Building Your Career Is More Than Technical

It’s that time of the year again. As the Academic Program Director of the Asian Institute of Management’s MSc. in Data Science program from 2017 to June 2024, I had the privilege of witnessing the growth and success of five cohorts of brilliant data scientists. As our sixth cohort prepares to graduate in September 2024, I’m taking stock of the valuable lessons and experiences we’ve gathered over the years.

During my time as APD, I observed a consistent trend. Every year, graduating students in their final term approach me with similar questions. They seek guidance on finding meaning in their work, landing their dream jobs, negotiating salaries, and navigating the complexities of the professional world. I’d like to believe that these conversations have been mutually enlightening, offering valuable perspectives into the challenges and aspirations of emerging data scientists—actually, not just data scientists, but job seekers in general.

What’s particularly interesting is that our top graduates often find themselves in an enviable yet challenging position. They come to me with three to five job opportunities(!), seeking advice on which offer to accept. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. This situation demands clear guidance and strategic thinking in career decisions.

So, I’ve finally decided to write about this and distill my experience into a post, which I can refer curious graduates to in the future (saving us both some time, hehe). Thanks to all the questions from MSDS 2019 to MSDS 2024, which helped me organize my thoughts on this topic.

If you’re a recent graduate from our MSDS program, a data science enthusiast from anywhere in the world, or someone fortunate enough to be choosing between multiple offers (they don’t have to be in the data science field), I hope this sharing will help you better plan your career path.

Part 1: High-Level Career Advice for New Graduates

As you embark on your professional journey, regardless of the field, it’s crucial to adopt a long-term perspective. While the current job market may be more accepting of “job hopping,” it’s important to look beyond short-term gains and consider how each role contributes to your overall career trajectory.

I start with this because I often get asked about tenure and whether “job hopping” is a good strategy, especially for accelerating salary growth. But honestly, given today’s dynamic work environment, the concept of an “ideal” tenure has evolved. Whether you’re with an organization for eight months or eight years, what matters is the mark (your contributions) you leave.

So, my first piece of advice is this: Make it your mission to leave a positive, lasting impression in every role. Innovate, improve, and create value that outlasts your tenure. This approach benefits your employer and builds your professional reputation.

Now, on “job hopping.” Remember, it’s a free market! (I’d remind employers the same.) However, while I wouldn’t blame you for job hopping to secure better compensation, I’d stilll urge you to focus on growth and meaningful contributions before you leave. Treat each role as a learning opportunity and a chance to make an impact. When you move on, be ready to articulate your specific contributions. Future employers care more about the quality of your work and your achievements than how long you stayed in a role. Also, never cut ties.

Now, for those fortunate enough to have multiple job offers, consider factors beyond just salary; this, I believe, is especially valuable for early-career professionals. Think about which role offers the best learning opportunities, aligns most closely with your long-term goals, and provides a culture that resonates with your values. Sometimes, a lower-paying job with excellent growth potential can be more valuable in the long run than a higher-paying position with limited advancement opportunities.

Finally, remember that your first job is rarely your last. Each position is a stepping stone (whether employers believe this or not), teaching you valuable lessons and helping you refine your career path. Stay open to new experiences, be willing to take calculated risks, and always, always, always keep learning. As my mentors used to tell me, our career is a marathon, not a sprint. #mindset

Part 2: Navigating Job Interviews; Salary Negotiation

My second piece of advice: When it comes to job interviews, preparation and strategy are key. Yup! No shortcuts.

Here, I am assuming you’ve already taken care of the technical aspects. With that, one other crucial aspect of the interview process is salary negotiation. For me, this could be the most awkward part of the interview. Of course, this feeling can be influenced by cultural factors. Regardless… :-)

Generally, it’s better for applicants to delay discussions about salary until later in the interview process. Aim to first demonstrate your value, skills, and potential contributions to the company. Steer the conversation to achieve this.

For our MSDS graduates especially: Remember, your worth isn’t just about your technical skills. It’s also about your problem-solving abilities, your capacity to work in a team, your leadership and communication skills, and your potential to drive the company’s data initiatives forward. Use the interview process to showcase these qualities.

Now, when the time comes to discuss salary, be prepared. Research typical salaries for your level of experience and education in your geographic area. Be realistic in your expectations; don’t ask for a salary that’s significantly above market rates or out of line with your current skills and experience. That’s a big no-no. You’ll look amateur. Also, consider the total compensation package, including benefits, stock options, and GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES. Be ready to negotiate, but also know your worth and be willing to walk away if the offer doesn’t meet your needs.

Part 3: Building a Strong Data Science Portfolio

This third part is for AIM’s MSDS graduates.

My students always hear this from me, and this is my third piece of advice: In the competitive field of data science, your portfolio can be your most powerful tool for landing interviews and impressing potential employers. A well-crafted portfolio showcases not just your technical skills, but also your ability to solve real-world problems and communicate your findings effectively.

Start by including a variety of projects that demonstrate different skills and techniques. This might include machine learning models, data visualization projects, statistical analyses, and written analyses of cases. When possible, include projects that solve actual business problems or provide interesting insights from real-world datasets. You have a lot of these already from your MSDS courses, including your business courses.

Also, don’t just show your code; explain your thought process.

By focusing on these three areas—adopting a long-term, impact-focused mindset, mastering the art of job interviews, and building a compelling portfolio—you’ll be well-positioned to launch and grow a successful career (in data science). Whether you’re choosing between multiple job offers or still searching for your first role, these principles will guide you toward making informed decisions and building a rewarding career in this exciting field.

All the best!