Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Astronomer to Health Care Data Scientist

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 Kimberly Scott, an astronomer turned health care data scientist.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. New Career Profiles are posted approximately every month.


What field do you currently work in?

Health Care

What is the job title for your current position?

Data Scientist

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


What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?

Charlottesville, VA, USA (live and work)

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

PhD (Astronomy)

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?


What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

I think that the standard complaints that everyone in the field has (lack of permanent jobs, little choice in where to live, relatively low salary, and poor work-life balance) got me to entertain the idea of leaving since getting my PhD. But the real drivers for me were 1) I do not feel like I fit well in an academic environment; 2) I lost interest in my research and did not feel excited about anything going on in astronomy; and 3) I do not enjoy teaching, which is a natural next step in advancement for this career path.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?

33 years old

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

I had no formal training to transition to data science. I did take a few data science and machine learning courses online to better understand the field and some of the methods and tools that are commonly used. I then structured my research and service work so that I could gain experience with common programming languages and databases.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

Some useful online sites for job hunting and posting resumes are Glassdoor and Indeed. I also created a detailed profile on LinkedIn, which I recommend doing. 

Since I was trying to find a job in a small city, I also found some useful resources online about tech companies and jobs in Charlottesville. If you're geographically limited, it's worth trying to find some local resources to learn about what companies hire the positions you're interested in. It can be fruitful to contact companies even if they are not posting jobs - most like to talk with promising candidates and will hold your resume if there's an opportunity at a later time. Also, see if there's local networking events where you can meet people working in the field you're trying to get into (Meetup.com is a good resource for this). Networking is very important in a small city - the more people you meet, the better, as they will help you grow your network in your new career.

If you're just now exploring your options for a non-academic careers, I recommend asking your friends to put you in touch with people they know who left academia and went into different fields. These "informational interviews" really helped me to identify what kind of careers were a good fit for me, and lots of people gave me great advice on transitioning.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

I did two postdocs: the first was at UPenn for 2 years, and the second was at NRAO for 3 years. I then transitioned into data science and worked as a consultant/data scientist for one year at Elder Research, an analytics consulting firm. I started my current job at the UVA Medical Center last fall.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?

The most important skill is the ability to thoughtfully work through a problem, and to design a plan to meet the goals of a project. I tend to highlight four major sets of skills in my resume, all of which are important in data science: data analysis, programming, communication, and project management. I had to learn all of these skill sets in order to get a PhD.

Describe a typical day at work.

My work can vary substantially from day to day. I am typically actively working on a couple of projects at a time, and the work depends on what stage the project is in. My work includes 1) talking with doctors and researchers to learn about their analytics needs; 2) planning the tasks and timeline for a project; 3) learning new technologies or algorithms that are required for the project; 4) gathering the required data; 5) doing the analysis; and 6) presenting the results.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

I recommend that advisors talk early and often about non-academic career options. Keep in touch with your former students who chose non-academic paths so you can build a network of people who can help advise your current students who are facing this decision. Let all of your students know that you want what's best for THEM, leaving academia is in no way a mark against their abilities, and that your good opinion is not contingent on their following in your footsteps. I recommend that departments as a whole encourage open discussions on this topic.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?

Yes. One of the best things about my astronomy career was making a number of great friends from all over the world (I get most of my news about the latest discoveries in astronomy from Facebook shares!). I am also close with a number of scientists at the NRAO, and have given talks to their summer students about non-academic career options.

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?

I never felt that I was betraying anyone. Everyone whose opinion actually matters to me, including several astronomy friends and mentors, were supportive of my decision, and any disappointment was only expressed as "astronomy is losing a great scientist". I know that I was fortunate in this regard.

I do think it would be hard to go back w/o "backsliding" (e.g. for me, taking another postdoc), and this probably gets more and more difficult the longer you are out. However, you never know what skills you may actually GAIN from a non-academic, non-astronomy career path that may put you at an advantage for going back some years down the road.

How many hours do you work in a week?

Typically 40 hours. I rarely work more outside of my time at the office, except for a few hours here and there when I get really motivated by something.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Fairly satisfied.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

I love that I get to work on projects to improve the way we treat patients, and that the problems I work on will directly affect nearly everyone in my community at some point in their lives. The least enjoyable part is that health care is somewhat behind the times in its use in analytics, so the problems are not always all that challenging. 

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?

What I like most is the analytics team that I'm on: I get to work with really smart people who come from a variety of backgrounds, and I have a supervisor who listens to my concerns and is willing to consider organizational changes within our team that can improve the workplace experience. What I dislike the most is that the tie to a medical school means that there is an academic nature to much of the work we do, and projects can often move slowly with little focus or urgency.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?

The use of analytics in patient care is still at its infancy, and there's a whole lot of untapped data. So there's a plenty of opportunity to work with clinicians and leadership to figure out new ways to leverage these data so that they can make better decisions.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?

Very satisfied. I work a standard 8-hr day and have some flexibility around the hours I work (so I can make appointments w/o using my paid time off).

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very family-friendly.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?

I've come to realize that much of achieving work-life balance comes down to making a conscientious effort to do so. For me, leaving astronomy and academia wasn't enough to get that balance. At some point I realized that I will always be career-driven because that's an important part of my personality, and one consequence of that is that I often feel stressed about work and that there are never enough hours in the day. I have to frequently step back and remember a job is just a job, and I'd rather define myself by the quality of the time spent with my family.

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

Absolutely: kimberly.scott.1980 at gmail.com.