PhD Alternative Paths #1: Dave, Quantum Chemist to Data Scientist

Dave's helping me launch a new tab on the blog called "PhD Alternatives" which is going to give examples of other careers people have pursued after their PhD or before they completed it. This series isn't intended to say academia isn't a worthwhile pursuit; instead, it's meant to serve as a reminder that there are options and don't feel boxed in based on those around you. 

Ah! So that's what Chemists do! 
One of the first things that people notice about my appearance is that my left arm is adorned with equations from quantum mechanics and pictures from your average physical chemistry textbook. I spent the first two and a half decades of my life learning about and being captivated by science. I graduated from undergrad with two degrees, one in math and one in chemistry, and was hell-bent on continuing my journey. I applied to a handful of grad schools and managed to sneak my way into my first choice, UC Irvine. I arrived on campus a few months early and managed to court the advisor I wanted.

He was the sort of advisor any first year would want. Incredibly smart, fun to have a beer with, and had a publication with over 50k citations. I knew I’d never need to worry about funding and I also knew that, because academia is such a rat race, publishing would be easier since he had great name recognition.

My first year went better than I could have hoped. I managed to shed imposter’s syndrome relatively quickly, published a paper during my first quarter, got As in all of my classes, and even landed a summer gig at Los Alamos. In spite of all of this, it was right around the time that I actually flew out to New Mexico that I started to have doubts about my future in academia. I found most of the research I was doing to be dreadfully esoteric, and I just wasn’t melding with the culture particularly well. Worst of all, in my mind, was the horrid work-life balance that seemed to be endemic in my field. Graduate students and professors alike seemed to only think and talk about their science. We all worked weekends and 12 hour days, and this was just sort of accepted by all. Well, maybe not all…

Grumpy Dave in graduate school 
By the end of my time at LANL, I was pretty sure I needed to, at the very least, switch projects. But my advisor was incredibly inflexible. He laughed at me the first time I asked to switch, and was flabbergasted the second time, saying I should have brought this up sooner. It was at this point I started to seriously consider leaving with my Master’s, and it was also at this time I realized I’d basically spent the last two years learning how to program. Hmmm…

My job search was as torturous as one might imagine. My first few cover letters were less descriptions of my skills and more manifestos about how awful academia was. Which, by the way, is a terrible way to market oneself. I also quickly realized that 4 years of Fortran isn’t exactly a sexy skillset to advertise, so I set to work teaching myself python and MySQL. I also spent a fair bit of time reading up on data science because being able to speak the lingo is just as important as being able to write an algorithm that scales linearly. Most importantly, I reached out to people I knew who were already in the field, not only for help in applying for jobs they knew about, but also to lean on their experience, and use their knowledge to enhance my resume and cover letters.

By the end of the summer following my second year of grad school, I had two offers from two companies I really loved. Better still, one of them was in Manhattan, and I’d grown up in Northern New Jersey fantasizing about the day I’d be able to work in the city. All in all, it took me about 6 months, hundreds of unanswered job applications, 3 flights for in-person interviews, roughly 10 skype interviews, an uncountable number of beers, twice as many cups of coffee, and enough uncertainty to fray ones sanity. But at the end of it, I’d successfully escaped from academia and I now find myself spending my days leveraging AWS, battling async in node, and writing code that is hit by hundreds (maybe thousands?) of users every day. Most importantly, I’m learning. Learning more than I did when I was in grad school. And that’s why I wake up each day.

It’s hard to express just how much happier I am now. When I made the decision to abscond from science, I often told people close to me that I wanted more control over my time. I wanted to work on projects with immediate impact in the world. Interestingly, I get exactly those things from my current job, and they are as satisfying as I’d anticipated. What I didn’t expect was to love my work as much as I do. There’s something utterly delightful about solving problems that are as chaotic and fuzzy as one finds when trying to support a business with code. The interface between the on/off-ness of programming and the fluidity of marketing makes for a space rich in fun puzzles.

If you’re trying to switch from science to any sort of information technology career, just keep pushing. The innumerable coding bootcamps and myriad communities all over the web will get you where you want to go.

- Dave (check out his blog at

Cheers to you too Dave !



Lois Keller said...

You go Dave! Despite your questionable taste in Beer :P

Jeff Hallett said...

Exactly - this kind of work deserves more than a Coors Light - cool story

Ehrenfestival said...

It's Guinness, it just happens to be in a crappy cup.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask how much actual data analysis skills you had when you started applying to data science companies? Was your research in quantum chemistry related to extracting information from huge sets of data?