Navigating life after graduation – a 2020 graduate’s perspective

Thanks to Colette Sheard, 2020 Mathematics graduate and ASID (Adapt, Support, Implement and Deliver) intern, for sharing her journey from graduation during Covid-19. Colette highlights how it’s ok if you are unsure about your next steps; by taking a chance and applying for a role, it can open doors to further opportunities.

Like many other 2020 graduates, my university experience was abruptly halted following the outbreak of Covid-19. After studying hard for the last four years, I was ready to face the world of work. I couldn’t wait to find a career that challenged me, and utilised the many skills I had developed at university. Instead, the world seemingly came to a stand-still, I moved back in with my parents and found myself frequently worrying about an uncertain future.

A career in academia had always interested me, but I was unsure about the direction I wanted to go in; mathematical research or mathematical education. A friend, who was also a University of Edinburgh mathematics graduate, advised me that various professors within the school advertise six-week paid summer research projects. I already had some experience teaching mathematics from a course I took during my degree, so I thought that experiencing the research side of things would be worthwhile. I was hoping this would give me some clarity about the career route I wanted to focus on.

My research internship

I logged into MyCareerHub (for the first time!), and was pleasantly surprised at what I found. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of looking here before! I decided to apply for the position of Research Assistant in Dr. George Kinnear’s Classroom Practices statistical project. I knew that these internships could be very competitive, so I spent a considerable amount of time preparing my application. I think I was offered the role because, based on my previous experience, it was evident that I was genuinely interested in this field. I have always been fascinated by statistics, and so I elected many statistics-based courses throughout my time studying mathematics. I had also taken part in three voluntary teaching placements: teaching an extra-curricular dance class at my local primary school in West Yorkshire, teaching English to children in rural India, and teaching mathematics to primary school children as part of my degree in Edinburgh.

What did the internship involve?

I began working as a research assistant in June 2020, and my principal role was developing the FILL+ programme. FILL+ is a research tool, collaboratively established by the Mathematics, Physics, and Veterinary departments at The University of Edinburgh, that is used to characterise the interactive engagement occurring in lecture theatre classes. In previous years, internships of this kind would take place on the Kings Campus in Edinburgh. However, this year would be different: all work would be done in an exclusively virtual environment, which was a completely new concept for me.

The work could be broken down into three main sections, data collection, data analysis and contribution to the research paper:

  • Collecting the data was time consuming and could be tedious; it involved watching recorded lectures and classifying instructor behaviours on a second-by-second basis. However, once we had collected enough data to begin the statistical analyses, I soon found myself gripped.
  • The software we used for analysis was R Studio, which I had a lot of experience using during University. That said, I developed my skills massively. Programming can be frustrating and difficult, but it was really rewarding to know my contributions were going towards a real-life scientific study.
  • Being listed as co-author of a research paper, alongside extremely accomplished academics, is one of my greatest achievements to date.

The Classroom Practices project stimulated my interest in mathematical education, so when I received an email from the Head of School, Iain Gordon, advertising an internship to facilitate the transition into hybrid teaching, I applied immediately for the ASID project.

The ASID project – what did it involve?

I was tasked with contributing to a student-centred outlook on the development of hybrid teaching and learning. I think that my consistent academic performance throughout university, along with my experience of working in an exclusively virtual environment through my research internship with George, were advantageous factors in securing this position.

I was one of 48 interns that were hired to assist in the ASID project. It was originally a six-week fixed term running from July to August, but, owing to the success of the project, myself and four others were offered the option to extend this period to December.

The nature of the work varied hugely, and we were actively encouraged to engage with an assortment of tasks, even ones that were unfamiliar or brand new. For example, I had no experience using STACK prior to this project. STACK is a world-leading online assessment system for mathematical sciences, and creating a STACK question requires fluency using HTML, Maxima, and TeX coding languages. After taking part in one of the online training sessions, led by Christopher Sangwin, the creator of STACK, and one of my former professors, I am now able to fluently code questions using this technology. I was also able to experiment using video editing software, which is another thing I had very little prior experience of. By the end of the project, I had created and edited a video that documented some of the main tasks the team had undertaken. I really appreciated the creative freedom I was given with this task, and I felt proud when it was published on the university’s social media pages.

Reflecting on what I’ve gained…

I feel extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in both projects, especially during such an uncertain time; they have been invaluable in a multitude of ways. I have developed many practical, software-specific skills through frequent use of mathematical programmes like R Studio, R Markdown, Python, LaTeX, Maxima CAS, and STACK, all of which are likely to be relevant in my future career development. I have also gained a significant amount of professional experience, and expanded my network by collaborating with experienced academics.

Although, I am still unsure which career path I will choose, I am certain that the skills I have gained during these two internships will contribute to my future advancement.

Thanks Colette.

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