E009 From PhD in Mathematics to Freelancing as a Data Scientist. Is It Worth To Do a PhD?

July 5h 2020

Dr. Mattias Hansson graduated from a PhD program in Mathematics at Lund University in 2013, with a thesis entitled, “Statistical Segmentation and Registration of Medical Ultrasound Data.” He then completed a Postdoc project at the University of Copenhagen and subsequently, he worked as a Scientific Programmer at the Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam. In 2018, he took a decision to leave the academic career track and become a Data Scientist. Initially, he chose to work for the Dept Agency in Rotterdam. However, as of now, Mattias works as a freelance Data Scientist. In this webinar, Mattias told us about his post-PhD experience so far. Was the choice to work for a consultancy company a good decision? How did the corona crisis affect his job perspectives? How does he spend his time these days? How does he see himself in the future? Is it worth to do a PhD?

Mattias’ LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nmhansson/

The episode was recorded on July 5th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their employer(s).

Natalia Bielczyk 00:09 Thank you so much for coming. To today I would like to welcome Mattias Hansson, PhD in mathematics. Thank you, Mattias, for accepting our invitation. And Mattias graduated from a Ph. D program in mathematics at Lund University. It was a few years ago in 2013. And his thesis was entitled “Statistical Segmentation and Registration of Medical Ultrasound Data”.

Natalia Bielczyk 00:41 And then, he also completed a Postdoc project at the University of Copenhagen. And then he got experience working as a scientific programmer. And today, we will talk with Mattias about his way up to this point and what’s his plans are, and what are the conclusions from his experience on the job market as a PhD. Thank you again Mattias for accepting the invitation. And I would like to hear your story from your perspective?

Mattias Hansson 01:19 Thank you. Maybe I should just describe myself a little bit first. I mean, as you said, my background is in mathematics. But it’s sort of been a journey towards data science, I would say, so more and more coding as you go. My work is more theoretical in the beginning as a postdoc. But then it’s now turning more into sort of data science applications and working with the latest tools like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform.

Mattias Hansson 01:55 I think for me, that’s been a journey through like becoming a scientific programmer. And then, I have worked for a while up to a year at a digital marketing company. I think up to that point, I think I was pretty happy with working in Netherlands. But I think this has really turned me off to it, I think my experience at this company.

Mattias Hansson 02:23 I think it’s interesting to think about this when you talk about the difference between academia and industry. There can be quite a big difference, doesn’t have to be necessarily, and I know for some people it’s not. But I think also this kind of … It clashed too hard with me, this world of marketing. I just didn’t fit in, I think.

Mattias Hansson 02:50 In the end, that’s why I ended up leaving that position, last year in October. Which turned out as a great timing, because as I was looking for jobs, Corona hit. Now, basically, I’ve started my own company. But what I do now basically, I study finance, that’s what I do. I deepen my knowledge and different tools, and stuff like that. Like I previously mentioned. I don’t know if that sort of answers anybody’s question. I think that’s the brief journey. Of course, there’s more details.

Natalia Bielczyk 03:33 Thank you very much. Guys, you can ask questions and the time in the chat. It is indeed, really, very short version of your story. I, of course, have more questions about it. You said that what you were doing, your PhD was very theoretical. And so, did you already, like learned something about programming during that PhD or you had to learn it later?

Natalia Bielczyk 04:03 I think this is an experience that many people, especially older people like me, I think it’s less so now. But most people, their experience in mathematics, it’s not low. I think as I was coming out of my PhD, it was more sort of the new students started working with Python. And to be fair also, I noticed from my wife that works in Eindhoven who teaches there, that there is still a migration going on from MATLAB to Python.

Mattias Hansson 04:36 But I think it’s headed that way. And for me, this sort of migration has been done on my own. I’ve been taking courses, of course. But it’s not something that was included in my study program that was required. I do think that nowadays, your potential to have a head start with the latest tools, it’s much greater now. And also, because, just look at the availability of things. It’s just so much greater than it was; I mean, it’s moved so fast.

Mattias Hansson 05:06 Like 10 years ago, it’s hard to imagine where we’re sitting now with all these cloud platforms, which offer huge scalability. And of course, we still have this issue that, I’ve been always been working with medical data, and that I’m sure. If anybody who’s worked with medical data, you know the problem of, basically GDPR. All these data protection and directives, which makes it difficult to use these kinds of platforms sometimes.

Mattias Hansson 05:37 But if you’re working with public data I think, which I strongly endorse, don’t work with medical data that is productive in some way. It will just hamper you. Basically, you have all these tools now, and you can also educate yourself pretty quickly on things that you couldn’t do 10 years ago. For me, it’s been sort of a journey on my own, I think it was harder than it would have been now. I think now, it’s great. It’s so easy to learn how to code.

Natalia Bielczyk 06:11 And that’s very interesting. We also last week, we had a meeting with Andre Marques Smith, who also educated himself through online courses. And he requalified from experimental neuroscientist to computational neuroscientist, and got the job in a good company. Now, he’s doing only programming and programming neural networks.

