Me, Myself and I

Every ounce of Britishness in my body is deeply uncomfortable writing this post but over the past 12 months I’ve twice been invited to speak at careers panels at conferences and both times I’ve had really positive feedback from young academics looking to hear more about alternative career paths post-PhD. So to save me from giving this talk again, this post outlines (as best I can remember) some of the decisions I’ve made in my career and how I’ve landed where I am today.

» Who am I?

This seems like a reasonable place to start: My name is Arfon Smith, I am a lapsed academic (I have a PhD in Astrochemistry) and I work for a company called GitHub leading their engagment with the research community.

» I have no idea what I am doing

Seriously, looking backwards it’s usually possible to construct some deliberately followed pathway between the things you have done with your life but if you’d asked me when I was 17 what I thought I was going to do with my life I would have told you I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. If you’d asked my towards the end of my degree I would have said I wanted to learn how to make wine professionally1 and if you’d asked me post-PhD I would have told you that I was going to re-train and study medicine. None of these happened, all I’ve done through my career is be responsive to interesting opportunities and not be (too) scared of taking a leap of faith.

» So what did I study?

At high school I student Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Mostly because they were my favourite subjects but I also had heard (correctly it turns out), that by combining these three subjects (especially the Maths and Physics) it was more like studying for 2.5 A-levels because there was so much overlap in the content.

I then enrolled at The University of Sheffield in the Chemistry program.

I got pretty good grades at high-school and so when picking a degree program I was optimising for my deep interest in going somewhere with excellent climbing but also somewhere where I could get a ‘decent’ degree. In the late 90’s, Sheffield had a pretty good Physics program but a really good Chemistry department. I knew I didn’t want to study Maths any further and liked Physics and Chemistry pretty much equally. Psyched about the climbing in and around Sheffield I picked Chemistry.

» Chemistry, not so much…

So it turns out, I’m not that into Chemistry. After the first semester I realised that while Chemistry was interesting enough, some people were waaaay more into it that me. Plus we always seemed to be in the lab when other people were in the bar.

Towards the end of my first year I had reached the firm conclusion that I wanted to stop studying Chemistry as soon as possible. I’d supplemented my first year studies with all of the undergraduate Astrophysics modules (taught in the Physics department) and had really enjoyed these and so I started talking with university administrators about switching degree programs to Physics/Astrophysics. This was pretty much impossible without completely re-doing my first year (I’d missed all of the Maths that they teach in year 1 Physics). Not wanting to do this so I decided to get my head down and get out as soon as possible by switching from a 4-year MSc program to a 3-year BSc.

» Significant decision #1

Finishing up a degree I wasn’t interested in was hard. I found it difficult to motivate myself to attend lectures and realised that with a modest amount of work I could probably scrape a 2.1 (which I did). So during my third year I pretty much checked out but did just enough work to exit with a reasonable qualification.

Luckily for me, my final year project was supervised by a professor named Tony Ryan. He noticed that I wasn’t particularly motivated and challenged me about this. We chatted for a few minutes one evening in his office and talked about how I was lacking motivation for Chemistry. He asked what I was interested in and I mentioned the Astrophysics I’d studied in my first year and how that was the most interesting thing from the last three years. He then said something that turned out to be pretty significant:

You know, there is this thing called ‘Astrochemistry’

It turned out there were funded PhD positions available just 40 miles down the road at The University of Nottingham in a subject that I was really interested in (space stuff) and that needed someone with a solid background in Chemistry. A couple of conversations with my (future) PhD supervisor later and I was signed up to work with him for the next 3-4 years. Here’s a picture of me using a giant telescope in Australia:

» The PhD years

Firstly, I should point out that until someone pretty much offered me a PhD position I hadn’t really thought that hard about a career in academia. To be honest, I didn’t really have a very firm idea of what I wanted to do after finishing up as an undergraduate and the option of spending another few years at university seemed like a pretty reasonable choice.

Given that I haven’t followed a ‘traditional’ academic path, people sometimes ask if I regret spending time getting a PhD. In short, no. I have very fond memories of my time as a PhD student (even with the standard tensions with your supervisor), I got to travel the world, met interesting people (including my wife!) and had ample time to learn new skills which turned out to be pretty important later on.

If I could describe my PhD in one line it would be this:

As interested in the code I was writing as the results being produced.

Basically I found academic research to be interesting, but not interesting enough. If you ever experienced impostor syndrome when arriving at university as an undergraduate then try being a new PhD student. By definition you’re working with some of the smartest people around and I realised that my peers were both better at research than me and more motivated by the work they were doing. For most, academia is a labour of love (you do get paid, but relatively modestly) and so you have to be willing to put in the hours to stay on top of the literature and ahead of your peers. It is widely recognised that there are far more PhD positions than there are permanent positions in academia and so if the ultimate goal2 for a PhD student is to one day be a professor then the vast majority of people fail.

