I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.
The twelfth profile of this round (after a short hiatus for relentless book promotion) features a distinguished Union Physics alumnus, now a business analyst in New Jersey.
1) What is your non-academic job? I work at the Princeton, NJ office of ZS Associates, a company that describes itself as "a global leader in sales and marketing consulting, outsourcing, technology and software". My title is Business Analytics Associate. While our company works in all industries, the Princeton office's clients are primarily pharmaceutical companies headquartered on the east coast.
2) What is your science background? I received an MS in computational astrophysics from UNC Chapel Hill in 2013 and a BS from Union College in physics in 2010 with minors in math and philosophy.
3) What led you to this job? After growing disenchanted with a career in academic physics, I started a broad job search, entertaining ideas that ranged from software developer, technical specialist at an intellectual property law firm, industry scientist, and even Australian miner. After stubbornly applying blindly to more than 100 online job postings, which produced fewer than 10 interactions with human beings, I started leveraging an embarrassingly small professional network. I spoke with the director of the career center at my alma mater who forwarded my resume to alumni at a couple consulting firms. One alumna, who was working at the ZS Princeton office at the time, referred me to HR. I applied, interviewed for, and started working at ZS all within a month.
Having no business acumen or real world experience whatsoever from 7+ years of school (summers included) of focusing on physics, philosophy, and math, I felt that working for a business consulting firm would be a great opportunity for me to apply my problem solving and quantitative background while developing valuable business knowledge and professional skills.
4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) I work in an office with ~100 people. I have my own desk, though there are a number of conference rooms where project teams frequently meet to work. Roughly a third of the employees at my office are
5) What do you do in a typical day? Our company has a fractional staffing model, meaning that we work on multiple projects with different people at once. A day may start with a touch base with one project team to describe the progress that has been made on a particular work stream and identify what everyone's responsibilities are moving forward. Once the tasks have been laid out, I will spend time alone at my desk doing anything from designing a product forecast to writing a market research survey, to creating data driven slides for a PowerPoint presentation that describe important business insights for the client. Throughout the day I am reading and responding to various internal and external e-mail requests from the project teams and clients. We frequently visit the client or have conference calls with them to offer status updates or confer with them about assumptions that are being used for whatever analyses we are working on. The fractional staffing also forces me to budget my time and quickly shift gears so that I can deliver on all of the projects on which I am concurrently staffed.
On a typical day I leave around 5:30 although I've been at work until 1am for 2 or 3 days in a row if a deliverable needs to be turned around quickly. The atmosphere is fast paced, and I work hard but I also get a chance to do several different types of projects and work with different clients, helps me learn about different business issues and build experience.
The key tools that I use on a daily basis are Excel for analysis, PowerPoint for presentation, and Outlook for communication.
6) How does your science background help you in your job? Some of what we do can be data intensive, such as trying to extract insights from scattered and incomplete physician level promotional data. I think my science background helps me to keep the scope of the project in mind and think about how sensitive our analysis might be to various inputs and assumptions. I've also found that I frequently offer novel ideas for how to display and visually communicate quantitative information. One area where I'd like to use my background more is in actually doing the analyses. Excel is the industry standard even though many things we do are conducive to using more robust programming language like R or python.
7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it? They should network with people who have a job like mine. I applied for tons of jobs that were less challenging (and paid less) than the one I have now but I never even made it to a first interview. I learned that I was foolish not to use my social, academic, and professional networks to get my foot in the door. I thought that my credentials would speak for themselves and I wouldn't need to "use" anyone for their help. The fact is that people are happy and eager to help you (and often times can get a referral bonus for doing so) so reach out to people who have the job you want and talk to them about what you are doing. At the end of your discussion, tactfully ask them if they can help you apply or submit your resume to HR.
That said, if you are interested in my specific job, study any quantitative field (ZS has a penchant for operations research) and maintain a high GPA. It also would be helpful, though not necessary, to do some internships working in sales/marketing/consulting (note that I did none of those). The nice thing about ZS and consulting in general is that they are generally just looking for sharp, driven people with a high aptitude to learn. You don't need any particular background so long as you can demonstrate that you can handle the work and that you will be motivated to show up everyday and do a good job.
8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? I've learned how important it is to think about the impact of my assumptions. With most problems in science, business, and probably life, you have incomplete data and need to fill in the gaps or simplify the problem by making assumptions. What informs your assumptions? Are they reasonable? What if they were different? Are they overly simple/complicated? Science has taught me to keep all of these questions in mind.
9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers? Focus on your academics to demonstrate that you have a great aptitude to learn. Quick learners, with strong quantitative skills can do almost every job. When you are deciding what to do next, keep your options open. You likely won't have experience in a variety of things but talk to people who do so you can get a sense of whether or not you will find different careers fulfilling. Give yourself a decision to make rather than focusing on just one thing and then gather as much information as you can to make an informed decision.
10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? I make between 65 and 85k as a salary plus an annual merit based bonus (5-15%).
I was hoping to get in touch with you by googling for your email, but I wasn't successful, so I thought I'd try here.
Thanks very much for your contribution to this blog. I looked you up on LinkedIn to understand better what kind of work you were doing during graduate school and undergrad. I was wondering what kind of computer languages you think contributed to you getting this job. Does ZS want potential candidates to know certain computational/numerical skills? I did my undergrad in Math and Physics, have a Masters degree in Physics, and now almost finished with an Applied Math Masters degree. I don't have a lot of programming experience. I did take an undergrad intro to programming course in Java, but that was a very long time ago. More recently, I've been doing some MATLAB programming, but probably not at the same level as your graduate work. I've just started to teach myself C programming, but I'm not sure if I should take an undergrad class on C, or if that would be helpful in getting a job (it is, after all, just a class). However, at this point, I'm looking for an internship to complete before I graduate at the end of this coming summer.
Would completing Coursera courses be valuable to potential employers, such as ZS?
Any advice from you would be greatly appreciated!
I'm happy that this blog has piqued your interest in ZS. To answer your questions, I don't think that there are any particular languages or computational skills you NEED to know, although SAS or VBA would definitely be nice to have. The most important thing is that you show a strong quantitative background and work ethic. You would also need to demonstrate an interest in applying your skill set in a business setting. If you are seriously interested in using Coursera to improve your value proposition for a job in business consulting, I would suggest taking some business or strategy classes to round out your resume. If you are interested, please give me a way to contact you and I'd be happy to discuss this further. Thanks!
Vince, I'll forward Brandon the email address you left with your original comment, since I have both your address and his.
Chad, thanks very much for your help!
Thanks very much for your response! I'm definitely interested in discussing this with you when you have some time. I believe Chad has given you my email address. Anyway, I've decided to take an Intro to Data Analytics class offered by the Stats department. The class will be using R. I believe the majority of businesses use SAS, correct? Are SAS and R similar? I suppose knowing R is better than not knowing R.