nine things about being a data scientist
reflections after nine months
The first eight months of my current (and first) data science job were a bit rough. I was learning and growing, but I was also tense, stressed, and a little lost. I felt like I was no longer an astronomer but not yet a data scientist. I was still learning so many new tools, adapting to a new environment, and working on my permanent residency. Over the past month, though, so many things happened that made me feel more established at work and here in Germany.
Specifically, at work:
- we put my first big project into production
- we hired a working student in data science
- our team shifted as a co-worker moved to a new company
In my visa status and integration:
- I finished three months of intensive German B1
- I took and passed the TELC German B1 exam
- I was granted permanent residency in Germany
In addition to all this, I took Lucianne’s excellent making values-based career decisions workshop. The workshop helped me articulate my values and mission and map those ideas onto my career. It helped me feel more grounded and at peace with what I’ve accomplished so far.
So now, at nine months, I’d like to share nine “lessons” I’ve learned about what it’s like to be a data scientist. What it’s been like for me, compared to my expectations. (Disclaimer, these are my experiences, shaped by both my identity, and the specifics of my own path.)
1. It really is ok to be learning.
When I was looking for a job, a lot of interviews asked me about specific tools and technologies that I had no idea about. And it’s intimidating to not know any of them, but nobody knows all of them. When my team needs to do something new, that often means one of us sits down and learns a new python package or feature of google cloud or whatever it is. Perhaps it’s because we’re a small team at a start-up, but everyone is always learning.
2. There’s more tech than science.
I had this vision that being a data scientist would mean writing notebooks to model data to answer questions. That is not the main part of my job. The majority of my time and energy is spent translating those efforts into code that will run weekly, modeling incoming data and pushing those answers to an API. I’ve spent far more time debugging, refactoring, and rolling my eyes at airflow than I have fitting models. I’ve gotten a sense that my position might be more tech than the average data science position (likely due to working on a small team), but I do think I under-appreciated just how “tech” data science is.
3. I can leave my work behind.
In academia, every project I worked on felt so important. Not in the sense that “all of society desperately needs to know if this L dwarf is magnetically active,” but in the sense that “no one will hire me if I can’t write this dang paper both perfectly and soon.” I had trouble figuring out what I actually needed to do to continue with my career, and so everything felt super high stakes. On the other hand, I worked independently and no one would know if I got nothing done for a week, so I lacked regular accontability. I know some academics can thrive in that situation and others find different approaches, environments, and collaborations. I found it difficult to get things done and impossible to change.
In a new environment, I’m much more able to find balance. I have relatively little pressure from work to produce anything immediately, nor does anything feel like it will make or break my career. My manager is happy if I am either progressing or keeping him in the loop with my roadblocks. I can take vacations without thinking about work, I can close my laptop at 6 and not feel guilt.
4. Compatability with my manager is super important.
On a daily basis, the majority of my interactions are with my manager, and I would be so stressed out if they weren’t going well. I think we work pretty well together, and I felt like that might be true even during the job interview, where our conversation established a mutual respect and ability to communicate well. It made me really glad that a few of the jobs I applied for didn’t take me, because I didn’t feel so good about the conversations with my future manager. I feel supported, and it’s really important.
5. I don’t feel stuck.
This is a very new feeling. Like most German work contracts, once I passed six months of probabtion, my contract became unlimited. After 16 years of positions with ticking clocks, I finally feel that the roles are reversed, and I can stay as long as it’s positive for me. I can ask if I want fewer hours, more pay, a different job title, or more job responsibilities. There’s no guarantee I’ll get any of those things, but I can also look for a new job without committing to a cross-country (or trans-atlantic) move. I have stability, and it helps me feel free.
6. It is easier to get things paid for.
Talking with an academic friend recently reminded me of how big the shift is in work-related money. I don’t actually have as much money as I used to for travel, but I also don’t have international collaborations. It’s not just the amount, though, it’s also the attitude towards money. I didn’t have to write a grant to pay for my work laptop. HR arranged and paid for three months of intensive German lessons for my permanent residency. There’s free coffee and beer at the office. Arranging conference registration has required no forms filled out and approved ahead of time. It’s all just easier to manage.
7. I don’t miss astronomy.
I thought I would want to finish some projects, or work with data for fun, or click on the arXiv links that flash by me on twitter. I have absolutely no desire to do so. I’ve happily given comments on a couple paper drafts and answered some questions that were in my wheelhouse, but I have no energy for independent work in astronomy.
8. I do miss diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I don’t really see the inclusion of marginalized groups at my current company. Especially in my own corner - an overlap of engineering and finance - it seems pretty straight, white, able, and male. I’m used to being a straight-passing queer among straights, but not being the only woman on an otherwise male team. There were plenty of issues in astronomy too, but at least I knew that there were other people seeing what I see and working towards justice. I don’t know the community here, and I would like to.
9. I’m still looking for my work community.
I don’t think I mean my office, though I don’t know people there as well as I want. But I haven’t had a chance to find my fellow data scientists, women in tech, queers in tech, and whoever else are my work-related folks. I have some leads, but haven’t had a chance to actually jump in. I guess before I started I hoped this would form more easily, or spring into existence. It looks like it is work I need to do, and now that I’m out of survival mode, I’ll get started.