» Everything else you do during your PhD

For many people, a PhD affords you a remarkable amount of freedom. Sure you need to check in with your supervisor fairly regularly but I often wouldn’t see mine for 2-3 weeks at a time. This meant that there was a fair amount of time available to work on things not directly related to my studies. For me, I spent time noodling around writing code and building websites.

My first experience of programming was in my first year as a PhD student and because I was in a Chemistry department the programming language was of course Fortran3. Around the same time I took a basic HTML course at the university library and very quickly graduated on from Fortran to languages like Perl. Around the same time I started to acquire data that needed analysing for my research and so after a few frustrating months of typing commands like a robot into a terminal it was pointed out to me that repetitive tasks could be automated (again with Perl).

Over the next couple of years I started building more and more websites in my spare time, for myself, friends, colleagues and eventually clients in a freelance capactity. The more time I spent writing code, the more I became interested in the way the code was put together and the programming languages I was using. Around this time I was introduced to Ruby on Rails which had just reached 1.0. Working with Rails was astonishing, not only was the programming language a pleasure but the framework enforced really smart conventions that helped level up my understanding of software design and development.

» The post-PhD blues

As I reached the end of my PhD I realised I wasn’t cut out for a career in academia. Research was interesting but it was clear to me that some of my peers were one a very different path to me. I finished writing up my work outside of Nottingham (after funds had dried up) and was awarded my PhD in late 2006.

In the weeks and months post PhD I was pretty depressed about what I was going to do next. I had ‘failed’ as an academic and didn’t really know what to do next. For a short while I was a kept man, that is, I was at home trying (and failing) to be a successful freelance developer while my wife brought home the £££. Struggling to know what to do next it was at this point I started to think about re-training as a medical doctor4 as there was a family history of starting late in medical careers. I spent some time volunteering on the wards at a local hospital and while this was rewarding in its own way, it made me realise this wasn’t what I wanted to do.

In a stroke of luck, a good friend of mine then pointed me in the direction of a junior Ruby on Rails developer position at a local new media agency. A couple of weeks later I was gainfully employed as a developer on their web team.

» Significant decision #2

It wasn’t that the company I was working for was paricularly bad but after six months of doing client work at a new media agency I was pretty much done with the commercial sector. Deadlines were always tight, clients were often assholes and there was little interest in the quality of the work we were doing from a technical standpoint as long as ‘it looked good’.

At a similar time to me taking this role with the media agency, a good friend of mine Matt Wood (we’d studied for our PhDs together) had landed a role leading the Production Software Group at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute - the site responsible for sequencing about one third of the original human genome.

Matt was hiring a team and was looking for Rails developers to build out the laboratory management software to support the next generation sequencing platforms that the Sanger had invested in. While this job sounds like a dream gig, I should point out that I very nearly didn’t apply for this job. Not because I didn’t want it, but because I didn’t think I was qualified.

I should point out that I very nearly didn’t apply for this job. Not because I didn’t want it, but because I didn’t think I was qualified.

The imposter syndrome and insecurities many feel post-PhD can be crippling. The best advice I’ve ever received when applying for jobs is to let the interview committee decide whether you are qualified or not. Thankfully I did exactly this and I was soon working at one of the largest bioinformatics institutes in the world.

» A year in bioinformatics

Looking back now, it’s clear to me that Sanger was a formative role for me professionally. I was employed to write software but was working day-to-day with lots of academics. In many ways this role was a hybrid of my PhD days and my time doing client work in the new media agency. It was also eye-opening to work in an environment where the role (and value) of software in research was well understood. There were probably 800 people on site at Sanger and around 100 of those were developing software. Because of the highly specialised nature of some of the work many of these developers had PhDs in a related field. So here I was, working on a campus full of people with skills like me building tools to facilitate the research of others. It was exciting and I began to see where professionally I could have impact.

It was also eye-opening to work in an environment where the role (and value) of software in research was well understood.

Thankfully, Sanger offered a large amount of money available for professional development (Ruby training, converences etc.) and so over the next 12 months I worked in a small team (~5 people) building web-based tools to support the research of academics and honing the craft of building high-quality software.

» Significant decision #3 - co-founding the Zooniverse

A year into my time at Sanger, I had a serendipitous conversation at a friend’s wedding about a ‘citizen science’ project called Galaxy Zoo5. The project had been wildly successful and hundreds of thousands of people had taken part. The group had secured a grant for two people to work full time on the project building it out into a network of citizen science projects all with the same basic idea: find research challenges where human cognition exceeds the abilities of computers do crowd-source science with members of the public.

Chris Lintott (one of the creators of Galaxy Zoo) and myself ended up being those two people who spent the next few years working full time building out what became the Zooniverse.

I can honestly say that this is the first time in my career where the job felt right. Working at Sanger had shown me how it was possible academic research to reap the rewards of well-written software and this was my chance to start something new in a research domain I knew.

