Alumni

Alumni profile - Maeve McMahon

For me, statistics is one of the most important and rewarding parts of the Civil Service. We provide impartial and reliable information on data that the government holds. Without our publications, the public wouldn’t know how many Covid vaccines have been given or how many people have lost work since lockdown. Or, indeed, how many babies are named Oliver and Olivia every year!

(Psychology PhD, 2019)

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Why did you decide to undertake a PhD in Psychology at Queen Mary? What was it about this area of science and the University that particularly appealed to you?

I decided to do my PhD in Psychology at Queen Mary because I was really interested in rhythm perception. Research had suggested that birds can detect beats, and I ended up working with David Clayton studying how zebra finches perceive birdsong. I liked that I could work with animal behaviour researchers in the psychology and biology departments, and music cognition researchers in the computer science department.

What was the focus of your PhD and what were your overall findings?

I got to do a huge variety of work during my PhD, like recording birdsong, building Raspberry Pi-based hardware to study auditory perception, wet lab work, and of course statistics. My favourite finding is that birds that are especially active morning learners learn more slowly overall than birds that are active throughout the day. As a not-morning person, I might read a little more into this result than I should!

What did you enjoy most about your studies and your overall experience at Queen Mary? Did you learn anything about yourself during your time here?

I made some great friends in the psychology department and really loved hearing about a whole range of research – from female song in chaffinches to the impact of meaningful conversations in romantic relationships. Going into my PhD, I thought academia was the most effective path to discover insights. During my PhD, I learned that I don’t enjoy managing 4-year projects and that there are other ways to make a difference through problem solving.

Students and graduates should definitely consider a career in statistics in the Civil Service. Although doing analysis on tax might not sound exciting at first, I’ve always felt valued and trusted, and the work is far more varied and interesting than I expected.

Can you describe your career path since you graduated in 2019 and touch on how you secured your current role as Deputy Head of Profession for Statistics at HMRC?

After I finished my PhD lab work, I moved to Liverpool. It’s a beautiful city but there aren’t as many analytical job opportunities as London. I really struggled to find work – I even started applying for jobs in Manchester, which would have been a very expensive and long commute. One of my many applications was for a data science job through the Government Statistical Service (GSS); they recruit for most departments across government. Eventually they allocated me to HMRC (one of the few government departments with an analytical presence in Liverpool) and I started working as an analyst on corporation tax. Because I came into this role with some experience from my PhD and other roles, I passed a couple of promotion boards fairly quickly, and eventually applied for and got my current role, which is Deputy Head of Profession for Statistics.

What are some of your daily responsibilities in this role and how does this job allow you to explore what you feel passionate about?

My job is really unusual at HMRC. Most statisticians do analysis every day – publishing statistics on how much tax we’ve received, or providing costings to the Chancellor for how much new policies might bring in. My role is to support all of those statisticians, and every day is different. Some weeks I have a lot of recruitment to work on – letting senior leaders know how many new graduates we’re likely to recruit, or promoting apprenticeships. Other weeks I work on developing and rolling out strategies to make sure that our publications are accessible for all, including people who use all kinds of assistive technology.

Before doing this job I never realised how passionate I was about helping people achieve their potential in their roles, and I really enjoy sharing opportunities with statisticians.

More generally, what role does statistics play in the Civil Service and why would you encourage students and graduates to pursue a career in statistics in the Civil Service?

For me, statistics is one of the most important and rewarding parts of the Civil Service. We provide impartial and reliable information on data that the government holds. Without our publications, the public wouldn’t know how many Covid vaccines have been given or how many people have lost work since lockdown. Or, indeed, how many babies are named Oliver and Olivia every year!

Students and graduates should definitely consider a career in statistics in the Civil Service. Although doing analysis on tax might not sound exciting at first, I’ve always felt valued and trusted, and the work is far more varied and interesting than I expected. For example, I came in with a lot of experience in data visualisation, so my manager put me to work overhauling the charts and graphs in our annual publication. I’ve also found a lot of support for my professional development, a proactive approach to improving work-life balance (I work 37 hours a week, and never during evenings/weekends), and excellent colleagues.

I work with a lot of people who have maths or statistics degrees (although I come from a Psychology/Neuroscience background) and I think there’s an impression that statisticians just run numbers all day. I’m sure there’s somewhere you can do that, but in my field, we spend most of our time understanding the problem before applying maths and statistics to solve it.

This month is Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month and its goal is to increase public understanding of and appreciation for mathematics and statistics. Can you think of anything that might surprise people who don’t come from a mathematics or statistics background?

I work with a lot of people who have maths or statistics degrees (although I come from a Psychology/Neuroscience background) and I think there’s an impression that statisticians just run numbers all day. I’m sure there’s somewhere you can do that, but in my field, we spend most of our time understanding the problem before applying maths and statistics to solve it. We spend the next biggest part of our time communicating our findings to others, so our statisticians have to be great communicators, and love sharing their complex analyses with people who don’t have a maths or stats background, like most MPs. It makes for a very varied workload!

How diverse is the industry that you currently work in and what do you think needs to be done to increase diversity and inclusion in your sector?

This is an area that the Government Statistical Service is working really hard on. I love that all applications for the Civil Service start off not just name/gender/age/location-blind, but also university-blind. Of course, once you get to interview we can’t remain completely blind, but we use very structured interviews that are designed to remove as much bias as possible. We also have set-in-stone pay scales, which means there’s no negotiating for pay (or the discrimination issues that come along with those negotiations).

One of the minimum requirements to become a statistician is to have a degree with sufficient maths/statistics content, which obviously limits the number of people who can apply. So, for that reason we offer apprenticeships in data analysis and data science, which offer a route into government statistics without a numerate university degree (and our apprentices are paid a real living wage!). I think the next big area of work in our sector is to improve the diversity of people studying maths or statistics at degree level, and we’re starting to work with schools to improve this.

Outside of your role in the Civil Service, you are also the CEO and Co-Founder of Hexad Brewing, a startup custom beer brewery. What sparked your interest in craft beer brewing and what does your role as CEO involve?

I’ve been interested in craft beer brewing since I was 4 and helped my dad with brewing stouts. In my 20s, I bought homebrew equipment and started brewing. Having a scientific background definitely makes brewing easier! I found a great homebrew club in London, made some friends, and eventually we started a small business with funding from Queen Mary. My role as CEO is mostly administrative these days – filing tax returns and organising invoices. That said, when we were most active, I got involved in every aspect of the business – developing recipes, cleaning tanks, and designing labels.

One of the minimum requirements to become a statistician is to have a degree with sufficient maths/statistics content, which obviously limits the number of people who can apply. So, for that reason we offer apprenticeships in data analysis and data science, which offer a route into government statistics without a numerate university degree (and our apprentices are paid a real living wage!).

Finally, how would you like to see Hexad Brewing evolve in the next five years?

Hexad Brewing had some really great successes – we won two stars for one of our beers at the Great Taste Awards, and we brewed an ancient Egyptian beer for a TV programme. Since then, unfortunately, Hexad Brewing is a bit on the back burner due to the co-founders moving around the world, but we still have the equipment in London. We’re set up to brew mostly for large events (weddings and corporate), which due to Covid-19 haven’t been happening, but we’ll reassess the situation when things open up again. Watch this space!

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Maeve or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.