Maths degree for fun? Done!

Seven years ago I was in work bored and desperate for a new challenge. My daughter had recently been born and I had decided to stop playing World of Warcraft. Needing a new challenge, I had toyed with an MBA but really wanted to do something for me. So I signed up for a BSc in Mathematics with the Open University, which I knew would take about 6 years part time while working. This week, I got the results for my final module and it was confirmed I had earned a first class honours degree. But why didn’t I do maths the first time round?

Screenshot from my OU account confirming I was eligible for a First in Mathematics
Confirmation of the results of my hard work

I’ve always loved maths. It just made sense to me. At junior school we had cards to work through at our own pace and I couldn’t get through them fast enough. By the time I started senior school I was about 3 years ahead and then had the shock of no longer being able to go at my own pace and having to redo a lot of the same work. It was frustrating. With a lot of effort, we manage to convince the school to let me take my maths exam 2 years early. The teachers made it clear that I would be left on my own to prepare for this and I really was. Sat in the classroom with a different book to the rest of the class with no support from a teacher who was dealing with 30 other children. Still, I passed with an A. The school had no sixth form so for the next two years I used the time to catch up on homework from other lessons until at some point they gave me an A level text book to work through myself. It nearly destroyed my love for the subject after 2 years wasted.

At sixteen I went to a technical college for A levels, initially studying maths, biology, and physics. In the second week I joined my friends in chemistry without really thinking about it, while the teachers assumed I’d dropped one of the other subjects. The college only offered a single maths A-level, which was half pure maths, a third applied and a sixth statistics. It just didn’t excite me in the way that the science A-level courses were.

When it came to deciding on which Universities and subjects to apply for, maths had been relegated to a support subject and my sights were set on medical physics and biochemistry. I didn’t even look into where a maths degree could take me, assuming accountancy and teaching, neither of which interested me. I was happy with these decisions until I was in Oxford for the entrance interviews.

Three of us had been invited for interviews at St Peter’s college. Myself in biochemistry, Sarah in mathematics, and Anne in chemistry. Anne and I just had a few interviews with tutors before we would be given a conditional offer1 we just had to convince the tutors that we would do well. For mathematics, Sarah had an interview and an entrance exam2. To prepare for this she’d been taking extra classes leading to an AS level in further mathematics. Had I not already been doing 4 A-levels I would have joined her. At the end of the first day we were sat in my room and helping her prepare for her exam the next day. My heart sank when I saw the past paper.

Every single question was straight forward to me and I knew I’d made a big mistake. I’d chosen a sensible option rather than a subject I had always loved. While it wasn’t completely too late to change subjects it would have been really difficult to get a place doing maths when all of my applications had been focussed around biochemistry.

So I was accepted to study at Oxford and I spent 4 years there doing the undergraduate and masters in molecular and cellular biochemistry and had an amazing time and learned a lot. But I envied the mathematicians, and loved the more mathematical side of the course I was doing.

When it came to doing a PhD there was a new multidisciplinary neuroscience course starting between Oxford and UCL. This was my opportunity! Combine my love of mathematics with the cellular neuroscience I’d learned. During the orientation, there were a couple of us interested in the theoretical neuroscience PhDs and we had a casual chat with Geoff Hinton. As soon as he realised I didn’t have undergraduate mathematics he lost interest in me and I knew I wouldn’t get an offer3. So I went to Sussex and did my PhD there and learned the maths I needed as I needed it. Fast forward 15 years.

Statistics and data science was part of my day to day job as a CTO but I was missing something. AI hadn’t yet broken into industry, but I knew I’d go crazy if I didn’t do something to stimulate my mind. So I signed up for the OU degree in Mathematics to fill that void.

I started this blog after I’d already done the first three level 1 modules and I was already having difficulty managing the work alongside a full time job and parenting, particularly as I’d just started a new job at a start-up demanding some ridiculous time commitments.

Every year as September came around I’d wonder whether I ought to take a break and concentrate on work. Every year without fail I would sign up for another module with days to spare. Pushing myself because I knew that if I stopped for a year it would be hard to get back into it.

Every module I would get behind, rush the TMAs and then revise in a few days before the exam4. It worked for me, but was a stressful experience at times because I never forgive myself for issues completely within my control so waiting for every TMA and exam result when I didn’t feel I’d prepared enough5 turned me into a cranky monster.

This last module result was no different. M347 Mathematical statistics was the “easy option” to end on as it’s literally the statistical methods I use on a day to day basis. But there’s always something new, exam questions that don’t make sense in the moment, or forgetting a proof that means that you might not have done as well as you want. That said, if I hadn’t got a distinction in this module then I would have been embarrassed enough that I would have had to step down from the Royal Statistical Society‘s Data Science Section committee šŸ˜€ – fortunately I had the distinction šŸ˜‰

It was great to get the email yesterday that I was eligible to receive a degree in mathematics and that it would be a First. If you are thinking of studying go for it – I’ve found the past 7 years tremendously rewarding and am very proud of my achievement.

  1. This is the pretty usual 2 As and B minimum.
  2. If she passed this then she would have been given an unconditional offer.
  3. I remember trying to defend myself by saying “it’s just maths, it’s easy” but he wasn’t convinced
  4. This isn’t an exaggeration – just take a look through the maths posts!
  5. i.e. never

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. Iā€™m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.

13 thoughts on “Maths degree for fun? Done!”

  1. Hi Janet, I can’t believe this will be your last post on the OU maths degree series! Many congratulations on achieving a first class! I’m certainly going to miss your blog posts about OU maths!

    1. I may do more šŸ™‚ I’m not sure what I am going to do next yet and there were certainly other modules that interested me šŸ™‚ Best of luck with your studies.

