Sunday, September 25, 2011

What I Do All Day

I'm just back from vacation, which is why posting has been light lately. I lined up a few posts to auto-post, and then didn't even check my email for days. It was nice. I have a lot of things I want to write about the vacation, but that will have to wait, because Geekmommyprof is hosting a blog carnival on theoretical/computational sciences, and I want to participate.

As my blog bio blurb says, I work as both a scientist and a techie. I can't go into a lot of detail about what I do, because I've spent my entire career in industry, and I've signed non-disclosure agreements for every job I've held. Also, I've done a lot of different things. Each job is different (I've worked for five companies), and even one job changes a lot with time. Incidentally, this is why I'm always puzzled by the hand-wringing I read on some blogs about the job market for people with PhDs in science. There are so many different things you can do with the PhD, that it is hard to think about it as a single market- or even a couple markets (academic and industrial). I've held jobs that absolutely required a PhD and jobs that didn't. I've held jobs that were heavy on the science and light on the tech, and vice versa. I do a lot of management, too, of both people and projects, and I've discovered that I like that, too.

But, back to the main topic: what do I do? Well, when I'm doing science, it is all on the computer. I haven't done wet lab work since graduate school. I'll have to be a bit vague, due to those non-disclosure agreements and the thin veil of anonymity I keep on this blog. Basically, my science work all boils down to trying to use the available data to help my company make better decisions. I analyze data sets with a variety of algorithms. I occasionally develop my own algorithms, but that is not common and is not my forte- I am better and stitching together other people's algorithms into sensible (and repeatable!) processes. I do write a little bit of code, but I don't consider myself a programmer- more of a scripter. I can get things done, but if I need some code that can be used by other people in a robust process, I hire a real programmer and tell him/her what I need.

My techie home is databases. I never expected to be a techie, but I realized in graduate school that I couldn't do some analyses I wanted to do because the data weren't organized in a reasonable way. This has gotten better over the years, but it is still a problem- if you want to do some computational work in the biosciences, chances are high that you will have to spend a fair amount of time assembling your data sets. In many cases, you have to manually (or, depending on your tolerance for errors, programmatically) pull data from published papers. This bugged me then, and still bugs me now. Also, I have always loved organizing information. So I suppose it is no surprise that I ended up doing a lot of work in this area. When I'm doing this sort of work, I design databases and other data structures (such as XML-based languages) to store scientific information. This requires that I really understand the data and also that I understand the theory behind databases.

I like the variety that comes with my work. I love the intellectual challenge of designing a robust database that will stand up to unexpected future requirements, and I love the thrill of forming a hypothesis based on an analysis I've done. It is particularly fun if my hypothesis is supported by subsequent lab work. When I'm wearing my project manager's hat, I like figuring out how to bring all the pieces together to get a project to complete successfully- it is like a big logic problem.

I dislike the corporate BS that I often have to deal with as a manager- but that comes with the territory. I don't love the volatility in my industry, but I've learned to deal with that, and even see the bright side of having a chance to reinvent myself every so often.

I sort of fell into this line of work based on the needs of my PhD research project, but I've usually been pretty happy with my career. It is ironic that I'm writing this post now, though, because I've been feeling a bit restless in my career lately. I've been doing this sort of work for more than a decade, and I find myself day dreaming a bit about different things I could do. That is a topic for another post, though... and anyway, most days I still really enjoy my work. So my daydreams may come to naught.

I know this post has probably been frustratingly vague. If you have questions, leave them in the comments. I'll answer them if I can!


  1. Cloud, thank you so much for contributing to the carnival!

  2. Dr. Sneetch6:03 AM

    I like your post...analyzing data in all its manifestations and how it comes up in different companies in different ways.


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