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Julia Silge on Switching Careers from Academia and Finding Her Passion in Data Science

by
Karine

I had the privilege of interviewing Julia Silge (wearing our Tokyo Skirt above), a data scientist at Stack Overflow who lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and 3 kids. She started her career in academia and education, pursuing a Ph.D in Physics and Astronomy, but soon found her passion for using data to answer interesting questions and communicate about technical topics with diverse audiences. Julia is now a leading expert in the field - she writes books, speaks at conferences, and frequently publishes her work and findings. Here, she discusses finding her career path in data science and what keeps her inspired.

Please introduce yourself!

In my professional life, I’m a data scientist at Stack Overflow, which is the world’s largest community for developers. As a data scientist, I use statistics and machine learning to make our site the best place for people who code to learn and share knowledge online, and to help our clients who want to engage with developers be successful. I also contribute to the open source data science community as someone who writes and maintains code, which means I build software that anyone can use in their own projects. That’s more like a side gig than part of my day job, but is an important part of my professional identity. I’m also an international keynote speaker focusing on data analysis and machine learning practice.

On the personal side, I’ve been married for 16 years and have 3 kids, ages 12, 9, and 7. Life as a mom who works in tech can be pretty intense sometimes! I don’t know if I have anything original or compelling to say about work-life balance or how to “have it all” but I do get a lot of hugs every day and have a life rich in the glorious mess that is family.

When I started my transition into data science, I said yes to pretty much every opportunity that came my way, even if it felt slightly beyond my skill set or experience level...I said yes to many of these things when it felt like I wasn’t sure if I was ready.
Julia preparing to speak at a conference

You started your career teaching and doing research in physics and astronomy. What prompted the career change from academia to data science? How do you think your unique background has helped you in your career today?

There are a lot of professional and personal factors that went into my decision to make a move into data science. These include a) the grueling academic job market, b) how fun it is to get paid to make pretty graphs, c) the growing prevalence of remote work in the tech industry, and d) that one time I was laid off from a job that I’m not even sure I liked in hindsight. Whatever complicated compound of reasons led me to data science, it has turned out to be an amazing fit for my skills and interest! I had intense quantitative training with a rigorous mathematical background, along with a lot of hands-on involvement with messy data generated by some physical process in the real world. Also, I’ve been heavily involved in education in various guises for a long time. Both of these inform how I do data science, because a huge part of what I do is communicate with people about what a data analysis means. The fact that I analyze some dataset or train some machine learning model is great, but if I can’t explain it to my business partners, then we can’t make decisions.

Saying yes is powerful, especially when you are at the beginning of a new adventure, but saying no is also important and at times necessary. My advice is to experiment with saying yes with abandon, but to be wise enough to notice when you need to pull back.

What’s been one of the most rewarding projects you’ve worked on? What was the process like?

One of my favorite recent projects was analyzing a large dataset of film scripts to examine how men and women are portrayed in movies. This wasn’t the most lengthy project (it took a few months on the side of my regular job, from beginning to end) but I loved exploring how the film industry handles gender. We found, for example, that women are more likely to be portrayed twirling or retreating, while men are more likely to be portrayed staggering or slashing. We also used data on the gender of each film’s writers to measure the impact of the writer’s gender on these relationships.

Analyzing gender tropes in film with screen direction from 2,000 scripts

Another recent project that I’m super proud of is my book on text mining, published last year. This one was a big project, taking most of a year to complete. I wrote this in partnership with my collaborator Dave, and it turned out to be the largest single body of work I’ve finished since my PhD years ago. I loved working on this because text mining and natural language processing hit that sweet spot for me of deeply important in today’s data science community and also compelling and fun.

What’s one piece of advice you’d have for someone looking to change careers?

When I started my transition into data science, I said yes to pretty much every opportunity that came my way, even if it felt slightly beyond my skill set or experience level. I said yes to local hackathons where I built a network of friends and professional colleagues in my city, I said yes to contributing to open source software, and I said yes to speaking at conferences where I shared my own work and learned so much from others. I said yes to many of these things when it felt like I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

I continued to say yes until I reached a point where I was overextended, and was rather out of balance in life. I had reached a point of enough success in my field that I could not say yes to all the good opportunities open to me. Saying yes is powerful, especially when you are at the beginning of a new adventure, but saying no is also important and at times necessary. My advice is to experiment with saying yes with abandon, but to be wise enough to notice when you need to pull back.


The philosophy that drives And Comfort is the idea of finding delight in the everyday What’s something that brings you delight or keeps you inspired?

At the risk of being sentimental, my spouse Rob is who comes to mind with this question. We’ve been married a really long time now, and a lot of our marriage plays out in the normal routines of our workdays, our evenings, our days off. At the same time there is deep delight in our partnership; no other relationship in my life has brought me such freedom to be my true and whole self. We have walked through so many changes, whether that was my own career or parenthood or our maturing understandings of who we are, individually and as a couple. The reality of marriage is about everyday life, not a romantic high, and my experience of that has been full of joy.