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Ask HN: Meaningful Data Science Jobs
8 points by unkn0wable 101 days ago | hide | past | web | 3 comments | favorite
Hey HN, I'm currently in the midst of a PhD (several years remaining) and am debating whether continuing is the most productive use of my time. I’ve got a few years’ experience in industry doing data science/ML research and a background in CS/Stats/Econ. Lately, I’ve been looking at “data science”-type jobs to evaluate my outside option. However, the overwhelming majority of data science jobs are a rebranding of business analytics, ad analytics, etc., and are for companies with questionable societal benefit. My question is this: if I’m looking to do “data science” type work (statistics/ML/experimental design/recommender systems), and want to either personally work on something meaningful or want to work for a company doing something meaningful, where should I go?

Are any HN’ers working on something they feel is genuinely making the world better, and looking for a data scientist? If so, what are you working on, and where are you located?

I’m open to suggestions of both specific jobs and general career avenues. Public policy seems like an interesting research area (I’ve worked w/ economists & quantitative sociologists on related topics and enjoyed the work), but I’m not sure whether there are any financially sustainable (non-RA) jobs available in that space for someone with just a masters degree. I’m interested in personalized medicine and medical trial design from an academic research perspective, but I’m not sure who operates in that space or whether a MS would be sufficient long-term.

Any advice is appreciated. Thanks!




I do some data science type work for a charity. This is only part time but I'd imagine larger charities could employ someone full time at this.

The work is not cutting edge data science at all but I do find it meaningful.

Happy to answer questions on here or email me at my gmail (in profile) if you want more thoughts from me.


RTI International (https://www.rti.org/) does the type of work you're talking about. My understanding is they also pay better than what you'd typically see in some policy institutes or postdoc jobs. They have Data Science jobs that don't require a PhD.

Keep in mind with areas like public policy or other areas typically involved with government or NGOs, it's important to understand the subject area you are working in beyond pure quantitative analysis. Here's an example. I recently met somebody who is involved in a project that works with a government agency in Asia to build a model to predict the onset of a particular seasonal disease. The goal is to be able to predict where to allocate beds, doctors, medicine, etc.

The statistical model they are building for this is hard to build well. It's this way because the data collection process is still being refined and there are politics and money involved with the spread and treatment of the disease. No magic algorithm is going to build a great model. They really need somebody who understands the data, the geopolitical climate, and the medical system to build a solid and useful model.

You can train somebody in 4 weeks to blindly try algorithms and pick the model with the lowest error. But only somebody with expertise in at least one areas (e.g. medicine, government) can handle the other parts of this project. So they don't need a pure data scientist. They need a PhD or MD with expertise in other aspects of this particular problem to work with a statistician. It's hard to really get the traction you need in this type of problem without a PhD, MD, JD, etc. If nothing else, take a solid sequence of courses in statistics.

If you don't mind, I'd also like to offer a counterpoint to your thinking about what makes a Data Science job meaningful. I used to work in Data Science consulting and worked with a lot of different companies. Some of these are perceived to be much more evil than good (e.g. Oil and Gas, beverages companies, etc). But you can do good work in these companies despite what they do in the larger scheme of things. For example, we helped an Oil Company build tooling for sensor monitoring so they could prevent chemical spills. In a small way, this helped the environment a little bit. For the beverage company, we helped their supply chain so they were driving fewer miles - a little less crud in the air and less fuel consumed. Not all of this was super-duper ML. Some of it was mundane BI.

I'm aware some of this is rationalization. I've worked on "Personal Offers." This is portrayed as an extreme focus on customer satisfaction, but it's really just about getting people to buy stuff. I didn't enjoy it. Facebook has plenty of this kind of stuff, but they also have their data centers. Maybe a data scientist can help figure out how they can save some electricity and heating in those data centers, or keep servers running for longer so less hardware ends up in a landfill.


You should always be interested in what you are doing and think about how you can use it to better the world. But you also have to think: Is it going to pay me enough to live my life?

I'm not sure what kind of programs you use or if you use any programming, though I encourage you to learn the programming languages that are most used in your field, which I believe is R. I have met some scientists and researchers in my travels who use the R programming language who are making great money and love what they do. As it stands right now, the yearly salary is over $100,000 a year.

Not to say that money is the most important thing in the world, as you should really find something you love to do and enjoy doing it, as well as hopefully contribute something positive to the world. Once you acquire that PhD, you have, in a way, developed this sense of commanding respect no matter what company you work for. More education? You can never go wrong!

I've only got a bachelors psychology degree yet work in the field of web design. Can't say it lacks psychology... from the fonts, the font size, and the colors and placement of everything. We do tend to strategically place things on those pages in certain areas that are more prominent to the eye and make people want to buy. For my professional work, I build landing pages for companies and to sum it up: It is basically the media and advertising industry that I work in. Do I feel like it helps anyone? It helps the consumer world, and businesses, the economy, and drives business engagement to companies so the world can continue to function the way it does. Do I feel it helps anyone personally? I make a living doing it.. so definitely me. But mostly companies and the consumer world.

As for the side projects I work on, I tend to focus on two things: the individual and small business. I do actually feel that my side projects help to make the world a better place, at least, to help people in their everyday lives.

You have to be creative. You have been alive long enough to know that every year, jobs disappear, just as new ones are created every year. Jobs that existed when you were younger don't exist, yet tons more that no one would have ever imagined would ever exist do actually exist today and still many more that have yet to be thought of or dreamed of (Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will soon possibly created hundreds of thousands more jobs)-- imagine surgeons-in-training using that technology to practice on virtual patients).

Find your place in the world and if your job doesn't exist, imagine it, create it. If it already exists, well then, utilize it! My suggestion is to gain experience in the work world, work for a company for a year or so, and if you like it, keep doing what you're doing, and during that time, if you don't like it, think of something you can do to create your own job and meaningful purpose in this world. You sound like a very intelligent individual who already knows what you have to do. You just have to acquire and apply the knowledge and research to do it!

Good luck :)




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