Thursday, June 12, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to 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 Jessica Kirkpatrick, an astronomer turned data scientist. She went directly from graduate school to working as a data scientist for Microsoft/Yammer and recently became the Director of Data Science at the education start-up InstaEDU. 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 Thursday.

What field do you currently work in?
Data Science, Analytics, Tech

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

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

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live in: Berkeley, CA
Work in: San Francisco, CA

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Graduate student

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
I went directly from receiving my PhD in astrophysics to getting a data science position at Microsoft / Yammer.  After a year at Yammer, I was recruited by education start-up InstaEDU to start their data science team.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
1) Location - I wanted to stay in the Bay Area where my family lives.

2) Flexibility - There were more jobs outside of academia, and thus it was easier to find one that was interesting to me and in the location I wanted.

3) Finances - My initial salary offers from industry were 2-3 times more than my initial salary offers from academic positions.

4) Lifestyle - I was tired of working evenings / weekends and feeling like my job was never done as a researcher. I wanted a job that was challenging and fulfilling, but also would allow me more work-life balance.

5) State of the field - Because data science is a newer field than astronomy I have the opportunity to make a bigger impact and do more innovative work.

6) Work environment - I wanted to work in an environment that was more collaborative and team based. I found that research work was very isolating and solitary.

7) Pace - I found the pace of research to be too slow.  I wanted to work on projects that had a faster turn and shorter timelines.

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

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Data analysis, programming (Python, R, C), communication (giving talks/presentations, teaching), working with others, problem solving, writing, visualization of results, math, statistics, error analysis, data management, making tools (coding), regular expressions, linux.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
1) I participated in Scicoder where I learned about databases. 

2) I participated in a consulting internship where I learned about working on interdisciplinary teams, tech/business applications of the scientific method, and working with customers 

3) I was accepted to (but didn't end up participating in) the Insight Data Science Fellows Program where I would have learned more about the transition from academia to tech, the tools used in data science / analytics, and prepared for tech interviews. I got my job offer at Yammer before this internship started so I participated as a mentor/recruiter instead of a fellow.

Describe a typical day at work.
My typical day is composed of working on several different projects and meeting with internal clients. I would say my day typically breaks down as follows: 

2-3 hours meeting with clients/teammates 
1/2-1 recruiting/interviewing 
1 hour helping teammates 
5 hours performing coding, data analysis, building tools, creating visualizations of the data. 

Below are some of the types of projects I work on: 
  • Run A/B tests/experiments for the product team which are used to inform all product changes/decisions. 
  • Advise company leadership in decision making based on historical data trends / usage of the product.
  • Develop internal tools for various people in the company to help them obtain the latest usage statistics, understand feature utilization, characterize behavior of the product, or pretty much answer any question that comes up which requires data analysis. 
  • Large-scale data analysis to try and identify patterns, classify users, understand what is working and what isn't working within the product, help determine if our intuitions about our users are accurate etc. 
  • Work with the engineering team to improve logging and perform quality assurance checks. Educate product managers and engineers in statistics and data analysis so that they can interpret the results of our experiments/tests on their own.
  • Interview candidates and help with recruiting.
  • Train new teammates and help with on-boarding / creating on-boarding materials.
Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I learned about my first data science position from a friend who worked at Yammer. He set up the interview. I found other positions through my university's career webpage, or the jobs pages of specific companies I was interested in working for. I applied to Facebook, Google, LinkedIn etc through their job pages.  If at all possible, I suggest trying to connect with someone at the company when applying to jobs, instead of just applying through their web pages.  I've written some blog posts about how to make the transition that might be helpful to anyone interested in data science [1] [2] [3].

My current job found me using a recruiter/head-hunting firm.  They reached out to me on LinkedIn, and set up a meeting between me and the CTO.  It's funny, I found it pretty challenging to find my first tech job (read my posts on that) but once I was at Yammer for a few months I started getting contacted by recruiters fairly regularly.  It is my experience that the real challenge is to get the first company to believe that you can make the transition from scientist to techie, and once you've done that, it is easy to get subsequent jobs.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Understandably faculty advisors know a lot more about the academic path than other paths. However, advisors/departments have a network of former students that they can leverage to help students who are considering alternative paths. It is much easier to get a job at a company when you have some inside connection (versus form an application through the company's web page). It would be great if departments could keep track of past students and where they are working so that current students could leverage this network/learn more about alternative career paths. 