So 18 months after leaving academia, I found myself back in a university department as a postdoc6.

Long story short, I spend the next five years in Oxford and later at the Adler Planetarium as the Director of Citizen Science leading a team of ~15 designers, developers, educators and researchers all working on Zooniverse projects. It was a lot of fun.

A common pattern was emerging though in the kinds of people we were hiring. They were typically very accomplished individuals, often with a research background, but because they’d acquired significant programming skills they didn’t quite fit into the standard academic model. Zooniverse was a good home for these folks as they could come and apply their software (and other) skills to research problems but it was a small-scale fix for a much wider problem: researchers who spend a large amount of time write software typically suffer a signficant career penalty as time spend writing code is time not spent writing papers (which is where credit is awarded).

researchers who spend a large amount of time write software typically suffer a signficant career penalty as time spend writing code is time not spent writing papers

» GitHub

I can’t quite remember when I first met someone from GitHub but it was probably Tim Clem at a Science Hack Day in San Francisco. Tim and I bumped into each other a few times over the ~2.5 years I was working at the Adler and each time we’d talk about the role of software in academia, what open source communities were doing right (and where academia was going wrong supporting software development) and how GitHub was offering value to the academy as a place for researchers to publish their work.

At some point in those ~2.5 years it became clear that GitHub wanted to hire someone to work in this space. To engage with the wider academic community and work on how to better support academics using the platform. Zooniverse had given me the opportunity to change the way academic research was carried out and this opportunity at GitHub presented an evolution of that challenge but at a much larger scale.

And so that’s where I am today. Working at GitHub to help make the careers of those people who develop software as part of their academic life more successful. Unusually for GitHub (and perhaps all engineering companies) this isn’t just a new product that GitHub needs to build or a discount they need to offer a particular community. Large-scale change in how we credit research products other than papers is a huge challenge for the global academic community and one that GitHub is a small but important part of.

» Hindsight is 20/20

As I said at the start of this post, looking backwards it’s easy to construct a narrative around how you ended up at a particular point in your career. But as I also said, I generally have no idea what I’m doing. For the vast majority of my career thus far there has been no grand plan.

It’s now nearly nine years since I finished my PhD and it’s only in the last three years that I’ve really begun to understand what I want to do with my career. Could I have predicted that I’d end up at GitHub five years ago? Definitely not. But did GitHub hire me because of the professional experience I had. Absolutely.

» Some advice

Most PhD graduates don’t end up becoming tenured professors so here are some recommendations for things you can do to make yourself more employable outside of academia:

Results are important, but how you got there might count more in the end
Outside of academia, employers are likely to care less about your publications but the skills you acquired when doing research will always be valuable. Whether it’s statistical methods, technologies such a version control or programming these are the transferrable skills that will get you a job in industry.

Share (and license) your work
When considering you as a candidate, employers will look you up online and it’s a pretty well-established fact that people get hired because of their GitHub profiles. If you’re writing some code as part of your research, spend the time writing some documentation describing what it does, slap a license on it and put it up on GitHub7.

Take a course (there are lots out there)
Whether it’s Software or Data Carpentry or something else, there are a number of professional development opportunities out there for academics to learn industry applicable skills. The good news is that time spent on these courses will also help you with your research too!

Choose transferrable technologies (if you can)
Sometimes you have a choice about what technologies to use in your research. When you do have a choice try and pick ones that are used outside of academia. Astronomers, that means ditching IDL8 for something like Python. If there’s chance to learn how to work with databases and SQL then seize that opportunity and stop working with big CSV files.

» Wrapping up

I feel very lucky to have been able to spend the majority of my career thus far only working on problems that are interesting to me. All I can say for sure is that I’ve tried where possible to take opportunities that felt like a good decision at the time but have not always had the confidence to make those decisions on my own. I’ve been very fortunate to receive excellent career advice from a number of people, sometimes friends, sometimes colleagues, sometimes my boss at the time. If you can, find people you know you and who’s opinion you trust. Listen to them as they’re often going to have a better perspective than you.

find people you know you and who’s opinion you trust. Listen to them as they’re often going to have a better perspective than you.

Branching out our comfort zone and leaving academia can seem like a big decision and in many ways it is. People just like you make this decision every day and they’re probably working on fun and interesting problems too!

1. This would obviously have been awesome.
2. Obviously this isn’t the case for many people.
3. 77 of course. I had no idea how much (retro) street cred/sympathy this would later earn me.
4. As if the 7 years I already spent at university weren’t enough.
5. Galaxy Zoo is a website that asks members of the public to judge the shape of millions of galaxies collected by robotic telescopes. tl;dr - there are many analysis problems where machines are far inferiour to humans (shape classifications is one of these tasks) and some researchers at The University of Oxford had built a website that invited the public to help analyse the shape of 1 million galaxies.
6. Almost exclusively writing code (i.e. not trying to do research).
7. Other code hosting platforms are available.
8. The programming language you can buy.