Natalia Bielczyk 06:37 And he, in a few months, himself requalified only using the knowledge from internet. I didn’t even know that this was such a popular trend. I knew that this is possible. But I felt that it’s like a marginal effect that there is some small percentage of PhDs that make use of that opportunity. But in fact, judging from what you say and that you’re already the second person this month, that reports to have a successful transition after self-education, then I can say that it’s not as rare. That’s good news.

Natalia Bielczyk 07:25 Because I think every trend that gives people personal freedom, is a good trend. And in this case, there is a democratization of knowledge and there is a lot of opportunity, and choice. I think, it’s definitely good for the society, so I’m glad to hear. Could you also tell us a little bit more about the company that you worked for? And you know, not necessarily what it’s called. But maybe what type of work it does?

Mattias Hansson 08:02 Oh, yeah, of course. Basically, it was a digital marketing company. And what that means, basically is that you use, I mean, very broadly … You mine data out of websites and commerce traffic, using tools like Google Analytics. It’s very common. And then what I did is I built predictive machine learning models on that to, for instance, to predict customer behavior, basically.

Mattias Hansson 08:36 And there’s something called attribution models also. If you’ve heard about that, I’ve worked with that and so marking random fields. At the company, I was sort of leased out as a scientist to an energy company startup, where I built a model for how to compute the energy needs of houses, different house types, in the Netherlands. That turned out to be an application that they were using.

Mattias Hansson 09:06 It was a bit varied. But I would say mostly, it’s about working in …. I was basically a data scientist that was assigned, as a scientist or mathematician, to a project and that project could be anywhere from like two months to a year.

Natalia Bielczyk 09:25 In a way, you were doing a consultancy job.

Natalia Bielczyk 09:28 Oh, yeah. Totally. Yes.

Natalia Bielczyk 09:32 I recognize this model now given, also speakers who had before. I didn’t even know that you were a consultant. I thought you were a software developer within the company, so it’s a surprise. Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to leave that place? Could you tell us a little bit of that operation?

Natalia Bielczyk 09:55 Like I said, I think it has to do with, for me, sort of the clash between … The management culture there was … The project managers sort of have had very little idea about what was happening in the project. That was my feeling, at least the projects I worked on. And then, that sort of translated to when the client started pushing, then they transferred that to us in very, not useful ways.

Mattias Hansson 10:27 And to the point that they made me very angry several times. Because they were quite disrespectful. And also, you have to remember, I am quite a lot older than these people. And I will not be spoken to like this by people who I find to be quite uneducated. They’re not very nice. It’s like, ‘Okay’. This is like, ‘It’s giving me blood pressure problems, I’m not going to do this anymore’. That is the short of it.

Mattias Hansson 10:56 I think, honestly, it’s all for the better. I mean, it’s not great for my economy or anything like that. I mean, it’s not good at all, especially now that we have Corona happening. It certainly is prolonging my unemployment period quite a bit. It is very hard to find a job out there right now, just to be clear. But I think in the end, this is up to everybody, of course.

Mattias Hansson 11:23 I mean, you know, what you can accept and what you cannot accept. And I think it’s just that easy. And it wasn’t the first time it happened; it was a pattern that this has happened. I could just see it continuing, so I was like, ‘Nope, that’s it.’

Natalia Bielczyk 11:37 I think it’s really important to not only talk about success stories, but to also talk about the bottlenecks and situations like this. You know, it’s also sometimes an issue here in this webinar that people who come over and decide to do it, and then go public with their story and opinions. They are those people who feel safe in a way that they are happy enough in their current job, or with their former employers, so that they can safely talk about them.

Natalia Bielczyk 12:12 And sometimes that creates a bias. Altogether, you know, from watching these episodes, you can get an impression that life outside academia is always amazing and it’s always the only success. Sooner or later, every project works out, which is not true. And it’s also important to share stories like this one that the corporation is not necessarily satisfying the PhD graduate.

Natalia Bielczyk 12:48 And one thing I wanted to say is also that, I very much respect what you said about your own rules. I totally agree, you have to have your own boundaries. And sometimes it’s good before you go out to the job market after a PhD. Sometimes, it’s also good to, before you sign a contract with someone else, sign a contract with yourself.

Natalia Bielczyk 13:13 Delineate these boundaries and decide what is acceptable for you, and what type of behaviors you could accept, and which types of behaviors are deal breakers for you. And just write it down and write a contract with yourself. And then, you feel safer and more self-confident once you step out to the real world. And I think in situations like this, it also helps you make the right decisions. And I also think that people have this tendency to stick to dead-end projects and dead-end bosses’ way too often. It’s good that you didn’t.

Natalia Bielczyk 13:52 I have to be clear that I understand why people don’t step away from a job. I mean, of course, it’s income. This has to be something up to you. I mean, clearly, I think given what I know now, maybe I would have stopped off at that point because of Corona. But you know, so there’s always a risk.

