Career advise. Upgrading data science career

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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.

Five things I wish people knew about real-life machine learning

Deena Gergis is a data science lead at Bayer. I recently discovered Deena’s article on LinkedIn titled “Five Things I Wish I Knew About Real-Life AI.” I think that this article is a great piece of a career advice for all the current and aspiring data scientists, as well as for all the professionals who work with them. Let’ me take Deena’s headings and add my 2 cents.

One. It is all about the delivered value, not the method.

I fully agree with this one. Nobody cares whether you used a linear regression or recurrent neural network. Nobody really cares about p-values or r-squared. What people need are results, insights, or working products. Simple, right?

Two. Packaging does matter

Again, well said. The way you present your solution to your colleagues, customers, or stakeholders can determine whether your project will get more funds and resources or not. 

Three. Doing the right things != doing things right.

Exactly. Citing Deena: “you might be perfectly predicting a KPI that no one cares about.” Enough said. 

Four. Set realistic expectations.

Not everybody realizes that “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence” are not a synonym of “magic” but rather a form of statistics (I hope “real” statisticians won’t get mad at me here). The principle “garbage in – garbage out” holds in machine learning. Moreover, sometimes, ML systems amplify the garbage, resulting in “garbage in, tons of garbage out”. 

Five. Keep humans in the loop.

Let me cite Deena again: “My customers are my partners, not just end-users.” Note that by “customers,” we don’t only mean walk-in clients, but also any internal customer, project manager, even a colleague who works on the same project. They are all partners with unique insights, domain knowledge, and experience. Use them to make your work better. 

Read the original article here. Deena Gergis has several more articles on LinkedIn here. And if you know Arabic, you might want to watch Deena’s videos on YouTube here. Unfortunately, my Arabic is not good enough to understand her Egyptian accent, but I suspect that her videos are as good as her writings.

Bioinformatics career advice and a story about a Soviet shoemaker

When I was in elementary school (back in the USSR of the mid 80’s), I had a friend whose father was a shoemaker. Due to the crazy stupid way the Soviet economy worked, a Soviet shoemaker was much richer than a physician or an engineer. But this is not the story. The story is that one day this friend’s father had a chat with me about selecting a profession. This man’s point was that for as long as people have feet and need shoes on their feet, a shoemaker would be required and well-earning occupation. Guess what? People still have feet, and still, ware shoes, but I don’t see too many successful shoemakers anymore. 

Common wisdom says, “It is very hard to predict, especially the future.” And I will add “even more especially, about the job market.”. Nevertheless, people need to decide what to do with their lives, how to live, and what career paths to pursue. Some of them ask me, and I’m glad to answer. If you have any career-related questions, don’t be shy! Write to, and I’ll see what wisdom I will be able to share with you.

Anyhow, this is a letter that I got from another pharmacist looking for a data science career.

Hope you are doing well. I saw your posts on Quora and thought of asking a doubt.
First let me tell my background. I am from India, I completed my Doctor of Pharmacy program (Pharm D). I am familiar with computer programming. I have intermediate knowledge in python and R programming.  So I thought taking up Bioinformatics and computational biology Masters program so that I can connect Pharma industry and my knowledge in computer science. 
What do you think? 
I have applied to University XYZ and got offer letter. I have to take a decision within 2 weeks.
Please let me know your thoughts on this.

To which I replied

Obviously, since the path you are describing similar to the one I took, I will think that it is a good idea. Moreover, as you might have read in my blog (for example, here), my opinion is that advanced degrees give much more stable foundations, compared to the “fast and easy” courses. Having said that, your life is yours, not mine, and the job market today is not the job market in 2001 when I graduated my B.Pharm.  

Thank you so much for replying to my silly question. I am honoured to get a response from you. 

First of all, I don’t believe in “there are no silly questions” bullshit, but asking a silly question is better than not asking at all. Secondly, these questions are not silly at all.

I have a question, in your post dated 2017, you have mentioned that Bioinformatics was booming in 2001 and now it has lost its significance. Are you still have the same thoughts? 

I think that this person refers to the most visited post of mine “Don’t study data science as a career move; you’ll waste your time!”.  There is also a 2019 follow-up.

If that is the case then me taking a master’s in bioinformatics and computational genomics would be a bad idea, right ?

Here’s what I responded. Keep in mind that I wrote this before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Look, the markets in different countries are different. 

Back in the old days, there was a worldwide wave of closing bioinfo companies. All the Israeli ones were either closing or counting weeks before closing. One anecdote: I was interviewing at a company. Two weeks later, I called the person who interviewed me to ask whether I got the job or not, and the secretary told me that that person was fired due to layoffs. 

