Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Career Profile: Astronomer to Analytics Company Founder and Chief 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 Dr. Genevieve Graves, an astronomer who left astronomy to co-found a "people analytics" company, hiQ Labs, and become its chief data scientist. Dr. Graves received her Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz working with Professor Sandra Faber.  Following her Ph.D., she went to the UC Berkeley Department of Astronomy as a Miller Fellow, and then to the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University as a postdoctoral fellow.  Her astronomical research focussed on star formation histories and galaxy evolution.  

Recently, she was featured in the Harvard Business Review in an article on "Why people quit their jobs" (see the "This is an Early Warning Signal" feature box).

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?

Data Science, specifically People Analytics

What is the job title for your current position?

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

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

Live: Santa Cruz, CA
Work: San Francisco, CA

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

PhD, UC Santa Cruz, 2009

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

Postdoctoral Fellow, Princeton University Department of Astrophysical Sciences

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

I was bored with my research subfield and wanted a change.  Also, I wanted to choose where I lived rather than moving frequently to wherever I got the best job.

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


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

I brushed up my Python programming skills (previously, I had mostly worked in IDL) and took several Coursera courses in machine learning, data mining, and network science.

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

All of my job hunting was through network contacts.  My job essentially fell into my lap, through a reference from a grad school classmate.  He put me in touch with the man who became my Co-Founder at hiQ.

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

I spent 3 years as a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Miller Institute, then began another fellowship at Princeton.  One year into my Princeton fellowship, I decided to leave academia.  I got introduced to my Co-Founder, and moved back to the Bay Area to start hiQ.  Initially, I was the Chief Science Officer, responsible only for the Data Science team.  Now, all of Engineering and Technology, as well as Product, report into me.  I’m a good manager.  When I own things, they work.  As that has become clear, more and more of the company has come under my umbrella.

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

The scientific programming and data manipulation skills were valuable in the first 18 months, while I was still doing hands-on data science work.  

These days, my most critical skills are public speaking, science communication, making scientific judgment calls, risk assessment, process organization, and the ability to talk to high-status people without being intimidated.   Being a postdoc is very, very good training for talking to venture capitalists and investors!  I also use all of the mentoring and advising skills I developed working with younger grad students and undergrads: that was the core of my management training.

Describe a typical day at work.

At this point, I am a science and technical manager rather than a hands-on scientist.  I run a team of ~20 people, including our Engineering, Data Science, R&D, IT/Ops, and Product teams, which account for 2/3 of the full-time headcount in the company.  Essentially, I am responsible for everything that gets built by my company.  I’m the #2 person at hiQ after the CEO, and arguably have more control over things than he does.

I spend most of my day in meetings, with my employees, with customers, with investors, with our Board of Directors, and with our CEO and Sales leaders.  I am the person who knows the most about what is going on, in detail, in all the various aspects of the company.  I am therefore a critical communication channel to keep everything functioning and synced-up.  

I like to hire people who are excellent, get to know them and build trust with them, then get out of their way and let them do their jobs.  My role is to create an environment in which they can do their best work.  That means protecting their time, making clear and efficient decisions, fighting political battles on their behalf, and providing advice when needed.  

When something on my team isn’t working, I do a deep dive into the problem, help get things back on track, and then zoom out again to focus on the big picture and the product direction for the company.

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

Advisors don’t really have the experience to advise students who are considering careers outside of academia.  The best thing they can do is be supportive of the concept, and help students find appropriate mentors and advisors in industry.  Like me.  ;-)

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

I still have friends who are astronomers, and I am in touch with my thesis advisor.  People now routinely reach out to me when they or someone they know is making the transition from academia into Data Science or a related industry field.  I am very motivated to help others make the transition I have made, and have even interviewed and hired some of them into my company.

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 absolutely feel like I cannot go back.  

Fortunately, I have not for a moment wanted to or wished to.  The only way I can see re-entering academia would be, after building and running a successful company, to take a position as a University President or Chancellor and doing the same there.

I don’t feel like I betrayed anyone.  My mentors and advisors, while disappointed, were supportive of my transition and have been cheering for me since.  The hardest thing for me to explain to my friends in astronomy is how much I don’t miss it!

How many hours do you work in a week?


What is your salary?

It's in the $150 K to $200 K range

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Very high.  I love my job.  It is the hardest, most interesting thing I have ever done in my life.  Academic research used a small subset of my abilities very deeply.  This job uses everything I’ve got.  It’s a much better fit for someone with broad skills.

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

Most enjoyable:  It’s never boring.  Things change all the time.  I am involved at the highest levels of strategic decision-making in the company, and the company lives or dies based on the decisions I make.  

Least enjoyable:  See all of the above.  It’s very exciting, but it can get stressful if you let the pressure get to you.

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

Like:  I have great colleagues, particularly on the technical side of the company.  I am fiercely proud of the team that I have built, and how well they perform under pressure.  There is no greater satisfaction than building a team and seeing it succeed.  I have enormous responsibility and I like the autonomy and freedom that goes with that.

Dislike: I sit at the interface between Tech and Sales.  That is very interesting, but it means that I have to navigate the substantial culture mismatch between these two organizations.  Sometimes my position of responsibility means that I have to withhold information from my colleagues, which I find uncomfortable.

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

Everything I do is about taking the initiative.  I basically run things within most of the company.  My creativity has many outlets, in the form of product vision, selecting science directions, and figuring out how to organize and assign tasks within my team.

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

Very.  I work hard, and my office is a long way from my home, but I manage to make it work and I love the pace.  Fortunately, my husband is a writer, so he has a lot of time flexibility and can be on-hand for child pick-ups and drop-offs.  

How family-friendly is your current position?

It only works because I have a spouse who is Lead Parent.  

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance?

Don’t let anyone tell you what the correct work-life balance is for you.  Do what makes you happy.  If you want more time at home with your family, find a job that makes that possible.  If you love your job and want to work long hours, find a way to set things up in your life to accommodate that.  There is no one-size-fits-all answer to work-life balance.  The key is to be creative, flexible, and honest about what you actually want, with both yourself and your family.