Mattias Hansson 14:18 I’ve done this several times in my academic career. My academic career, I switched my PhD advisor like, 1/3 way through because he was infuriating me. And that was also like, … it was very tough to do. It was something that I was led there by … Of course, I didn’t know the consequences when I did it. If I had, I probably would not have done it. I think also in the end, it was better for me because I just can’t go around and have all these resentments brewing in me daily. It just makes me ill. Like, I cannot do it.

Mattias Hansson 15:03 That being said, I totally respect people who … I know people who work in this company who are very happy, who are very good people. In the end, this is my experience and this specific sort of situation I was in. It’s always like that. You always have to sort of, … You should listen to yourself not. Don’t listen to me, you know, don’t listen to people.

Mattias Hansson 15:28 You should listen to people around you, of course. I mean, at the end its something that you have to think about. some people are maybe less, you could say, maybe less rash than I am, which I totally respect. It’s probably better. But I mean, for me, it’s nice not to become infuriated on a daily basis. That’s good. I think that’s good for me.

Natalia Bielczyk 15:53 As far as I’m concerned, it was not a rapid decision for you?

Mattias Hansson 15:58 No, it seemed like that, I think, to people who are at the company. But there were so many microaggressions that had happened before then. I mean, I had told some people before that they should just back off, that they were being disrespectful and stuff like that. But they didn’t listen, they just continued. In the end, I was like, ‘Okay, this is not good. I cannot.’

Mattias Hansson 16:21 I think this management culture, which I don’t think this company is alone about this, and it’s not something that they have created. But I do think it’s like … For me, it’s just important that if you’re a manager, managing a project, that you have the skills needed to handle the project. I shouldn’t have to explain to you, mathematical concepts, you should be educated. I know this is a controversial.

Mattias Hansson 16:52 I mean, because project management does become its own science, you know, “Science” as they say. I don’t agree with this. You can’t just be a project manager; you need to have the skills also. And this will also help you a lot because people will respect you. But this is not how today’s world works, at least in my in my assessment.

Natalia Bielczyk 17:17 I think there’s some variety here because in some consultancy companies, managers are also specialists. And that’s also true about many R&D departments in companies. And that’s also what some people here at the webinar, we’re also reporting that their manager is a very good specialist. But it’s maybe a good thing.

Natalia Bielczyk 17:38 Probably, the quality also offered by consultancy companies and their … You know, every company is like a little universe. It’s not that there is one universal culture that every company has. Once you enter a new door, you have to relearn from scratch, how the rules work in that place. And I think the types of management also, every company has like different spirit and different types of different strategies for managing people. Indeed, what you’re saying sounds like something really suboptimal for managing people.

Mattias Hansson 18:12 Yeah. And as I said, this is my experience. I can say this that for sure, there are other people who have other experiences, because I’m still friends with them. One of the guys I meet with, like, every week. And he’s very happy though. But he works with different people also. It’s a complicated thing, you know. Things are not so black and white in the end.

Natalia Bielczyk 18:41 You know, it’s also that people are like chemicals, they react differently with different people.

Natalia Bielczyk 18:47 Oh, yeah. This cannot be overemphasized, I think. This is totally the case.

Natalia Bielczyk 18:54 Okay. Do you think that this problem that you had experienced, is it more a general problem in consultancy companies here in the Netherlands? Or do you think that this is a specific problem of this particular place?

Natalia Bielczyk 19:10 Honestly, I mean, my experience in consulting companies is this company; it’s a sample size one. I will not deign to. I don’t know. Maybe? I don’t know, I hope? I can seriously hope not. I mean, as you said, also that you are talking to people who were working in these project groups where the manager was a specialist. I mean, that sounds good to me. Of course, it’s not a guarantee for anything in the end.

Mattias Hansson 19:38 I mean, it’s sort of the chemistry of people working and also people trying to be nice to each other, I think, which is a rare thing these days. I think, probably if I’m going to guess, it’s not only about consultancies, I mean, it’s any workplace. In the end, I think it has to do with what kind of culture is promoted in the company.

Mattias Hansson 20:11 Because there are people who can sort of stand up to the culture and build their own thing and just be nice. But then of course, if you have this sort of thing which is permeating from above, then my guess is that will influence the people to not be so nice. And it does not put a premium on that maybe. Everything is just speed, speed, speed. This I think, it’s more about sort of a criticism of capitalism in the end; it’s a larger thing. But I mean, that’s another question.

Natalia Bielczyk 20:47 And I also agree that, no one could predict, no one expected the Spanish Inquisition. You know, like no one could tell half a year ago, what we would experience now.

Natalia Bielczyk 20:58 There was only a very few people who took it seriously, you know. I mean, you can always find science. It’s really easy to sort of say, ‘Yeah, I saw it coming.’

Natalia Bielczyk 21:14 And also for data scientists around the Netherlands, it was probably a sector in which finding a job is the easiest. It was literally like people are just recruiting you in the street, and just grabbing you from the street, because there’s such a demand and so many open positions. And such a low amount of people with good programming skills.

