27 Feb 2024

What Roles Can Mathematics Students Do After Graduating?


Hi, I’m Lily and I’m a mathematics graduate working for GCHQ. I’m based in ‘the doughnut’, GCHQ’s HQ in Cheltenham, but it’s not our only location. With colleagues in London and Manchester, I travel across the UK to catch up with people!


I’ve always loved maths and knew I wanted a career in the subject. You might be surprised to learn that there are quite a few roles for maths graduates at GCHQ. I thought I’d need a PhD to be a mathematician here, but I couldn’t have been more wrong – a passion for problem-solving and the motivation to keep learning are more important.

I used to drive past ‘the doughnut’ on my way to netball, aged 11. My dad would say: “They spy on people, and listen to their phone calls.” The truth is our organisation works to keep people safe in the real world and online, and I use my maths skills to help them do it.

I studied a 3-year maths undergraduate degree, during which I applied for the CyberFirst Bursary. With that, I did two paid summer placements at Scarborough and Cheltenham where I got involved with ‘real’ work from day one. After graduating, I joined via the Cyber Recruitment Campaign, and then moved into a maths role. One of the great things about GCHQ is the scope to move around internally. And, as I learn more about the other agencies – MI5 and MI6 – I could take my skills there in the future as well.

I’m now in the maths department, close to the Intelligence mission, where I work with analysts to understand how protocols work. There’s a whole range of specialisms, from deep theory experts to those exploring the implementation of these ideas. You could be trying to understand security documentation or the subtleties of hardware and software design. I get to apply my knowledge and test my problem-solving skills every day. In doing
so, I’m helping GCHQ in its mission to disrupt threats including terrorism, organised crime, and cyber-attacks.

I joined with no programming, crypt or computing knowledge, but maths graduates are part of a community at GCHQ. The internally run Mathematics Development Programme was invaluable in bridging the gap between cyber and maths, and made me feel so welcome. The focus on learning and development is huge because everyone wants to develop the skills that help keep people safe. My initial training gave me a solid foundation and left me
with a desire to learn more, whether that’s exploring new possibilities in my work or furthering my own career.

I admit, I didn’t apply for GCHQ through the Mathematics Recruitment Campaign because I thought you had to have gone to Oxbridge. But the people here come from all kinds of backgrounds. It’s all about your potential. If you love maths or working in cyber, it’s a fascinating place to develop your skills. If I had to give a fellow maths grad some advice, I’d say – just apply, even if you don’t think you have all the skills you need right now. It’s all about building on your interests and potential. Who knows where maths could take you in the future?

Our maths summer schools and grad roles open in the autumn. Visit our official websites to be notified when they go live.

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