Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Data Scientist at a Non-Profit

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 Erin Grand, an astronomer turned data scientist at a non-profit organization.

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?

I work in Data Science at a not-for-profit organization.

What is the job title for your current position?

Data Scientist

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

Crisis Text Line

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

New York, NY

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

MS in Astronomy

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

Grad student and research assistant

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

Funding and politics, interest in my project, and my relationship with my advisor, but really it was a desire to get out of College Park for a bit.

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?

MS in Data Science from Columbia University

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

Job hunting: Columbia has a job search board, which I’ve used. I also receive weekly emails for our career helper. Mostly though I’ve researched companies in the field I’m interested in, and applied to any position that looked interesting.

Networking: (1) Leveraging contacts from conferences, and making sure to actually talk to and meet people. (2) Leveraging other people’s contacts. My CEO knows lots of important people, and I feel like I can ask her to connect me with someone if needed. (3) Twitter! Seriously, in a weird way, meeting someone on twitter is how I landed my current job.

Other Advice: Be open about what kind of position you’re looking for, and be open to other opportunities. Reach out to people in the field you’re interested in and talk to them about how they got there. Leverage any contacts they have.

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

I stayed for a year in grad school as an RA post-MS degree deciding if I wanted to stay, switch universities, get a “real” job or go back to school. I decided to go back to school, for data science, because I enjoy the act of searching through data - without the “politics” of academia. 

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

1. Analysis of data in general (ie. programming, statistics)

2. Public speaking. Part of my job is speaking in meetings, and giving talks and my experience teaching as a teaching assistant has been really helpful to mitigate how nervous I am about talking.

3. Story telling. How does this result matter to people who haven’t been staring at this data for the last X weeks. How can I motivate the best change?

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

Learn Python! Seriously.

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

Yes! Not about astronomy usually, but I keep up with the field through twitter and Facebook friends.

How many hours do you work in a week?

I’m currently part-time while I finish school, so ~25 hours.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

I love it!

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

Enjoyable: Making real change with data analysis. Showing something to the staff, and seeing a resulting change come out of it.

Not enjoyable: Lots of requests come in where someone may ask for a very broad piece of information, and figuring out what they actually need from what they’re asking for can be a difficult process. 

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

Like: It’s a very open environment, where everyone can reach out to anyone - pretty much about anything. I like that I have really close relationships with both the staff inside and outside my department. I’ve never feel weird reaching out for help or assistance.

Dislike: While the majority of the staff is female, I’m currently the only female on the tech/data team. However, we’re hiring like mad - so that should change very soon!

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

(1) I find every analysis to be a new creative project. Often, how I arrive at my result and how I display it are completely up to me (and the data). The exploration is really enjoyable for me. Plus, I’m learning what types of report (visuals or not, wordy or not) provide the most amount of insight and actions. Every report I make should force an action by the staff, whether it’s a new product or a new policy.

(2) Every staff member has the opportunity to dream up a new product, and see it through completion.

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

It’s hard to say! We’re a not-for-profit, and also a tech-startup so right off the bat the work-life balance is shifted toward “work”. However, your work is what you make of it - there are plenty of staff members who close their mind to all work-related things at home.
 This semester has been especially challenging for me, since I’ve been balancing school and work!

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

I love Scottish Country Dancing! I try to go to class at least once a week.

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

Sure! eringrand at gmail dot com

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