Right now, Israel sees a renaissance of bioinformatics companies, but I don’t know what will happen in the future. These companies live mostly out of investors’ money and are subject to strict regulations. However, if you get a good education, your head will be full of useful mental models, relevant basic knowledge, and good practices. 

End of quote. One of The COVID-19 madness side effects is the massive influx of money into biotech companies. Is this a short-term anecdote, or will it become a sustainable trend? I have no idea.

Do you have any career-related questions to me? You don’t have to be a pharmacist to ask :-). Write to I promise to respond, even if by sending a link to my blog posts. 

Another piece of career advice

Here’s another email that I got with the question about switching to the data science career

Hello, my name is X. I saw your blog, and to be honest, I said, “Wow, is this me :)” I’m a pharmacist 5th-grade student currently working on a project in computational drug design. I started programming, and I loved it. After that, I heard the term “Data Science” and started to do some research […]

Basically, I loved being on a computer and solving problems its a good career option for me (at least for now, you can’t predict future) my mom has a pharmacy I worked there (internship), and it is not for me (i am counting the time when I’m in a pharmacy.) so I have a few questions for you

I don’t have any degree in statistics or CS or something equivalent I am determined to learn these topics, but some people want to see the degree, and probably no one accept a pharmacist to a master degree in statistics (I also wish to do my Ms in computational drug design because, in the end, I don’t want to be a data scientist in social sciences or economics, at least for now, I want to use that knowledge in my field which is drugs and pharmaceuticals)

Ph.D. on Bioinformatics would help ? or Biostatistics ( is it easier for us to be accepted in biostatistics rather than statistics? To be honest, I don’t know the difference much, I took a biostatistics class, but it was just one semester and probably not enough for Ph.D. :))

Do I really need a degree in CS or statistics to be a pharmaceutical data scientist? I want to do my Ph.D. but also want to be realistic, it sounds amazing doing online masters in statistics while you are doing Computational drug design or Bİoinformatics Ph.D., but it is very hard and frustrating and also decrease your productivity in both fields.

I asked a lot of questions, sorry, but I have many :). You can reply when you have time. Thank you, and I loved your blog. I read and watched tons of things, but yours was the best suited for me because being a pharmacist, computational drug design, considering bioinformatics, it is all fits. By the way, I also considering cybersecurity (not working in a company but learning). I see that as a “martial arts of the future,” maybe I am wrong, but a person should know it to protect him/her self. Thank you again 🙂

Indeed, X’s background sounds very much like mine.
I’m not sure I have too much to add to what I already wrote here, in this blog. The only thing that I have to say is that in my biased opinion, a Ph.D. is something worth pursuing. The more time passes by, the more Ph.Ds there are, and the lack of a degree might be a problem in the future job market. On the other hand, there are many smart and rich people who claim that university degrees are a waste of time. Go figure 🙂

I hope that this helps.

Career advice. A clinical pharmacist, epidemiologist, and a Ph.D. student wants to become a data scientist.

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From time to time, I get emails from people who seek advice in their career paths. If I have time, I write them an extended reply and if they agree, I publish the questions and my replies here, in my blog. Here’s one such email exchange. All similar pieces of advice, as well as other rants about a career in data science, can be found here.

“Hi Boris 🙂
My name is XXXXX. I came across your blog while searching for people with a mix of pharmacy and data science skillsets. Your blog has been so informative to me so far but I was compelled to write to you to ask for your advice.
I am a clinical pharmacist by background but decided to leave the clinical pharmacy to pursue public health. Whilst doing my MPH, I fell in love with epidemiology and statistics and am now doing a Ph.D. in biostatistics. Your blog has made me feel very happy that I made this career move <…>  I feel better about my decision to leave the pharmacy and pursue a quant Ph.D. I have gone from pharmacy, to internships at <YYYY> as I wanted to pursue a career in <ZZZZZ> and now I am thinking of data science in the tech industry…my background is a bit confusing!”

In the past, I also felt that the pharmacy degree was confusing many potential employers, and since I wanted to leave the bio/pharma world and move to “pure data” positions, I omitted the B.Pharm title & studies from my CV. Ten years ago, the salaries in the bio sector, here in Israel, were much lower than the salaries in the “high tech” field. I think that today this situation is more or less normalized and that the people got used to the fact that a typical “data scientist” can have a very wide range of degrees.

“I was just wondering if I could get your opinion on the three questions I have. 
1. I work part-time as a clinical pharmacist to not forget my clinical skills. What do you think about the future of the pharmacy career overall?”

My last shift as a pharmacist

This is a huge question and I don’t have answers to it. Moreover, the answer depends heavily on legal regulations in the given country. I say that if you enjoy treating people, and can afford this time, why not? I, personally, was a very lousy pharmacist 🙂 so I was very happy to leave the pharmacy.

