Italian Trulli Philippe Barbe

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credit: Honeycomb and propagation of flatness, courtesy Dr. W.S. Li

Should you hire a professional Mathematician?
Part 5: Who do you hire?

by Philippe Barbe
26 May 2021

If you are going to hire a professional mathematician for all the non-technical skills that were described in parts 2 and 3 of this series, for the reason explained in part 4, how will you go about it?

Most professional mathematicians who are not working for a company do not look at job postings. Even those who would welcome new opportunities do not do what folks in business would do. They seldom participate in professional social media, they do not subscribe to job listing services, they do not call recruiters. Yes, they would appreciate if something comes, but they are not really looking for it.

This means that you, a business, need to be proactive.

Where are you going to look for that professional mathematician? How are you going to find that person? Who is that person?


Since you need to be proactive, you will need to find a mathematician who has the desire to try something else, and is in the position to try. That requires to be acquainted with potential candidates.

The professional mathematicians working in companies can often be found by usual means, LinkedIn, recruiters, professional conferences…

Those working in more academic setting are just as easy to reach: look at the participants of mathematical conferences organized by the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS), or the American Statistical Association (ASA). These are the main professional organizations.

You may also reach out directly to universities, in particular the nearest to your office.

National labs are slightly more opaque, depending on their activity. And while the NSA employs mathematicians, who knows how many…


As a business, you can reach out to specific departments in universities. Write to the chair, pay a visit, go to listen to some talks, say what you want, cultivate relationship, show you are genuine. It is actually surprising how much universities crave for business connections. But it takes a precious resource that almost no one wants to spend: time.

Connections between businesses and academic departments are investments on both sides. Connections open recruiting pipelines, possibilities of benefiting from the latest research development, possibility to contribute to that research, possibility to demonstrate that your company is at the forefront of the knowledge, which is good for both parties. It will make your business more attractive to young graduates. It also opens venues for collaborations, bring new ideas and perspectives.

Many universities offer sabbatical leaves. But very few mathematicians go to work for a business during their sabbaticals. It is not in the culture. There is no good channel. How to get the information? How to get the connection? Business have to initiate the process by making faculty aware that they are seeking some form of collaboration.

If you find someone who may be interested in spending some time in your company during a sabbatical, this is a great option. The commitment is limited on both sides. Financially, a faculty in sabbatical is often paid half of a salary by the university, which means that you can give this person an attractive income without breaking the bank.

By nature, a sabbatical is temporary. If you find someone interested in your company, be flexible. If your company has the culture to empower people, then empower that person.

Hiring is always a risk. What do we know on a person after an hour or two of meeting? The first half hour is usually repeating what is in the candidate’s résumé, the second half is a somewhat deeper conversation about the position… And even if everyone in the team meets the candidate, a lot of the discussions are redundant. Add the limitation of not sharing intellectual property, confidential information… Coming from academia where hiring is based on publications that can be studied and where soft skills are not part of the discussion, hiring in business is a strange affair. And coming from business, hiring in academia is just as strange!

But it is extraordinarily unlikely that you will hire a professional mathematician like any other employee, regardless the level of the position. This is because as explained in Part 4, you will likely need to be far more proactive, and search the rare individual who might be interested in making a transition to business. Thus, the hiring process needs to be much more personal, and you will have many more conversations with this prospective employee than you would otherwise.


Mathematicians come in different flavors, corresponding to their field of expertise. If you know you need an specialist of differential equations, then you hire a mathematician for his or her technical skill. This is not the subject of this series of article. To the contrary I am discussing hiring mathematicians for their nontechnical skills.

Corporate, real estate planning, medical malpractice, personal injury attorneys are all lawyers. As such, their ways of thinking share some similarities. Yet, they think differently due to the nature of their interest and the different type of customers they deal with.

Mathematicians are like lawyers: algebraists, geometers, analysts, probabilists, statisticians, applied mathematicians (meaning, specialist of differential equations at large), logicians… they are all mathematicians and yet cannot necessarily understand what they are all doing. Mathematics became so large that it is impossible to understand it all!

If you are hiring a mathematician for his or her non-technical skills, then perhaps you should gauge the breadth of that person. Presumably, those who know a lot exhibit more curiosity and may have better chance to be interested in something different. They may also be able to adapt more easily to a different way of thinking and working.

Very few mathematicians achieve both breadth and depth.

The economic of the profession tends to favor depth over breadth: someone highly specialized can publish more papers, get more recognition from his or her peers, resulting in better quantitative evaluations. Consequently there are, loosely, two sorts of depth: that by lack of other interest, and that by realism at managing a career. The latter may hide a breadth of knowledge and of interest.

You should also have an idea on the research of that person, not from a technical standpoint, but from a qualitative one. Not all mathematical journals are equal. Some are better than others, more recognized. Where people publish reflects their ingenuity, their knowledge, their ability, and at time, their ego.


Hiring professional mathematicians is a journey, humbling for both sides. Travel in a country where you do not speak the language and English is seldom spoken is humbling in the same way. There is the first impression, the incomprehension on some basic facts, the reliance on whatever we can find that looks familiar, the desire to make sense of a new place, the desire to discover as well as the fear of the unknown.

The shock of cultures is enriching. It allows you to reflect on your own, see it differently, appreciate better what is good about it and what could be improved.

Is it worth it?

As a former professional mathematician, as a business person who hired professional mathematicians, my answer is a resounding YES!