How I became a data scientist

May 21, 2018 · 819 words · 4 minutes read data science

A former coworker recently learned I was a psychology major in college and asked how I became a data scientist. Here’s a cleaned up version of what I sent him:

I started college in 2007 without having declared a major although I thought I might study film. There wasn’t an official film major but there were a few film courses and the university had a process for “designing your own major”. The film courses were primarily through the English department which made them pretty good English classes but not very good film classes. To be fair they still were very good classes and a very enjoyable way to spend most of my freshman year.

However during my freshman year I slowly realized two important things: 1) a small liberal arts college in the west central Minnesota was probably not the best place to study film, and 2) that there’s a difference between careers and hobbies. In the fall I tooke the introductory psychology course and enjoyed it so much that I registered for another course by the same professor for the spring. The professor was excellent and I enjoyed the class and thus I became a psychology major.

Sometime during the spring semester of my sophomore year I attended a career/grad school panel by the psychology faculty. There are two main paths for psych majors: 1) get a masters or maybe a Ph.D./Psy.D., and then work as a psychologist (or for a psychologist if you only have a masters), or 2) get a PhD and become a professor. All roads lead to grad school. I also learned that to get into grad school I’d need to either have an internship, publish research, or both. I was more interested in doing research than counseling and it was too late to apply for internships. However it wasn’t too late to apply for grant money for the next academic year.

Throughout my junior year I was heavily focused on research and quickly found out that I needed to learn this important thing called statistics. Because I hadn’t declared a major when I started, I had been assigned an advisor randomly my freshman year. When I declared my psychology major, I had also filled out the form to change my advisor to a psychology professor but never submitted it. This actually worked out really well because I had several professors advising me in psychology and statistics, and a few in other fields.

Nevertheless I felt very behind in my junior year because of all the irrelevant classes I took my freshman year and fall semester of sophomore year. I attended the annual career/grad school panel by the psychology faculty and asked a lot of questions. I wanted to become a professor, teach classes, and do research. I felt more behind. My professors encouraged me to do more research (maybe an internship too) and learn statistics. Research experience would be crucial in grad school and statistics courses would especially help me stand out on applications. I applied for more grant funding.

Over the summer I did an internship with a neuropsychology clinic in Grand Rapids, MI and took the GRE. My scores were fine but not outstanding. I decided I should focus on research instead of clinical work.

I had already taken a few statistics courses but not enough. I still felt behind from time wasted my first year. I began my senior by declaring a statistics minor and decided I’d stay a 5th year to give me enough time to complete it. Again I focused on research and statistics.

In my 5th year I finished up my psychology major and statistics minor. In the fall I applied to graduate programs, a mix of masters programs in statistics and Ph.D. programs in psychology. The responses were mostly underwhelming, except for an email acceptance from Carnegie Mellon. My application to Carnegie Mellon was probably my strongest because I wrote it last, really wanted to go there, and was recommended by a professor who earned his Ph.D. there.

The program at CMU was only one year so it went by quickly. In the spring I got a job offer from Mathematica Policy Research in Washington D.C. but turned it down for a position in a research group at the University of Michigan. I still thought I wanted to do a Ph.D. at some point but I didn’t feel ready to reapply and thought a year or two of academic research would move my application at the top of the stack.

It turned out academia wasn’t everything I thought it was. After a year and a half I applied for a data scientist position at FarmLogs. I’d heard about the job from a former coworker who started working there six months prior. The interview process was tough and it probably helped a lot that I knew someone who worked there.

And then I was a data scientist.