Natalia Bielczyk 21:38 It used to be very … I think, now we’re looking at the different markets.

Natalia Bielczyk 21:47 The Netherlands is a country where I would I also see even at the tech conferences, like I go to those meetups often. And I can see that in a room full of people, like it’s 100 people, and it’s supposed to be a tech meetup. You would expect that conversations would be very technical. In the room of 100 people that has maybe 3, 4 that can program. And all the rest is business developers, visionaries, you know, people who want to sell you stuff.

Natalia Bielczyk 22:16 Like people who want to make some money like investors and just fishing for some new projects. And it’s like, almost no one who in the tech meetup that can program and understands all the projects to the bottom. And so, it’s really like we have, I think a very deep deficiency of technical people still. I can imagine like in a normal situation when we don’t have a virus, then that’s a very highly demanded skill.

Natalia Bielczyk 22:55 But we have a really unusual situation right now and it’s unusual to everyone; like for me. Also, because I created a little company last year that the business model was based on events. What do you do if you have locked down and you have no chance to organize events anymore? That’s also how this panel started. Because I had to come up, very quickly, with some solution on how to showcase what the company is doing and how to produce some new interesting content without much investment to be able to broadcast it online.

Natalia Bielczyk 23:34 Doing webinars is like one way of doing it and that was what I could set in this condition. It also pushed me out of my comfort zone to do something that I would normally not do. I don’t see myself really doing this just because I felt like it. Now, I feel like probably this is a hobby that is going to stay because I really enjoy doing this.

Natalia Bielczyk 23:58 But I would never have come up with this idea, if not for the crisis. It’s funny how it can turn out in both ways. It can also push you to do things and learn things that you otherwise wouldn’t learn. Okay, so let’s talk about your plans a little bit right now. And guys, if you have any questions, you can ask any time.

Natalia Bielczyk 24:26 We are looking at the chat all the time, so please ask whatever you feel like. I’m sure that Mattias will have some good answers for these questions. Mattias, what do you do right now and what is your plan? Because you mentioned the company. What’s the big plan here?

Natalia Bielczyk 24:30 Yeah, so the company is not very happy with the Corona. Basically, there’s no contracts to be had. It’s basically a data science consulting company, but there’s really nothing much happening in that. In lieu of anything, like in the job market, I am educating myself as we talked about. Basically, using the tools that are out there and just strengthening my skills where I feel it should be strengthened.

Mattias Hansson 25:15 Currently, I’m working on learning more about containerization, so that’s what I’m doing. Just something that I’ve done a little bit before, but I want to be more solidly informed about it. Stuff like that; I mean, it’s like that. And then sending applications, of course, to jobs. Sometimes also I’ve been headhunted for one position, which frustratingly didn’t turn out anywhere, because they wanted me to move to Sweden suddenly. That was very strange.

Mattias Hansson 25:51 It’s just being active. I mean, I think I would never have so much time … The upside of this is, I would never have so much time to spend on just coding and learning new things about setting up new environments and stuff like this, than I would just working. I mean, because then, you’re sort of always chasing a deadline. It’s very difficult to sort of take a systematic approach to anything, which I think is much easier now. But of course, I would prefer to be employed. I mean, that’s the goal of all this. I think the future is a little bit uncertain, but the future is always uncertain.

Natalia Bielczyk 26:34 Yeah, that’s true. On the other hand, like it won’t be any worse, right?

Mattias Hansson 26:42 It can always get worse.

Natalia Bielczyk 26:44 Yeah, trying to come up with some positives here.

Mattias Hansson 26:48 Wow. But I mean, I think we’re looking at something. I am, I think, pretty positive about what’s going to come out of this, and I think it’s going to be okay. I just try to do my best for what little time I have, currently. I mean, it is challenging. I mean, I’m sure everybody has this experience now. You’re suddenly thrust into notes going out to work, and you sort of left at your desk at home. And then, ‘Okay, what now?’

Mattias Hansson 27:18 That’s sort of a new, new thing for everybody now; I think there is a period of transition happening. There are many like you said, I think there are many things we have learnt about this. I think, hopefully, companies have learned that working from distance is not such a bad thing in the end. I mean, there’s a lot of benefits to it and the tools are getting better for it. They’re not perfect. I mean, stuff like this. I mean, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a WebinarGeek. I’m sure there was a year ago, but I’ve never heard of it.

Natalia Bielczyk 27:50 I’ve never heard of it neither, I just needed to have some good tool for launching webinars. And I learned that unlike Zoom, WebinarGeek is that company and I feel very patriotic about dash economy, especially given that I’m a part of it. I decided to use WebinarGeek instead of using Zoom. So that was my motivation.

Natalia Bielczyk 28:12 And there are a few platforms like this indeed, and I also didn’t know. It’s like also, that’s what entrepreneurship is; you learn in the process. Like today, I had to learn what this Lighthouse plugin for Chrome. Because my company website is clogged and I have to figure out how to unclog it myself and I had to learn something new.

