Subject: Maths

"I've always enjoyed solving problems, which led me to study mathematics. I stumbled onto a project related to terrorism by chance, during my MSc and it seemed the perfect combination between working on something unusual, solving problems, and most of all, doing something that would be useful for society."

Sumitra, PhD Student, Management Science (London School of Economics)

What's your PhD all about?

I am doing a PhD in Operational Research (O.R.), also referred to as Operations Research, Management Science or Decision Science. It is a very broad field and has applications in a wide range of industries, from the military (where it originated from), to managing health systems, and business strategies in the transport industry and many more! My PhD is about trying to infer how malicious agents (such as terrorists or gangs) may make decisions depending on their state of mind and the state of the environment, i.e. what is happening. The aim is to try and use such analysis to support risk management and policy making.

What was it about that area that sparked your interest?

In short, applying maths to concrete problems, where I can make a difference in society. I’ve always enjoyed solving problems, which led me to study mathematics. However, after a couple of years, I felt the need to solve much more practical problems. I stumbled onto a project related to terrorism by chance, during my MSc (which then led on to my PhD), and it seemed the perfect combination between working on something unusual, solving problems, and most of all, doing something that would be useful for society.

What sort of maths is involved?

The sort of mathematics involved in Operational Research (O.R.) can vary greatly. It depends on the type of technique you are using. Hard O.R. uses very advanced mathematical techniques. For example, mathematical optimisation, or mathematical programming involves maximising/minimising functions subject to certain constraints. Algorithms are used to solve such problems. This can be useful in farming, scheduling in transport and production lines, or telecommunications for example. Game Theory (GT) is another type of method used - you may have heard of it in the movie 'A Beautiful Mind'.

On the other end of the spectrum, Soft O.R. relies on less heavy mathematical modelling, and involves a lot more qualitative data to represent decisions. Generally, it involves knowledge of probabilities, algebra and logic. The tricky part in our field, I believe, is to be able to coherently translate the subjective elements of the world and decisions to be made using a mathematical language.

What advice would you give to current students if they were looking to move into your field?

Because of the nature of O.R. and its applications to a variety of industries, it is important to have broad interests. As much as being skilled in mathematics, it is crucial to have the ability to understand other disciplines, some more qualitative (such as psychology, organisational behaviour) than others (engineering). Furthermore, it is essential to be able to apply theoretical models to concrete world problems, and to do so, one needs a well rounded understanding of these problems.

With thanks to The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications

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