Thursday, March 13, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Data Scientist at Fidelity Investments

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Melissa Nysewander, an astronomer turned data scientist at Fidelity Investments. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

What field do you currently work in?

What is the job title for your current position?
Director of Data Science

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Fidelity Investments

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live in Chapel Hill, NC, work in Durham, NC

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Postdoc (1st)

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
I completed half of a 3 year postdoc before I decided to leave the field and move back to North Carolina. I went from there to become a consultant for the EPA, creating models of human exposure to pollutants in the environment. From there, using my background in programming and analytics, I went to work at Fidelity as a data scientist.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
Wanting a better work-life balance. Lack of flexibility in location of jobs. Wanting more stability in life. Hostile work environments.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I left astronomy at 31, left environmental science at 35.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
I was hired initially because of my ability to think through complex problems from beginning to end: formulating hypotheses, planning analyses, working with messy data, and doing the hands-on work to solve the problem.  They were impressed by my skills in machine learning and statistics, learning new technologies, and scientific programming skills.

After they hired me, though, I was promoted quickly because of the soft skills I had learned in my PhD program.  These include communication and presentation skills, leadership and mentoring, and working well in diverse and sometimes politically charged environments.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
My work for my degree did not prepare me completely for the heavy statistical background needed for my position. I learned this skillset during my time at the EPA, through independent study, and though classes taken online and at a local university.

Describe a typical day at work.
I spend most of my time researching business data and logic, doing data preparation and writing model code. I spent roughly 1/4th of my day in meetings, discussing ongoing projects, presenting results, or planning new projects.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I learned about the position consulting for the EPA through a friend who worked in the same research group. For my current position at Fidelity, I scoured the job boards looking for positions in data science. I just submitted an application online, which, from what I hear, doesn't normally work. I had done a lot of research not only into Fidelity, but also data science in general before applying. So I not only knew what they'd asked for, I knew what other things I could bring to the position.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
That it is possible to be happy and successful working outside of academia. That the skills learned in grad school can be applied to many fields.

How many hours do you work in a week?
50-55 hours I only spend 40 hours in the office, I'm able to work from home the extra hours

What is your salary?

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Although projects are generally handed down from high by business thought leaders, we are able to figure out creative approaches to create our models and glean intelligence.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
The job has up's and down's.  During heavy parts of the work cycle I can be under a lot of pressure and I don't have as much time for my family.  But there are also light parts, where I am easily able to disconnect at the end of the day and not think again about my job until I get back in at 9am.  I have an excellent boss who pushes me to do challenging work, but also understands my desire for a good work-life balance and what it means to be a working mom.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Moderately family friendly. There's the extra hours I need to work, but my supervisor also has two young kids at home, and so understands my plight and gives me extra flexibility with working from home.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
There will always be people who are willing to give up their outside lives to further their career, whether that's to get that promotion, that grant, or just simply do more research. There's nothing wrong with that. Some people just love their jobs so much that's all they care to do, or maybe they don't have families or friends outside of astronomy they spend time with. I think to achieve work-life balance, you have to understand that fact, step back, and set realistic goals for yourself, instead of trying to compete with those who are married to their career.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. I still do some work with my old research group at UNC. I just won a grant to create an online archive of gamma-ray burst observations, which is a good project that sits at the intersection of work I did before, and work I do now.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can't "go back" and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?

Can you go back? I don't think so.

I've thought about this a bit. Leaving puts you at such a disadvantage compared to others still in the field, and there's fierce competitions for jobs.

There's no way I could "go back" and get a position that allowed me to support my family. Maybe if I could rely solely on my partner's income, I could try to find some sort of parttime adjunct position, teach a class or two and try to catch up on years of missed productivity in my research. But I don't think that's an option for most people. So no, for most people, I don't believe you can go back.

Have I betrayed advisors, friends, and colleagues? I don't feel like I have.

The giant elephant in the room no one's talking about is that PhD-granting institutions produce twice as many astronomy graduates as there are jobs, and more and more funding is being pushed into postdocs rather than hiring full-time, permanent positions.

People who willingly leave the field as I did aren't betraying colleagues anymore than graduate schools are betraying their students with shaky hopes of stable lives in academia.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Well, I have a toddler at home, so most of my free time is spent chasing him, playing with his choo-choos, taking him to the museum, playgrounds, etc. I also enjoy doing home improvement projects, gaming, and martial arts.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes mnysewan [at]

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