Natalia Bielczyk 28:35 It’s like every day you have to learn. My question for you would be, how do you see yourself in the long run? Do you see yourself more as an entrepreneur and as the owner of a company, or do you see yourself as the employee again?

Natalia Bielczyk 28:56 Oh, that is tough to say. I think in sort of the short run, I think the most likely thing, or the best thing would be the find a job again. But certainly, I think in the long run, I do want to have my own business. That’s something that I think is best suited for me. It just needs to be sort of the right time for it, I think now is not a good time. It’s about finding that time where you need to step out.

Mattias Hansson 29:25 I mean, I’m happy for it in a way. I mean, it’s not that it’s difficult to sign up to get a small business in the Netherlands; it’s very easy. But I mean, you still have to go through some steps and do it. And there were also some complications also with-it being Corona times, which made it more difficult.

Mattias Hansson 29:45 But I’m happy about having learned about that and the tax things and stuff like this. I think there is a learning curve here which is nice. But I do think in the short term, certainly finding stable employment, whatever that means, and then later on just building a company.

Natalia Bielczyk 30:09 One thing I learned about starting companies is that, it’s not a big deal to start the company. It’s much harder to work out a functional business model where you have a good stream of income, and make people know about you and generate any sales. And this is like 90% of the job. And 10% is creating actual product. And so, also if you don’t have that natural kind of affinity to hustle. Like, I think it’s really something that entrepreneurs should have.

Natalia Bielczyk 30:43 Because otherwise, knowing how much percentage of your work is the actual hustle then. If you don’t really enjoy, you know, persuading people to your stuff, then you will have hard time in the long run, unless you can delegate someone to do it.

Natalia Bielczyk 30:57 Yeah, this is not me. I think, I’m not hustling.

Natalia Bielczyk 31:04 I think your wife is a very good hustler.

Natalia Bielczyk 31:07 Oh, yeah. I could use my wife. But she also has a real Twitter presence. I have a Twitter account which I’ve never touched. But it’s also being we’re different generations. I’m quite much older than my wife. It’s the younger people I know, I think, they could do Twitter.

Natalia Bielczyk 31:27 And Mattias’ wife has quite a huge Twitter persona. Mattias is, you know, the one on behind the curtains in the relationship.

Natalia Bielczyk 31:41 Because I’m a dinosaur. I cannot handle these social media tools.

Natalia Bielczyk 31:47 Unfortunately, at some point if you have a business, at least you have to have someone in your business who knows. Because if you don’t …

Mattias Hansson 31:53 No, I do see that. That is something you have to solve. Yes

Natalia Bielczyk 31:58 And about starting a company, it’s also something that you know, It changed a lot for me that I had to do with some blockchain people. You know, what I was being taught at these entrepreneurship classes at the university. They were always telling us you know, to run a company, you have to do the market research and do it systematically.

Natalia Bielczyk 32:20 And then, take some courses at the university and then come up with an idea and come up with the team and make sure that this team is really synergistic. Then work together on a business plan and then cooperate with an accelerator, and go out to investors. You know, go in some competitions for startups so that you get some voucher and get some initial cash. Do this, do that, you know.

Natalia Bielczyk 32:48 Start a website, create your presence, ‘blah, blah, blah’, then you can develop a product. And at some point, you can just register a company finally. But in blockchains, it doesn’t work like this. If you want to have a company, then you basically Open Google Maps and look for the nearest Chamber of Commerce. And just look at the geodesic path to the nearest Chamber of Commerce so that you can get there as soon as you can. And you start the company, that’s how it works.

Natalia Bielczyk 33:19 Last year, I’ve been to Rome for a big conference in human neuroimaging; that is like our biggest conference in the field. And I was giving some workshop about post-PhD career tracks and this workshop was really packed; like people sitting on the floor, people standing outside. They didn’t even see me but speaking; but they really wanted to listen.

Natalia Bielczyk 33:44 I was like, ‘There is a market for this.’ I mean, if many people are willing to stand outside the room to listen, then this is a big problem that should be solved. When I came back, I just went to the Chamber of Commerce and register the company. I didn’t even know how my stream of income would ever look like, ‘nothing’. But I just did it like, the blockchain way. And now, I I never regretted that, of course.

Natalia Bielczyk 34:09 But it was a long process from the day, I formally started the company, to the day I got any first income; and that was a long journey. It’s not easy. Guys, if you have any questions you can ask in the chat, we are waiting for your questions. Now let’s come back a little bit to your PhD; the times of your PhD.

Natalia Bielczyk 34:37 Since you are a truth teller, an open person, then I can make use of this luxury today and ask you the difficult questions, which normally people don’t answer. Let me ask you a very tough question. Now. Do you have any regrets that you ever took a PhD?

Natalia Bielczyk 34:59 Oh, yeah. course. I think on balance, I don’t think it’s worth it to do a PhD. Let me be clear about that. Because, for me, this is a very controversial standpoint; but I think education is very important. I do think it has improved me as a person and deepened my knowledge as a human being, I think that’s good. If you’re looking at PhD as a way to make yourself more desirable on the job market, you are going down the wrong path.

