In our previous article, we talked about what a single day as an industrial mathematician might involve. However, a key factor in how your day varies is your level of experience in the field and with your employer.
Typically, days as an industrial mathematician vary as you progress in your career. As you start your career in industry, you will be assigned project(s) by your manager, and your role may be to develop solution methodologies to problem descriptions already provided to you. On a typical day, your focus primarily will be on advancing the technical solution development and execution, and you will be attending technical review meetings, both with your organizational team and with customer business teams. Some organizations choose not to expose early-stage practitioners to the end-customer, but this approach will vary from organization to organization. This standard practice helps young practitioners smoothly transition into the business environment without needing to address day-to-day operational challenges of managing projects.
As you gain experience, you will be provided with additional responsibilities, starting with direct interaction with your stakeholders from the business teams. Your interaction with the business customer will become more frequent and include presenting your technical solutions directly to your customer. Increasingly, you will shape the direction of your project through discussions with the end users. You will have to start navigating the complexities involved in defining business problems of impact and to develop skills in converting these into a technical problem that can have a mathematical solution. You will be involved in the technical solution development and commonly receive support from your junior colleagues in the execution phase. You will also start managing technical work for your junior colleagues (e.g., providing suggestions on which algorithm to use to solve a problem).
As you continue to grow in the organization, the expectation will be for you to advance a technology area for the research organization by conceiving and developing projects in that space. This will require extensive interaction with business customers, potentially at the executive level, as you will need to educate the business leadership about the potential impact of the solution and convince them to invest time and resources from their organization toward the project. Within the research organization, you will mentor and guide the junior researchers and may be less involved in the day-to-day execution of the ongoing projects.
At the most basic level, each of us is faced with two options: academia or industry. However, just as there are different types of academic institutions, there are different types of industry opportunities and some of them overlap with academia. Industrial mathematicians, or practitioners, work in research, consulting (internal and external), training, tool development, or implementation.
What really makes practitioners unique from academicians is that the practitioners need to be business mission-focused. That is, their work is done toward achieving business objectives such as reducing costs and process time and improving safety and quality within their organization. Also, results need to be measurable in terms of their impact to the organization. Of course, what mission-oriented looks like is different depending on the industry, the organization, business unit within the organization, and the individual’s role.
Even though the focus is mission-driven, in some organizations and industries, practitioners may be involved in what would be considered basic research either to move the problem solving forward or because the objectives or problem constraints are not addressed in academic literature. In those cases, the work is typically aligned toward a practical implementation of a solution rather than a purely theoretical result since the latter does not improve the organization’s bottom line.
Overall, industry practitioners must find a balance between short-term and long-term work. On the one hand, there is the excitement of working with customers to create a capability that they really need and are going to use. On the other hand, it is important to think about what the organization will need 5-10 years in the future. The short term feeds the long term in that it helps to keep the practitioner in touch with the organization and the long-term research grounded in organizational problems.
The focus in this article has been on technical problem solving and leadership in industrial positions. However, we want to mention that management is also an option for practitioners with experience.
Managers often exchange the day-to-day technical work with responsibility for organization strategy and design, employee recruitment, providing motivation, evaluations and professional development, and obtaining and managing the financial and other resources needed for the team to meet its objectives. That being said, management roles at some companies do allow for a portion of the time to be devoted to technical problem solving, while others do not.
Most people will say that the answer to the question of becoming a manager depends on whether you believe you can have more impact as a manager enabling technical work or in a hands-on technical role. It is very important to consider how you prefer to spend your time because you will have to live it every day.
The job of an industrial mathematician varies by day, person, project, company and industry, and it evolves along with your personal development goals and aspirations and supports an exciting career where you can be curious and creative while providing value to your organization.