The Naked Data Scientist

Much has been written about the ‘sexiness’ of Data Science, and all the fun to be had in coding with Python and R, training Deep Learning models, and doing important work like identifying cats in a set of photos.

In the next instalment of this series, I’d like to shed some light on some of the lesser known realities of being a practising Data Scientist:

  • Data Science can be a challenging and lonely pursuit, where you can feel isolated from the broader organisation – and your fellow geeks.
  • You need to become comfortable being uncomfortable, as you often have to work with little guidance, and potentially have to conduct research and development to unrealistiically tight timeframes.
  • Sometimes you’re the entire analytics pipeline, from wrangling data, generating models, and then productionising these models, whilst battling with the broader organisation to source and ultimately understand the data you need.
  • Expectations are often unrealistic, and requirements unclear from ‘customers’ who don’t really know what they want.
  • You’re often communicating complex ideas to skeptical audiences, which is challenging – and a skill you need to develop from early in your career.
  • You often feel like you’re striving to find some meaningful work, as you’re given menial tasks that don’t utilise all your training and expertise, or sufficiently challenge you – or are even particularly valuable.
  • More often than not, you have a manager who doesn’t understand what you do and what motivates you, and who simply can’t provide the technical support you need to help strengthen and grow your skills.
  • The exploratory aspect of the role can be time-consuming and frustrating, seeing you spend copious energy sourcing relevant data and information, but your efforts won’t always lead to success.
  • Being great at your job means you’ll be highly valuable with guaranteed career advancement – NOT! Sorry, this is a good example of expectations and reality not matching up in Data Science. There’s so much more to achieving success as a Data Scientist, beyond strong technical expertise. For many, this dawns on them with a bang, and then a whimper…
  • You’ll most likely be the go-to person for EVERYTHING and ANYTHING data related. This is especially true in smaller and less analytically mature organisations. Be prepared to be expected to be the fountain of knowledge for: all coding languages, Data Science AND Analytics Engineering, ALL the datasets, every algorithm ever invented (including all the latest ones)…
  • Excel is your friend – sorry. And don’t even think of ignoring SQL The data won’t often be handed to you clean, ready to go, and with explanations.
  • Metrics are also your friend – until they’re not. They’ll help measure and gauge, until they measure something that someone doesn’t want to see…
  • Ever heard of Imposter Syndrome?
  • In some industries, career progression is limited, unless you want to move into the generalist/management stream, and even then, you’ll always be seen as just a nerd, rather than a leader – or you’ll at least feel that way. As one of my earlier managers told me, “you can’t escape your past”, and
  • Finally, and most importantly, as a Data Scientist you tend to be part of a complex system trying to enact change. However, it’s sometimes not in the best interest of those who stand to benefit from that change. This can be uncomfortable, futile, frustrating and soul destroying…

It is ultimately a challenging and rewarding career, and for many of us, the only career we want, but it’s not for everyone.

If you choose to go down this path, it helps to identify what type of ‘Data Science Professional’ you want to be, to ensure the right fit for both you and your manager. Do you want to focus more on the modelling/research stream, where you can exercise your maths/stats expertise, or maybe you prefer the Analytics/Software Engineering side, where your computing skills are at the fore. I suggest finding a good technical mentor to help guide you with such decisions.

To all aspiring Data Scientist’s – I hope this article helps you prepare for the reality of the career, by balancing out all the fun, hype and sexiness that is too often the focus.

To any Data Scientist who’s feeling some of the above pain – you’re not alone! I’ve experienced all of the above early in my career, and some, multiple times. Don’t forget that help is available. Your peers are most likely going through the same thing. Reach out to them, or to the broader Data Science network, which is incredibly supportive. Ideally, discuss any concerns with your manager, and it’s always great to have a trusted mentor too for support, and to provide an objective view.