Mattias Hansson 35:34 But that doesn’t happen. Of course, there are people who do very well after a PhD, but most people don’t in my estimation. They could have easily just done a master’s and then go on to industry, that’s fine. But I do find that people who have done a PhD are normally more stimulating people than people who have not. I think it’s just a matter of education. I think, to me, it’s just like being educated and it doesn’t really matter what it is.

Mattias Hansson 36:08 I mean, if you know history, if you know some languages. You know, it makes you a more interesting person. I think it also makes your life more interesting to know more things. But that does not translate into more income.

Natalia Bielczyk 36:24 I mean, like, I don’t know if that has more to do with the actual knowledge, or it has more to do with hardship. Because, you know, I feel like we are like rats in the desert, we will be the last ones to survive, just because we had to survive in grad school for so many years.

Natalia Bielczyk 36:41 But it’s made more difficult than it has to be. Because there are quite a lot of people in academia who should not be there, and who are professors who make your life miserable. But I mean, it’s like the ship rises to the top, you know, it’s like that everywhere. And we have to suffer for it.

Natalia Bielczyk 37:08 Yeah. About that, I don’t know. I think to be a professor, you still have to have at least a few skills that are desirable.

Natalia Bielczyk 37:19 It’s for sure, true for somebody. Yes. But I know so many counter examples.

Natalia Bielczyk 37:27 Yeah. Maybe depends on the neuroscience these days. It’ very competitive that I don’t see any professor that would not be at least a middle-class scientist to be really mediocre?

Natalia Bielczyk 37:43 No, no, I’m not talking about the quality of science. It’s just being an actual person that you can talk to.

Natalia Bielczyk 37:49 Oh, yeah. Oh, well, we talk about psychopaths at workplace. Yes. Then.

Natalia Bielczyk 37:54 I wouldn’t know about that. I wouldn’t know about that. It’s just that some people don’t have any manners.

Natalia Bielczyk 38:02 Right.

Natalia Bielczyk 38:03 Yeah. And I’ve come across quite a bit of them.

Natalia Bielczyk 38:07 What was your original motivation? Why did you go for a PhD in the first place?

Natalia Bielczyk 38:11 Oh, yeah. This is so long ago, of course. I think I was very interested in research. I think it’s something that started when I was just starting school; this was in the (19)90s at the university. Basically, being frustrated by it, because the first thing I ever studied was philosophy. I did theoretical philosophy. And then after that, I was a bit disillusioned with that, because, yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, but doesn’t lead anywhere, really. I mean, it’s not very stringent.

Mattias Hansson 38:50 And I sort of had the idea that, ‘Okay, so maybe now I go to business school; I went to business school.’ But then I really found that I was so frustrated with people who were talking about all these models that they apply, and they have no math skills whatsoever. They can’t explain them. It made me angry, so I was like, ‘No’. That was sort of the reaction I had to that then was, because I knew my brother; he was studying math at the same at that time.

Mattias Hansson 39:17 And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to try that out’, in this theoretical math. I did a Master’s in theoretical math. And I was like, that was a trajectory that I wanted to sort of learn more. Understand the hard questions. Like it’s being able to answer the hard questions in mathematics, to be able to read something which is hard. I mean, it’s like learning a language. Like learning this language; being able to see connections doing mathematical modeling.

Mattias Hansson 39:48 That’s what drove me down that path. But I think getting a PhD is not easy, most of the time, it’s quite competitive. I didn’t think I’ll get it; I didn’t get it. Then I had a really terrible supervisor and I had mostly a really terrible time during my PhD. I ended up switching, but it didn’t improve that much. But then I did meet; I have lifelong friends from that period that I still hang out with; they live all over the world. There are always sides to anything.

Mattias Hansson 40:28 People always ask me this, but it’s a very common question, ‘Would you recommend people doing a PhD?’ And I would say, ‘No’, because I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Natalia Bielczyk 40:38 I recently wrote a post about exactly that; under what conditions is it good to go for a PhD. And it’s posted on my blog, I linked it here on the chat. And I totally agree. I think the only reasonable situation in which you might consider a PhD, it’s when you’re really fallen in love with your research topic. And you really see yourself a full-time researcher in the distant future. Because then it’s the only option, you have to go through a PhD to be a professional scientist, that’s what you need to do active research as an independent researcher.

Natalia Bielczyk 41:14 Yes. Because you have to drive, I think to do it, because it comes to such a huge cost most of the time. And I’m sad about that, but that’s the truth, because I don’t feel like it should have to be that. There are so many people working against PhD students. Whether they do it consciously or not, I think it’s basically the system is like that. But it makes it very hard to be a PhD student.

