Career advise. Upgrading data science career

From time to time, people send me emails asking for career advice. Here’s one recent exchange.

Hi Boris,

I am currently trying to decide on a career move and would like to ask for your advice.

I have a MSc from a leading university in ML, without thesis.

I have 5 years of experience in data science at <XXX Multinational Company> , producing ML based pipelines for the products. I have experience with Big Data (Spark, …), ML, deploying models to production…

However, I feel that I missed doing real ML complicated stuff. Most of the work I did was to build pipelines, training simple models, do some basic feature engineering… and it worked good enough.

Well, this IS the real ML job for 91.4%* of data scientists. You were lucky to work in a company with access to data and has teams dedicated to keeping data flowing, neat, and organized. You worked in a company with good work ethics, surrounded by smart people, and, I guess, the computational power was never a big issue. Most of the data scientists that I know don’t have all these perks. Some have to work alone; others need to solve “dull” engineering problems, find ways to process data on suboptimal computers or fight with a completely unstandardized data collection process. In fact, I know a young data scientist who quit their first post-Uni job after less than six months because she couldn’t handle most of these problems.

However I don’t have any real research experience. I never published any paper, and feel like I always did easy stuff. Therefore, I lack confidence in the ML domain. I feel like what I’ve been doing is not complicated and I could be easily replaced.

This is a super valid concern. I am surprised how few people in our field think about it. On the one hand, most ML practitioners don’t publish papers because they are busy doing the job they are paid for. I am a big proponent of teaching as a means of professional growth. So, you can decide to teach a course in a local meetup, local college, in your workplace, or at a conference. Teaching is an excellent way to improve your communication skills, which are the best means for job security (see this post).

Since you work at XXXXX , I suggest talking to your manager and/or HR representative. I’m SURE that they will have some ideas for a research project that you can take full-time or part-time to help you grow and help your business unit. This brings me to your next question.

I feel like having a research experience/doing a PhD may be an essential part to stay relevant in the long term in the domain. Also, having an expertise in one of NLP/Computer Vision may be very valuable.

I agree. Being a Ph.D. and an Israeli (we have one of the largest Ph.D. percentages globally) makes me biased.

I got 2 offers:

– One with <YYY Multinational company> , to do research in NLP and Computer Vision. […] which is focused on doing research and publishing papers […]

– One with a very fast growing insurance startup, for a data scientist position, as a part of the founding team team. […] However, I feel it would be the continuation of my current position as a data scientist, and I would maybe miss on this research component in my career.

You can explore a third option: A Ph.D. while working at your current place of work. I know for a fact that this company allows some of their employees to pursue a Ph.D. while working. The research may or may not be connected to their day job.

I am very hesitant because

– I am not sure focusing on ML models in a research team would be a good use of my time as ML may be commoditised, and general DS may be more future-proof. Also I am concerned about my impact there.

– I am not sure that I would have such a great impact in the DS team of the startup, due to regulations in the pricing model [of that company], and the fact that business problems may be solved by outsourced tools.

These are hard questions to answer. First of all, one may see legal constraints as a “feature, not a bug,” as they force more creative thinking and novel approaches. Many business problems may indeed be solved by outsourcing, but this usually doesn’t happen in problems central to the company’s success since these problems are unique enough to not fit an off-the-shelf product. You also need to consider your personal preferences because it is hard to be good at something you hate doing.

From time to time, I give career advice. When the question or the answer is general enough, I publish them in a post like this. You may read all of these posts here.

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