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Ted Hart

I’m a senior data scientist in silicon valley and adjunct faculty at the University of Vermont. I build things for data: things that process it, parse it, visualize it, and analyze it. I like my beer cold, my snow deep, my mountains high, and my data open. I am a recovering academic.

Ted Hart

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ecologist / data scientist / developer

Ferns grow from the walls here...

Authors note: This is part 2 of an ongoing series of posts about moving from academia to industry. You can read part 1, and next week I'll post part 3

I am on a patio surrounded by ferns growing out of the walls, eating steel cut oatmeal topped with sliced almonds and fresh fruit and sipping a latte. This is how I like to start my mornings, sitting in the sun despite my mixed emotions about the sun. It is always sunny on what I now colloquially refer to as the Peninsula, that sprawling mass between San Jose and San Fracisco, and I can't seem to get used to it. My co-workers find this strange, that at times I long for the grey winters of home, and by home I mean either Vermont or Vancouver.

To pick up my story where it last left off, I should bring us to Pittsburgh 2010. I was a year away from finishing my PhD, but after the lessons I'd learned from friends about getting a post-doc early (see last post), I'd been working furiously to set up interviews at the ESA meeting. In many ways the percieved (though I think real) scaricity of funding and post-doc positions shaped my search. As I explained previously, my real background was in field work. However over the course of my PhD I'd concluded that being quantitative would serve me well. I'd worked to bolster my analytical and computational chops and I'd become a pretty strong R programmer in the process (or so I think). While I applied for post-docs, I found my real interest was fusing computational simulation and ecology. I figured this was good because I could distinguish myself from the crush of other post-doc applicants as "the guy who could do field work and program in R", although I'm dubious that would distinguish me these days.

The fern wall of the courtyard

The search brought me to Vancouver, a place that felt like a second home. I truly loved UBC, the scientists at the Beaty Biodiversity center were of the highest caliber from graduate students to faculty. I loved my time there, but professionally I progressed slowly (My papers from my post-doc are coming out this month, one is out now). My post-doc peers went on interviews, were part of many working groups, gave invited talks, and were paper publishing machines. It was only outside of Vermont that I came to see just how truly comptetive the market for jobs I faced was, and the caliber of the competition (spoiler, I was on the bottom). The practical turning point for me came when I was rejected from Science (I've written a long post on this). I had thought (naively in retrospect) that publication there would help me be more competitive. The rejection however just codified a shift that had long been in the making.

It was 2012, and I had joined rOpenSci, started teaching for Software Carpentry, and generally lost interest in publishing. I've seen some friends be truly masterful at publishing, their writing slick and polished from the start, their papers just sliding through review like a greased duck. That however was not me, I struggled, and just generally wasn't interested in the all out slog I felt scientific publishing to be. I had become far more interested in writing R packages, working with data on the web, and other ways of measuring impact. I became a vocal advocate for open science and open access. I knew that my attitude would never get me a faculty job though, and that I needed to let that dream slowly fade (I still haven't completely).

As much as I loved Vancouver, loved UBC, and felt home there, when I was invited to apply for a more permanent job at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) came along, I jumped at the chance. I knew if I wanted to get that faculty job I would have another post-doc or two ahead of me at least, and even then it was no guarantee. At the same time my family's life began to be at odds with my professional aspirations. My wife and I wanted children, we were 33, and she would soon be pregnant. The itinerant lifestyle of the aspiring academic that seemed so romantic just 5 years ago was far less palatable, and the salary that once seemed like a fortune to me at 25 was no where near what I knew I needed to plan for retirement, pay down debt, and support a family. So when the offer came in to work at NEON in ecoinformatics we made the insanely difficult decision to move to Boulder. I left my post-doc 9 months early with the knowledge that the next time we moved, it would be on my terms, not the grant funding cycles.