their needs.

How do you think your background helps you in the day to day aspects of your job? The wide range of software skills developed whilst studying for my BSc and MSc has been very beneficial. In particular, the ability to use R and VBA has allowed me to contribute to the department from day one by creating efficiencies in the way things are done. The analytical skills I learnt were essential and something which I use every day, no matter which project I am working on. A key aspect of the MSc in Operational Research at Southampton University was to write a dissertation relating to a real business problem. I spent three months based in a company to do this, where I built up my commercial awareness whilst improving my research and analytical skills. My interactions with the management team there really helped my communication and increased my understanding on how OR techniques can drive business decisions. 

What advice would you give to a younger you about a career in Operational Research? Operational research can open a wide range of doors. My advice to someone looking for a career in operational research would be to talk to companies about what skills and software they are looking for and to learn to apply these in a practical manner. Develop your “soft skills” as well as the technical ones. They are really important!

TL Silhouette

Lauren Petrie, Data Analyst

Organisation: ORH (Operational Research in Health)

Qualifications: BA in Physics, PhD in medical physics

Tell me about your job history: After finishing university I spent 4 years doing my PhD in medical physics with the Radiation Dosimetry group at the National Physical Laboratory; I was researching proton therapy, a treatment for cancer. Towards the end of my PhD I discovered Operational Research, and I now work for ORH (Operational Research in Health Limited).

What’s ORH? ORH is an analytical consultancy company which helps emergency service providers resolve complex strategic and tactical planning problems. For example, ORH’s simulation models replicate the key characteristics of an emergency  service, and can be used to predict future behaviour and performance under a variety of different scenarios. Using a simulation model, the impact of future changes on service performance and resource utilisation can be quickly understood.

And now what’s your current job there? I analyse data and build computer models to help fire and ambulance services decide where to place vehicles and how to crew them, so that they can reach the maximum number of people in the minimum amount of time. I also work on a project for the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Australia, looking to improve healthcare in the Outback, as a result of which I’ve been fortunate to go on business trips to Australia.

What skills (both OR and non-OR) do you use in your job? A lot of statistical data analysis (using Excel and SQL), as well as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication; there’s no point analysing the data if you can’t effectively communicate your findings. I use routing software and geographical information systems (GIS) tools for mapping, and work with a range of simulation and mathematical software packages.

How do you think your Mathematics background helps you in the day to day aspects of your job? It developed my logical reasoning and numerical skills, which enables me to quickly understand and solve any complications that arise.

What did you want to do as a career when you were younger? I was certain I was going to be a farmer. Or if that didn’t work out, a teacher. I didn’t know that a job like mine even existed, let alone how interesting it would be.

What was your motivation in studying Mathematics at university level? I studied Physics, which involved lots of Maths, but gave me the opportunity to find out more about how the world worked. This practical aspect is partly what attracted me to OR; being able to use Maths to improve people’s lives is very rewarding.

Were there are any resources which you found particularly limited or particularly useful? I attended many careers events while I was doing my PhD,  which was useful in seeing the vast range of jobs available. I saw the advert for my current job on the OR Society website, so I’d recommend that too!

What are some of your hobbies in your spare time? I enjoy baking and playing badminton (but not simultaneously…)

BL Silhouette

Vicki Chase, Senior Research Analyst and Forecasting Lead

Organisation: NATS

Qualifications: BSc Maths, Operational Research and Statistics (Cardiff University)

What did you want to do as a career when you were younger? I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was younger as I really enjoyed nature and grew up at the beach and in the sea, but with both my parents working in finance and doing well in maths in school I decided quite young that I would do a degree in maths and most likely work in finance.

What did you enjoy about mathematics at school? The best thing I found about maths in school is that you learn methods and then applying that method gives you the right answer, unlike some other subjects where there is lots of room for interpretation with maths it’s either right or wrong. I also remember some pretty great maths teachers I’ve had over the years who made learning maths interesting and fun.

What was your motivation in studying mathematics at university level?
I decided to study maths as it was a subject I was good at through school. For me the hardest decision I made with university was which maths course to choose, I didn’t realise until I started looking at universities just how many there were. In the end I chose maths, operational research and statistics as I felt the mix of maths disciplines gave me more options when I graduated.

Can you tell me about your job history? As part of my degree I did a placement year in industry, and I unsuccessfully applied to a number of finance and actuarial firms in London but I also applied for NATS. When I was offered the placement at NATS I thought I would give it a go for a year and then continue with my aim to work in finance once I graduated (that’s what maths graduates do after all, isn’t it?), however I found the work I did at NATS so interesting that I applied for a graduate job there and went straight back! I have now been at NATS over 10 years and have worked in many areas of the Analytics department, from calculating the risk of accidents to now forecasting air traffic and revenue. 

What skills do you use in your job?
Most of the work I have done at NATS has been quite technical mainly using statistical modelling, both understanding and running existing models, and building new models from empirical data. In recent years my role has changed to include more project definition and scoping/experimental design, but I still rely heavily on the skills I learnt in mathematical modelling.

How do you think your mathematics background helps you in the day to day aspects of your job?
I wouldn’t be able to do my job without my background in mathematics. For most of my career to date I have been a technical expert and this has meant presenting to senior managers and internationally, in order to do this and stand up to the scrutiny I have to make sure I really know my stuff. The only way to do this is to study it and learn just like you do when you are at university.

Were you aware of the range of mathematics careers available when you were applying for jobs?
To begin with I thought that my options were finance or teaching, but soon after starting university I realised just how many career options were open to me as a maths graduate, the possibilities are endless!

Which resources did you use when you were job hunting?
I attended the careers fairs that took place at University along and also went to the OR Society careers day, which was really interesting as not only are there stands from employers but also presentations from recent graduates.

Were there are any resources which you found particularly limited or particularly useful? Careers fairs are really good to attend, typically employees send recent graduates to these so you can ask them lots of questions about what it’s like working there and really get a good idea of what a company is like.

Did you find that there was a lot of competition at application / interview level? Yes there was quite a bit of competition, but I found that doing my research and preparation for the applications and interviews helped a lot, and the experience I gained doing my placement year was invaluable. 

What are some of your hobbies in your spare time?
I enjoy keeping fit and active thought spinning, running, swimming, kettlebells and playing badminton, all of which are great ways to relax after work and mean I can indulge in one of my other hobbies going for nice afternoon teas with friends. I also enjoy travelling and have managed to tag on additional holidays to some of the work trips I have made.