“I am wondering if I should keep up my pharmacist title or pursue data science full-time.”

Again, it depends. For many years, I didn’t have my pharmacy title in my CV because it felt unrelated to what I was doing. It was also a nice icebreaker to tell people with whom I worked “by the way, I’m a pharmacist” and it was fun to see their reactions. If I were you, I would ask two-three HR people or people who recruit employees what they think. Different countries may behave differently. 

“2. At what point can someone call themselves a data scientist?”

In my opinion, as long as you are comfortable enough to call yourself a data scientist, you are good to go. Note that unlike many people who got their data science “title” after taking some online courses, you already have a very strong theoretical base. Not only are your Master’s and the future Ph.D. degree relevant to data science, but they also give you strong and unique advantages. 

“I am looking at DS jobs at large tech companies. I am not sure how qualified and experienced I have to be for these jobs. I code in R using regression, clustering and time series methods and I am quite fluent in this language. I have just started to learn ML algorithms. I have a basic foundation in Python and SQL. I use Tableau for visualization and love communicating my research at any opportunity I get. I was wondering…how good do I have to be able to apply to DS jobs? What are the methods that data scientists use mostly? Would I be able to learn on the job?”

It sounds like a good combination of techniques. I am not recruiting but if I would, I would definitely like this list of skills. Personally, I don’t like R too much and prefer Python. But once you program one language, moving to another one is a doable task. As to what methods do data scientists use mostly, this hugely depends on your job. Most of my time, I clean data and write wrapper functions around known algorithms. The task that I have been facing during my professional life required regression, classification, network analysis. I never did real deep learning stuff, but I know people who only do deep learning for image and sound analysis. Also, in many cases, the data science part takes only 10% of your time because the “customer” doesn’t care about an algorithm, they want a solution. See this post for a nice example.

“3. If you had the opportunity to start your career again, say you were in your early twenties, what would you study and why? What advice would you have for your younger self? I would be so keen to hear what you think.”

It’s a philosophical task which I never like doing. What is done is done. The fact that I am a pretty successful data scientist may mean that I took the right decisions or that I was super lucky. 

Software commodities are eating interesting data science work — Yanir Seroussi

If you read my shortish post about staying employable as a data scientist, you might like a longer post by a colleague, Yanir Seroussi. In his post, Yanir lists four possible paths for a data scientist: (1) become an engineer; (2) reinvent the wheel; (3) search for niches; and (4) expand the cutting edge.

To this list, I would also add two other options.

(5) Manage. Managing is not developing, it’s a different profession. However, some developers and data scientists that I know choose this path. I am not a manager myself, so I hope I don’t insult the managers who read these lines, but I think that it is much easier for a good manager to stay good, than for a good developer or data scientist.

(6) Teach. I teach as a part-time job. One reason for teaching is that I sometimes enjoy it. Another reason is that I feel that at some point, I might not be good enough to stay on the cutting edge but still sharp enough to teach the new generations the basics.

Anyhow, read Yanir’s post linked below.

The passage of time makes wizards of us all. Today, any dullard can make bells ring across the ocean by tapping out phone numbers, cause inanimate toys to march by barking an order, or activate remote devices by touching a wireless screen. Thomas Edison couldn’t have managed any of this at his peak—and shortly before […]

Software commodities are eating interesting data science work — Yanir Seroussi

Career advice. A research pharmacist wants to become a data scientist.

Recently, I received an email from a pharmacist who considers becoming a data scientist. Since this is not a first (or last) similar email that I receive, I think others will find this message exchange interesting.

Here’s the original email with minor edits, followed by my response.

The question

Hi Boris, 

My name is XXXXX, and I came across your information and your advice on data science as I was researching career opportunities.

I currently work at a hospital as a research pharmacist, mainly involved in managing drugs for clinical trials.
Initially, I wanted to become a clinical pharmacist and pursued 1-year post-graduate residency training. However, it was not something I could envision myself enjoying for the rest of my career.

I then turned towards obtaining a Ph.D. in translational research, bridging the benchwork research to the bedside so that I could be at the forefront of clinical trial development and benefit patients from the rigorous stages of pre-clinical research outcomes. I much appreciate learning all the meticulous work dedicated before the development of Phase I clinical trials. However, Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences was overkill for what I wanted to achieve in my career (in my opinion), and I ended up completing with master’s in pharmaceutical sciences.

Since I wanted to be involved in both research and pharmacy areas in my career, I ended up where I am now, a research pharmacist.