      1. Hi Janet, congratulations! What about the OU F04 MSc in Mathematics? Aren’t you going for the masters degree?

      2. Hi,
        I have been thinking about it but can’t really get excited about the module options… to be fair I haven’t really looked into them in detail, but I have a few weeks left to make a decision šŸ™‚

  2. Hi Janet

    Congratulations. What an achievement! Well done.

    I am too into this (Q77 qualification – Bsc Maths and Physics). Loving it all.

    I have just decided on my year 3 papers šŸ™‚
    Quantum World
    Deterministic and Stochastic dynamics
    Relativistic Universe , and
    Complex analysis ( I Love pure maths )

    Was reading up your posts for a while before I decided to take MS327, since I was thinking whether to take MST326 (Modeling and Fluid Mechanics), but since I had already had a lot of fun and enjoyed MST210, I thought I will take a different one so diving into MS327.

    Any particular books (other than the OU ones) you can recommend to me for the above modules, will be greatly appreciated.


    1. Enjoy level 3! They are a great set of module choices. I can’t actually recommend any other books as I did all my study based on the OU books and then used Google if I found I needed something explaining in a different way or to get more examples. The forums and groups on Facebook have people who use other books and will be able to recommend them (or not), as will your tutors. Just be aware of different notation. Best of luck with your studies.

      1. Thanks, Janet. I appreciate it.

        As for the books bit, that is cool to know that one can manage with just the OU books, especially if that confirmation is coming from a Distinction candidate šŸ™‚ (i.e. you!)
        Yep, I am aware of the notation issues, especially when we learn from other non-OU books. But as long as its for just gaining the underlying knowledge, and we still stick to OU notations, it wil be fine.

        I was looking to start my preparations a bit early before October, since I am doing all 4 papers. So thought until the OU books arriv (which they will not until end of September), I might buy some books that cater to the module’s requirements, and read and practise them until OU books arrive.
        Hence my question on books.

        On one other note… I was especially worried about the MS327 (stochastic dynamics module) since it said in OU page that the 3rd part works with Maxima software. I am really not a big fan of that Maxima software – its UI / UX is not of this century’s, and there is hardly any good documentation out there on.

        You did mention in one of your posts, that module did not excite you too much…. was that the case at the end of the module when you approached completion?
        Did you eventually like it?

        I hope I have not made a bad decision to go for that module (MS327) instead of MST326 šŸ™‚ (I still have time to change it šŸ™‚ )

        Please let me know on that one, especially.
        Sorry for too many questions.
        I am aiming for Distinction too overall, so working really hard on all modules.

        Thanks for your time on your replies. You blogs are really helpful.

        Best wishes.

      2. Hi

        No problem – sounds like you’ve got a good strategy and sorry I can’t help!

        I was disappointed with MS327 but I think in retrospect I was mentally exhausted after some very hectic work weeks and really not putting enough into it to enjoy the subject and was just ploughing through. There was nothing wrong with the subject itself and it is a solid well written course with lots of good theory – but I found complex numbers (M337) far more stimulating, so compared to each other I definitely enjoyed M337 more. I couldn’t comment on whether MS326 is better or not. You’ll need to ask on the FB forums and find someone who has done both to get an objective answer.

        Never be sorry for asking questions – we could do with more of that in the world šŸ™‚

  3. Congratulations Janet!

    I’ve really enjoyed following your posts about your degree šŸ™‚ glad to hear you did well!

    I commented a while ago just before I started on my first year of the OU Maths degree and I’m happy to say I start my second set of level 1 OU modules in a few weeks (MST125 – very excited about this one and SM123 because too much pure maths will melt my brain I fear)

  4. Congratulations!

    For the last 4-5 years, I’ve been telling myself that I would start this degree with the OU and twice a year I decide not to. I started following your blog to get some insight on the course.

    The trouble is, whenever I go online to find reviews of the OU and this course in particular within the last 10 years, they tend to be pretty negative. I have found it difficult to find active social groups who are studying this course (I’m not on Facebook and I once posted on an OU Discord group and got an unhelpful response about 3 months later).

    I did a module 16 years ago when I lived in the UK. Now I’m in the US so the cost is much higher but still fair with respect to the cost of the alternatives here. It’s very odd that more people in the US don’t take this option, but most haven’t heard of it and I vaguely remember reading that the OU tried to come here but pulled out.

    All I’ve heard is that the OU has become more expensive, quality has dropped, you’re lucky if your tutor is active and engaging and it’s likely to be otherwise, that grading is unfair and inconsistent, and so on.

    Clearly it’s possible to get through the course since you’ve done just that. I’d like to do the same. Like you, I don’t need the degree but it’s something of a conquest. I’d like to be more certain before I drop about $24,000 into it. (I say I don’t need it but it would be my first degree, so who knows.)

    I think it would be cool if you would write about the OU, your experiences with them, what fails, what’s awesome, what compensations you had to make, that kind of thing. Is there a way to show that the OU is as much of a secure, viable option as it ever was or have changes in structure and leadership really made the whole thing untenable?

    I’d like to enroll next month without imagining a pile of money on fire.

    Thanks for reading and, again, congratulations!

    1. Hi, Thanks for reading. That is a great idea for a post and I imagine you’re not the only one who’d like this. I’ll do my best to put something together in the next few days so there’s plenty of time for people to mull over and make a decision before the deadlines šŸ™‚ My experience was positive and I felt the prices were fair compared to the cost of other universities, and I can make a direct comparison to traditional university. It is a different experience and it’s not right for everyone. Definitely needs a proper post as you suggest!



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