I also think faculty advisors could do a better job of educating themselves on the various paths that students pursue and at least have some sense of the places to start or the resources that are available to students. There is a perceived stigma among graduate students that if they don't pursue academic/astronomy careers they are somehow second tier or a disappointment to their departments/advisors. This results in some graduate students hiding the fact that they are applying for roles outside of academia, or not feeling comfortable expressing their interest in alternative paths to advisors. I would urge advisors to be aware of the signals they are giving graduate students in this regard and to be more proactive in educating students about the various paths and the positive and negative aspects of all of them while assuring students that any path is acceptable.

How many hours do you work in a week?
45-50 hours. I don't have a set schedule, I can come in whenever I want and leave whenever I want. I can also work from home, but prefer to be in the office because it's more fun there.

What is your salary?
Starting base salary (for PhDs) in an entry data science position is between $75k and $125K. There is also usually an annual (performance based) bonus of between 5%-20% of the base salary. There are also usually additional stock packages. Typically people get raises faster in tech than in academia. It's typical to get a raise of 5-10% every year or two. Smaller companies will typically offer a smaller base salary but a larger stock package.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied.

My job is very satisfying. I get to use many of the skills I developed during my PhD on very challenging and exciting projects. I get to see my work being helpful to the company and utilized on a daily basis. I feel very well respected both within the company and within my team. I enjoy the fast-pace and the quick turn around of projects. I find that my boss is constantly pushing me to add value to the company and develop my skill set. The job is constantly growing and becoming more and more challenging as I master new skills and gain domain knowledge. I am constantly working with others and find the work flow very collaborative and enjoyable. I enjoy the flexible hours and the ability to work from home. My co-workers are passionate, smart, and fun to be around. I feel very well compensated for my work. 

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The most enjoyable aspects of my job are the challenging problems and the fast-paced, youthful, and fun work environment. The least enjoyable aspect of my job is the fact that there are more things to do than hours in the day.  I am interested in investigating so many things, and I often have to make tough calls about what to work on, or have to do projects less thoroughly than I would like.  Prioritizing what to work on, and telling people "no, I can't do that" is the hardest and least enjoyable part of my job.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I like the transparency of my workplace and the open and honest environment. I understand my role in the company and what others are working on at all times. I like the flexible hours, wonderful coworkers, and perks like free food, team building outings, and company parties. I don't dislike anything, the work environment is great.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
We have quarterly hack days where we are allowed to work on any projects we want, including music and art.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Satisfied.  I get to set my own hours and can work from home.

How family-friendly is your current position?
My job at Yammer was very family friendly.  Quite a few of my coworkers have children. The flexible hours and ability to work from home is helpful with kids. Kids are also welcome in the office occasionally.  No one at my current company has children (but one of my coworkers is pregnant) but I expect they will also be family friendly there too.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
In my experience, all challenging career paths result in a large amount of work. In order to create balance there is some responsibility in the individual to set up reasonable expectations and create firm boundaries between work and life. There are times when work needs to creep into nights and weekends but I keep these to a minimum. I prioritize my health, family, and friendships.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. I write for the blogs Astrobetter and Women in Astronomy and I am a member of the AAS Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy.

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?
Yes. It's pretty hard to go back to academic research once you are out of the field for any length of time. I knew this when I decided to transition out. I feel pretty confident that I could go back to a teaching position in the future, but not research. There do seem to be an increasing number of jobs which combine data and astronomy research.  I could imagine myself possibly going to a position like that in the future.

I don't feel like I have disappointed anyone. I was unhappy in academia/research and everyone close to me knew that. I think advisors, friends, and colleagues are excited that I found something that I like and makes me happy.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I run, bike, swim, salsa dance, cook, garden, and do photography.  I am learning American Sign Language online through my company's web page

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