Career resources

Because of the power and utility of mathematics, ethical and political questions are unavoidable, and the decision to ignore those questions is itself a choice with significant moral content. Unlike, for example, medicine and engineering, mathematics doesn't have a systematic, widely-agreed notion of professional ethics, although work is being done to remedy this. We are responsible for thinking about the implications of our mathematical work from the point of view of justice and ethics.

This includes choosing what work we are and are not willing to do, and thinking about the social systems our work supports. We have a responsibility to avoid using mathematics in a way that bolsters oppressive structures.

This is a practical, rather than an abstract, concern. It needs to be considered by mathematicians at every career stage, working in every sector. But, it's one thing to tell people what work they should and shouldn't do, and another to suggest alternative opportunities.

Here are some such opportunities, to give a small idea of what is out there (some of these are government agencies in specific countries, but they are likely to have counterparts in your country):

- Urban Institute.
- Vera Institute of Justice.
- Office of National Statistics (UK).
- Statistics Canada.
- National Weather Service (USA).
- Met Office (UK).
- European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
- US Census Bureau.
- Signal Technology Foundation.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation.
- Free and Open-Source Jobs.
- University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
- Benetech.
- Human Rights Data Analysis Group.
- ...

Frequently Asked Questions

- What are the ethical considerations in doing/using mathematics? Why should I think about them?

There are many places to learn more about the social, political, and ethical implications of mathematical work. You can read, for example, the Just Mathematics Collective resources page, or the articles compiled here by the Cambridge Ethics in Mathematics Project. We find the article CAT(0) geometry, robots, and society, by Federico Ardila-Mantilla, and the book Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O'Neil, particularly illuminating.
- I understand the problems with working for the surveillance state, or granting it legitimacy by benefiting from funding, but undergraduate research programs are competitive and many of them are NSA-funded. I have to take what I can get.
We feel a lot of empathy for this type of concern, and we are working on expanding the above list of opportunities so that this concern becomes less of a problem. Right now, the list is indicative of the sort of thing that's out there, not exhaustive. You can contact us if you'd like to talk to someone about how to turn your specific interests into ethical, concrete career goals.
- I understand the destructive practices one encounters in the finance sector, but I didn't create the world and I do have to live in it. I'll make a lot of money and use some of it to better the world by giving it away.
The idea that one can work in an ethically-dubious field, become successful, and "pay the debt" through later philanthropy is called effective altruism and is a typical way in which members of the professional class work through the cognitive dissonance that results from having used the advantages conferred by their education in a way that ignores the moral responsibilities those advantages generate. It does not, unfortunately, withstand straightforward scrutiny.
- I understand some of the problems with the police, but by working with them, I can help to improve their practices. I want to work within the system to improve it.
The idea that one can positively change oppressive institutions from within often boils down to the belief that the problems with those institutions are the result of the malign intentions of individual bad actors. In reality, oppressive institutions are better understood systematically. They are governed by an internal logic, and are subject to institutional incentives, on a scale much larger than can usually be affected by individual decision-makers. (Maybe the best way to understand this is to work in a large bureaucracy.) Redesigning, abolishing, or replacing oppressive institutions is a political project rather than a realistic individual career goal. However, those political projects are made easier if individuals make the personal, moral decision to avoid devoting careers to the maintenance of oppressive systems.