Natalia Bielczyk 41:46 I mean, it’s like a very individualistic system. On paper, you work in a team, but in fact, everyone has their own agenda and their own contradictory goals. It’s like a game to play. And the rules of the game are that you have to keep as many projects going on as possible, and make sure that your name is high on the author’s list, and drag as many projects as possible. That in the end, you score the highest in terms of the publication record. It really doesn’t incentivize actual work, rather like games and politics.

Natalia Bielczyk 42:20 And it doesn’t get better as you move along in your academic career, either. It’s the same, or worse.

Natalia Bielczyk 42:29 And that’s when I realized. At some point, I realized that this is a publication game, I don’t want to play games. If I was about to play games, why not play a money game? That’s a funnier game to play, you know. If I would like to spend my life on games, why not play poker? You know, possible outcomes are much more pleasant.

Natalia Bielczyk 42:56 Yeah. I think for me, I mean, I’m so grateful to have the knowledge that I have through this education, but it has come at a very high cost too much of myself.

Natalia Bielczyk 43:09 Totally. And I also think, you know, as Steve Jobs once said, ‘You can’t really evaluate what was worth it and what wasn’t, because you will connect the dots in a distant future. So, it’s hard to predict. ‘

Natalia Bielczyk 43:21 Totally. Yeah, agreed. We’re only talk about this now in the context of somebody asking, should they do a PhD? And I think it’s ultimately, you can only say what your experiences and then people can take that for what it is. I think that’s all we can do. But also, to be aware that everybody’s experience is unique.

Mattias Hansson 43:47 There are so many things that work for you and against you. And those are quite hard to say. I mean, they vary from Institute to Institute. I mean, I can really talk about only the places I’ve been at a certain point in time. To be clear, every place changes, you know, so it’s hard to say.

Natalia Bielczyk 44:06 I think your point of view is very clear. I’m a bit less in tuned on this because, I really can’t see it now. I will have to just come back to the question whether or not I regret my PhD in 20 years’ time.

Natalia Bielczyk 44:27 It’s a bit early now, I think. Yeah.

Natalia Bielczyk 44:30 It also doesn’t matter that much what you do, but more like what happens to you. In my case, I did all the best things I could do in my experience. I had some strong hardships, especially after my contract expired. But I kind of started thinking about the solutions and created the company around it, and I wrote a book about it. This was my response to the problem, so I had to produce. In this sense, I cannot really regret doing a PhD because I build something on it.

Natalia Bielczyk 45:05 Again, like, there will be a lot of problems, you know, throughout life. But it doesn’t matter as much, as long as you can do something constructive about it. Although, I have to say also, that it’s not possible that every PhD student does exactly the same. It’s also that this was my reaction to the situation, but it will also not be optimal if everyone has exactly the same solution.

Natalia Bielczyk 45:37 I mean, everyone will have some personal follow-up story after a PhD; I had my own story. And it’s good that people go into different directions. Because otherwise, our lives will be even harder after a PhD if we had all the same ideas to what to do with it.

Natalia Bielczyk 46:01 We also have to remember, of course, that there are people who, for example, like my wife who did her PhD, and was very happy through all of it; that was happy with the supervision. I mean, I don’t want to be like a downer obviously. I guess, the only thing that’s important is to be careful. I mean, for example, like what you just mentioned, what can happen after your contract ends. But most PhD students are not aware of that your money can run out.

Mattias Hansson 46:33 That’s happened to a lot of people I know, and they have to handle it in various ways. It’s something that nobody talked to me about. You know, I think there are things that we can make people aware of, which is not talked about. I think that’s a good thing. And then people can take that information and use it for what they want. But I think still, I would have liked to be aware of it.

Natalia Bielczyk 46:56 I agree. No one told me about financial cushion like, completely zero-information, zero-awareness. It’s a material for another conversation but I totally agree. My next question will be about your general advice. Looking back, both at your PhD, but also your post PhD experience. Do you have any specific advice that you would like to give to early career researchers today?

Natalia Bielczyk 47:30 I think it’s, it’s, again, it’s kind of like maybe not so imaginative, but I think you should take projects that interests you. And I think, what should be made more aware to people as they start a PhD; I think it’s being done to some extent. But just to be aware of the amount of time you will have to look for funding, once you finish. Getting a postdoc is not so hard. Normally, it’s pretty easy.

Mattias Hansson 48:04 There’s always a lot of postdocs, and they can be varied from one year to two years. But as you proceed after that, … I did a lot of applying for money, but it never really worked out. But I think it would have been much better to be aware of that as an actual thing, and this is something that will be your life after you leave. It’s only money, it’s only getting funding. That’s how the system is structured.

Mattias Hansson 48:31 It’s like those people who get the money and those people who have the contacts that are put on. Because people get put on applications without doing much, you know, just because they have the right contacts. Those are the people to proceed in them. It’s a lot about social networking and just knowing about how to write a funding application.

Mattias Hansson 48:53 Things you might not necessarily think about as a PhD student, because you’re really focused on your thesis and stuff like that. I know it can seem daunting, but I mean, there are courses in this that are offered. I think that they can be quite, not very great. Maybe sometimes. But I mean, I think you can at least get some insight into the sort of, how much work goes into this.

