Problem-solver in search of suitable problems
July 28, 2009 11:15 PM   Subscribe

I think I finally understand what I like to do. So... what would I like to do?

After many a year of soul-searching, I think I'm getting close to pinning down the things that I would like to do for a living. The problem now is identifying the jobs that would best bring those things together.

What I like: statistics, geography/GIS, and programming. In general, investigation and problem-solving. I like the first two because of their system-level perspective; I like the third because it's like magic, y'all, and it makes boring work disappear (although sometimes it is replaced by equal or greater quantities of interesting work; whatever). Best of all, I like combining all three, with healthy doses of data visualization thrown in.

These interests, of course, suggest some pretty obvious career choices: statistician, geographer, programmer. I find all of these appealing in theory, but I have some concerns:

I don't know enough about being a statistician, especially in academia; I worry that I might be too application-focused for that. I also have serious concerns about what's going to happen to the life academic over the coming years. Similarly, I don't know much about being a statistician outside of academia. The Census and related government organizations have been suggested to me, but they are out; while I have tremendous respect for the work they do, I greatly prefer analysis with a specific problem in mind.

I've read enough AskMeFi and thedailywtf to put the fear of career programming into me. I get the feeling that combining some programming skills with a domain area is the way to go for me - especially in a smaller organization - but I'm open to suggestions.

Of the three, I think "geographer of some sort" is the most promising, primarily because it could potentially include both statistics and programming. But what is it really like to be a geographer? Where do geographers find work? Are academic geographers in the same boat as academic statisticians?

For contrast, my current job is really wearing me down. I write reports about reports. I thought that I was getting hired into a fairly quantitative job, but I haven't done much more than a few t-tests in months. The best parts of it so far are when I have managed to turn boring work into awesome work: I automated several weeks' worth of copy/paste reporting work, and have learned a fair bit of HTML/CSS/JavaScript.

Any input is sincerely welcome. I'll happily consider jobs that are way outside of what I've mentioned above, too - I've often been told that I would make a good criminal investigator, and I really love woodworking and homebrewing. The fundamental keys are learning and problem-solving, I think.

I know this is vague, but I'll happily clarify anything I can. I know I'm lucky to have a relatively good job right now, but the recession won't last forever. I've got 3-4 years to work on getting ready for my next job, and I'd like to have at least some idea of where I'm going.

posted by McBearclaw to Work & Money (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Urban Planning?
posted by stray at 11:29 PM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Urban planning has been suggested before, actually - I guess I'm just a little biased against it because the people I know who are in urban planning are, um.... stupid. And because I worry that much of it is negotiating legalities and politics, rather than analysis and problem-solving. Is there anyone in urban planning who could give me some idea of what it's really like (or can be like)?
posted by McBearclaw at 11:35 PM on July 28, 2009

How about being an academic librarian who specializes in GIS and stats? These are not typically strong areas for librarians, and I suspect you'd find jobs easily once you had your MLS.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:45 AM on July 29, 2009

Some sort of datalogging/survey gig with a mining/drilling/geological survey outfit?
posted by Jakey at 2:24 AM on July 29, 2009

I don't know the details of her job, but I have a friend who works for the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The government's paying for her to get a M.A. in Statistics, and I gather her job is basically programming/statistics centered around financial data about particular locations within the U.S.
posted by hellogoodbye at 3:12 AM on July 29, 2009

Oh, apologies, too early... I didn't read your NO to gov't agencies....
posted by hellogoodbye at 3:13 AM on July 29, 2009

resource assessment for wind energy?
posted by scruss at 5:37 AM on July 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far. Some questions:

bluedaisy: That's intriguing - can you give me some idea of what a GIS/stats librarian might spend their day doing?

Jakeyand scruss: Also jobs I've considered, especially since I live in the Denver area. Do you know what these jobs are like? On the one hand, they sound really appealing - if I could actually go outdoors for my job, I would be thrilled. But do people in these positions really do that? And to what extent does that kind of work involve problem-solving? Resource assessment for wind energy, for example, sounds like a really fascinating research question. But once it's answered, is it just an application of the same principles over and over?

(Sorry, I know I could answer some of this stuff myself, but... it's report reading time.)

Thanks for your help, and any further comments would be greatly appreciated.
posted by McBearclaw at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2009

Best answer: I'm a self-taught sysadmin who backed into a working at an ecology lab that does a lot of GIS and statistical work. Quite a few research staffers at our school have just a Masters, or even a non-science Bachelors, and some have been autodidacts like myself. Environmental science is inherently cross-disciplinary, so some Principal Investigators look for a broad skill set (which you seem to have) as much as traditional academic credentials. Find a University with an Environmental or Geography program, and then look investigate the labs and research centers associated with the school. I make less money than the corporate world, but Universities provide good benefits. The collaborations are enriching- I'm literally helping to save the whales. I'm sure there's a lab out there that needs someone with your exact enthusiasms. If you've got Python and R skills, you could hit the ground running.

Also, since there's frequent overlap with biochemistery and backpacking, there are lots of homebrewers in this gig.
posted by bendybendy at 6:59 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The only people I know that do the datalogging survey stuff do it offshore, so it's definitely outdoors. Depending on latitude and time of year, that can be a good or a bad thing. Also the x weeks on, x weeks off thing doesn't suit everyone. From what I can gather, it's sometimes interesting, sometimes not, depending on the specific assignment you happen to be on at any given time - so same as any other job:) Good luck in finding something suitable.
posted by Jakey at 9:59 AM on July 29, 2009

Response by poster: Giving bendybendy and Jakey best answers for their high level of detail, but thank you all for your ideas.

More thoughts are always welcome (but unlikely now that I'm so far down the list of questions...).
posted by McBearclaw at 11:25 AM on July 29, 2009

Since you aren't opposed to filthy commerce, you might also be interested in working with the types of people who do data mining matched to geographic locations to produce trends/demographic categories for marketing, etc. Claritas is one example. You can read about this type of work in Microtrends and Numerati.

I don't have any further knowledge of the business besides what's in those books (and a few random mentions in other places), so I'm afraid I can't provide insider knowledge, but that's the first thing that struck me when reading your question.
posted by clerestory at 3:02 PM on July 29, 2009

Best answer: Oh McBearclaw, I wish it were just the repeated application of a solved problem. Every site I've worked on has unique problems: turbulence, terrain, extreme weather, dodgy sensors, ... and that's before the real fun starts.
posted by scruss at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the follow-up, scruss! Um... so do you actually like the resource assessment process?
posted by McBearclaw at 11:34 AM on July 31, 2009

like it? I love it! It helps I got my experience with some of the best in the business.
(mefimail me if you have questions.)
posted by scruss at 12:23 PM on July 31, 2009

You might also enjoy a job in Journalism. While this sounds fairly lame, imo, its actually much cooler than you'd expect. -- that's journalism. Its using GIS data, data visualization and programming. From that, there's likely a lot of statistical information you could pull from it. Average population per city block divided by average rate of crime? percentage of restaurants who fail their followup health inspections? This list could go on for a long time. Good luck in your search!
posted by justinlilly at 9:11 PM on August 30, 2009

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