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Why I’m feeling positive about starting a new career in data science

Guest blog from Data Lab MSc student, John Bell

It’s hard to believe that I’m coming towards the end of my year as a Data Lab MSc student. Boy, did that year go quickly. The exams are over, assignments have been submitted and there’s time to breathe and take the opportunity to reflect on how the year has been, what I’ve got out of it, and what lies ahead.

This time last year I was a classroom teacher and the closest I had come to data science was teaching children how to create pie charts with Excel. (Yes, I now know they’re evil.) I was a complete data science rookie. Now, after eight months of hard work and with a whole bunch of new-found skills, I’m preparing for an industrial placement with NHS Information Services Division, a chance to apply what I’ve learned over my MSc year. And that feels good. I feel positive and look forward to starting a new career in data science. I’d like to share with you why I feel so positive and what and who has contributed towards this over this year.

So much more than academic learning

This year has been about academic learning, about lectures and books, about acquiring technical knowledge and gaining technical skills, but it’s been so much more than that. It’s been about people; collaborating with others, supporting others and being supported by them, making connections and building professional relationships with others involved in the burgeoning data science scene in Scotland. It’s been about developing business-ready skills that go beyond the technical; tackling complex problems, developing those all-important soft skills, and demonstrating an intellectual curiosity and willingness to ‘put yourself out there’. And, finally, it’s been about the data; understanding how businesses in Scotland and beyond are creating value from data, appreciating the variety of innovative ways in which data can be used commercially and for social good, and, yes, knowing how to get down and dirty with data cleaning and processing!

Both the University of Stirling and the Data Lab have helped me in all of these areas. My MSc in Big Data is a broad programme encompassing many of the key technologies and skills required for working in big data today (Python, Hadoop, Spark, noSQL databases, data analytics and machine learning), along with scientific and commercial applications of these technologies.

Great course with lots of opportunities for hands-on learning

For me, the balance between the theoretical and practical aspects of the course has been spot on. The course is a very practical one, with lots of opportunities for hands-on learning. In addition to weekly computer labs, the practical assignments have been relevant, interesting and challenging, and have provided opportunities for collaboration, problem-solving and the development of programming skills. Personally, I learn best by doing and one of the reasons I chose to study at Stirling was because of this focus on hands-on learning and industry-standard technologies. The MSc in Big Data programme director, Dr Kevin Swingler, worked in industry prior to academia, and this comes across clearly in the content of the course and in how he delivers it “ it’s always engaging, with lots of real-world examples to bring the theory to life.

But is the course a complete and comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about big data? No, of course not. I don’t think any course could be. To get the most out of the course I think it’s necessary to undertake some additional learning to complement what’s being learned on the MSc – personally, I’ve found it really useful to learn R and Sci-kit learn (using Datacamp) and have attended hackathons throughout the year to apply the skills I’ve been learning.

Support from The Data Lab

And, what about the Data Lab? How have they supported me through this year?

Well, firstly, the Data Lab funded my place at university and this helped me financially, enabling me to reduce the number of hours I needed to work part-time during the course, and thereby allowing me to focus on my course. But although prior to starting the course I thought this might be the best thing the Data Lab could do to support me, it has actually turned out to be the least important thing.

More important to me by far have been the following:


Very early on in the course Data Lab CEO Gillian Docherty encouraged our cohort to grab the opportunities the Data Lab MSc presented with both hands and made it very clear that the Data Lab were there for us, willing us to succeed, and were there to support us. This gave me a feeling of confidence going into the year, knowing that I had a community of supporters; my friends and family, my university, and the Data Lab.

The Data Lab foster a sense of community amongst MSc students and amongst the wider data science community in Scotland, giving students like myself opportunities to meet and learn from other students in the cohort, previous MSc students, and businesses, including potential employers. I’ve written before about how useful and enjoyable I find networking (despite hating it to start with) and over the past year have met many interesting people through Data Lab networking events; these events (along with the excellent Scotland Data Science and Technology Meetup, organised by MBN Solutions) have helped me discover what’s going on in data science in Scotland, understand better what skills employers are looking for, and build a strong professional network.

Skills for Industry

Throughout the course I’ve been on the lookout for opportunities to apply the skills I’ve been learning, ideally using real-world datasets and in a real-world business context. The Data Lab have facilitated this by organising the upcoming, week-long Innovation Week where we’ll have an opportunity to tackle a business challenge, and by arranging a three-month industrial placement, which will begin in June.

The industrial placement was one of the key reasons I applied to undertake a Data Lab MSc. As well as giving me the opportunity to apply the skills I’ve learned, learn a whole lot more about working as a data scientist in an organisation, I’m also confident the placement will give me an opportunity to showcase what I’m capable of doing, something I believe will be of interest to prospective employers.

My placement is with NHS Information Services Division and I’ll be working on a machine learning and data analytics project to quantify illness severity. I’ve met the team I’ll be working with, all of whom are very helpful and friendly, and am really looking forward to getting started.

Connections with employers

Through events such as Data Talent 2018, visiting guest speakers at my university and the industrial placement, I’ve had the chance to meet a large pool of prospective employers throughout the year, giving me a chance to find out more about them and make connections.

Career readiness

Through employability skills training run by MBN Solutions, the Data Lab have helped me develop the career-readiness skills that complement the technical skills developed in my university course, making me feel more confident about applying for jobs. The CV workshop was especially useful. Having not updated my CV for fifteen years, it was amazing how much better I felt after getting help to whip it into shape!

All of these things have increased my confidence, widened my horizons and made me feel ready for my future career in data science in Scotland. And what does the future hold? Thanks to the Data Lab, the University of Stirling and MBN Solutions, I feel very positive about my future career. This time next year I will be working with an organisation that unlocks the power of data to effect positive social impact. You can hold me to that.

Dear Past, thanks for all the lessons.

Dear Future, I’m ready

You can hear more from Data Science Rookie, John Bell, on Linkedin, Twitter, and on his website.

Find out more about The Data Lab MSc courses and scholarships.


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