Mattias Hansson 49:16 I think that that’s my advice. But I think most people will go for the things they’re interested in; I think that’s great. You’re not going to do a postdoc that you’re thinking, ‘What is this?’ I have no interest in it. Of course, you’re not going to do that. But you’re going to have to realize that postdoc will run out then you will have to … If you want to continue in academia, you need to be very much on your feet when it comes to funding.

Natalia Bielczyk 49:42 Indeed, I agree and I didn’t really enter this game. And I think, that’s also different. That’s also one of the things that were a bit repulsive for me in the system. After all, you’re dependent on the opinion of one person because every time you apply for a grant, there is another individual on the other side that you might not even know, who is evaluating you and deciding about, ‘To be or not to be.’

Natalia Bielczyk 50:12 I mean, you’re always being assessed either by your clients if you have a company or by some external specialists, if you’re a researcher applying for grants. But the point is, if you are an entrepreneur and you work on the open market, then it’s a statistic. Let’s say, you release a product to the market and 1000 people will see your website. Maybe 10 of them, or 50 of them, or 100 of them will decide to buy. Maybe the majority will skip it, but still, you have your income, you know. It’s just a matter of statistics.

Natalia Bielczyk 50:48 If enough people or enough percentage of people believe that your product is exactly what they need, and are willing to buy at the price that you gave, then you’re fine. It doesn’t have to be any particular person, you know, it’s just the statistics. And so, if your product is good enough, and if you make sure that it’s visible enough, then you are fine. And you don’t have to be dependent on anyone for any particular opinion, like from any particular person.

Natalia Bielczyk 51:13 But in academia, even if you’re a very famous and accomplished. At every big project that you are trying to pull off, there will always be someone. And often someone who you don’t even know who’s anonymous on the other side, who’s basically deciding about your future. That’s for me, that was a no go as well.

Natalia Bielczyk 51:39 If you have any questions for Matties, you have a last chance right now. Because we are slowly coming to the end of this interesting episode. You have a last chance now and if I don’t see any questions in the chat, within the next two seconds, then I think we’ll wrap up. Unless you, Mattias, wants to still say something; something juicy.

Mattias Hansson 52:04 I think I’ve done enough juicy stuff for one session.

Natalia Bielczyk 52:10 This is also important what you said; it’s very important. Because it’s taboo to say that you regret your PhD. Like, I think many people regret their PhD, but they just don’t say it openly. Because they know that this is a taboo, and that makes people feel bad.

Natalia Bielczyk 52:25 I think I don’t regret my PhD as such, but it’s complicated. For me, it’s different from saying that, like, I would certainly say to people to be very careful if you do a PhD. But this is from my experience, and I think it’s very complicated. Because I really love the knowledge, I acquired through it. But I also became quite ill, literally, from doing it.

Mattias Hansson 52:57 I lost so much weight, and I was like, I was very depressed. It’s very complicated; it’s not like it’s a sunny story. But I mean, also to be aware that those sunny stories exist. They’re out there. To me, I just want somebody to think about what they’re doing. And also, maybe ask people around, you know, like, if they know something about it.

Mattias Hansson 53:25 But in the end, I mean, there was a lot of people telling me not to do with when I was starting, and I didn’t believe them. What are you going to do? And I was young, much younger then. I wish I could go back and talk to myself, but I mean, it doesn’t work like that. I’m happy I got through it. But it was very expensive for me, personally, to do it. That’s why this issue is very complicated for me.

Natalia Bielczyk 53:57 It’s completed also because you always have to take into account the alternative. If you didn’t do a PhD, you wouldn’t have a title of a PhD, but you will have a few years of youth to spend on something else.

Mattias Hansson 54:11 Yes, I totally agree. Yes.

Natalia Bielczyk 54:14 And I can also tell, you know, the mental burden in academia is very high. Like I sometimes had this feeling that 80% of all the effort I put into the PhDs, into games; and this like, mental burden. And I felt this even this catabolic effect of stress, that I’m burning calories just because of the frustration. And maybe 20% was burning calories on the actual work. If I didn’t have that mental burden, like if I did some other job in some other area, I would have five times more done at the same energy cost, you know.

Mattias Hansson 54:54 This is true. I agree.

Natalia Bielczyk 54:57 I think we don’t have questions for now. I would like to cordially thank Mattias for these very interesting insights and for being so truth telling today. I’m very happy that we have one honest episode here about what can go wrong with a PhD and career ahead. But I hope to see a good ending to the story. And let’s see where you end up and hope it’s a really good place. Just as you deserve, good luck. And I would like to hear the follow up later. Thank you, guys, and have a nice evening. Bye, bye.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, July 5th). E009 From PhD in Mathematics to Freelancing as a Data Scientist. Is It Worth To Do a PhD?? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e009-from-phd-in-mathematics-to-freelancing-as-a-data-scientist-is-it-worth-to-do-a-phd/

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