My main job description is not any different from typical hospital pharmacists. I do have a chance of handling investigational medications, learning about new medications and clinical protocols, overseeing side effects that may be a crucial barrier in marketing the trial medications, and sometimes participating in development of drug preparation and handling for investigator-initiated trials. This does keep my job interesting and brings variety in what I do. However, I do still feel I am merely following the guidelines to prepare medications and not critically thinking to make interventions or manipulate data to see the outcomes. At this point, I am preparing to find career opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry where I will be more actively involved in clinical trial development, exchanging information about targeting the diseases and analyzing data. I believe gaining knowledge and experiences in critical characteristics for the data science field would broaden my career opportunities and interest. Still, unfortunately, I only have pharmacy background and have little to no experience in computer science, bioinformatics, or machine learning.

The answer

First of all, thank you for asking me. I’m genuinely flattered. I assume that you found me through my blog posts, and if not, I suggest that you read at least the following posts

All my thoughts on the career path of a data scientist appear in this page

Now, specifically to your questions.

My path towards data science was through gradual evolution. Every new phase in my career used my previous experience and knowledge. From B.Sc studies in pharmacy to doctorate studies in computational drug design, from computational drug design to biomathematical modeling, from that to bioinformatics, and from that to cybersecurity. Of course, my path is not unique. I know at least three people who followed a similar career from pharmacy to data science. Maybe other people made different choices and are even more successful than I am. My first advice to everyone who wants to transition into data science is not to (see the first link in the list above). I was lucky to enter the field before it was a field, but today, we live in the age of specialization. Today we have data analysts, data engineers, machine learning engineers, NLP scientists, image processing specialists, etc. If computational modeling is something that a person likes and sees themselves doing for living, I suggest pursuing a related advanced degree with a project that involves massive modeling efforts. Examples of such degrees for a pharmacist are computational chemistry, pharmacoepidemiology, pharmacovigilance, bioinformatics. This way, one can utilize the knowledge that they already have to expand the expertise, build a reputation, and gain new knowledge. If staying in academia is not an option, consider taking a relevant real-life project. For example, if you work in a hospital, you could try identifying patterns in antibiotics usage, a correlation between demographics and hospital re-admission, … you get the idea.

Whatever you do, you will not be able to work as a data scientist if you can’t write computer programs. Modifying tutorial scripts is not enough; knowing how to feed data into models is not enough.

Also, my most significant knowledge gap is in maths. If you do go back to academia, I strongly suggest taking advantage of the opportunity and taking several math classes: at least calculus and linear algebra and, of course, statistics. 

Do you have a question for me?

If you have questions, feel free writing them here, in the comments section or writing to

Staying employable and relevant as a data scientist

One common wisdom is that creative jobs are immune to becoming irrelevant. This is what Brian Solis, the author of “Lifescale” says on this matter

On the positive side, historically, with every technological advancement, new jobs are created. Incredible opportunity opens up for individuals to learn new skills and create in new ways. It is your mindset, the new in-demand skills you learn, and your creativity that will assure you a bright future in the age of automation. This is not just my opinion. A thoughtful article in Harvard Business Review by Joseph Pistrui was titled, “The Future of Human Work Is Imagination, Creativity, and Strategy.” He cites research by McKinsey […]. In their research, they discovered that the more technical the work, the more replaceable it is by technology. However, work that requires imagination, creative thinking, analysis, and strategic thinking is not only more difficult to automate; it is those capabilities that are needed to guide and govern the machines.

Many people think that data science falls into the category of “creative thinking and analysis”. However, as time passes by this becomes less true. Here’s why.

As time passes by, tools become stronger, smarter, and faster. This means that a problem that could have been solved using cutting edge algorithms running by cutting edge scientists on cutting edge computers, will be solvable using a commodity product. “All you have to do” is to apply domain knowledge, select a “good enough” tool, get the results and act upon them. You’ll notice that I included two phases in quotation marks. First, “all you have to do”. I know that it’s not that simple as “just add water” but it gets simpler.

“Good enough” is also a tricky part. Selecting the right algorithm for a problem has dramatic effect on tough cases but is less important with easy ones. Think of a sorting algorithm. I remember my algorithm class professor used to talk how important it was to select the right sorting algorithm to the right problem. That was almost twenty years ago. Today, I simply write list.sort() and I’m done. Maybe, one day I will have to sort billions of data points in less than a second on a tiny CPU without RAM, which will force me into developing a specialized solution. But in 99.999% of cases, list.sort() is enough.

Back to data science. I think that in the near future, we will see more and more analogs of list.sort(). What does that mean to us, data scientists? I am not sure. What I’m sure is that in order to stay relevant we have to learn and evolve.

Featured image by Héctor López on Unsplash