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IT career roadmap: Research scientist

Sharon Florentine | July 14, 2016
Amanda Stent's interest in music has helped advance her career as a research scientist as much as her mathematics and computer science background has.

Amanda Stent fell in love with the computer science field in high school, where she was fortunate enough to take a class on artificial intelligence. She enrolled in college after 1th grade and declared a double major in math and music, but her university didn't offer a dedicated computer science program. Instead, Stent tackled that subject via a study-abroad program before entering post-secondary education where she received a bachelor's in mathematics and music and a Ph.D in computer science.

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Now a computational linguist working as a research scientist for Yahoo, her projects are aimed at helping computers understand and produce language. While her math and computer science background are incredibly important, she says her major in music taught her skills that are just as valuable.

"Obviously the math degree is critical, but the music major gave me experience performing in public and a lot of experience in practicing until you get something right -- that's really critical for research," Stent says.

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Math mastery

Besides solid computational and analytics skills, Stent says that her role requires mastery of linear algebra and statistics, knowledge of multiple programming languages and different programming paradigms. In applied research, the necessary languages and paradigms shift so quickly that a research scientist must constantly be adding new languages and skills to stay on the cutting edge.

And there's another skill that's invaluable: writing. Stent says writing and communication is absolutely necessary, because much of research involves persuasion. "We are constantly being asked to convince people that what we're working on is both novel and relevant. We also need to be able to describe what we're doing and document our progress at every step, both for other researchers and for laypeople," she says.

Breadth and depth

The need for breadth and depth of skillset and experience is something emphasized across most master's and doctorate curriculum, but it's even more important for students looking at IT research scientist roles, says P.K. Agarwal, regional dean and CEO at Northeastern University-Silicon Valley.

"Large companies are usually looking at master's and doctorates for these positions, and they want to see diversity in the educational background and experience. They are trying to bring together people from across disciplines to balance the conversations around these technologies and new research and development, because you need more than hard skills. By the time you are past the 'R' of research and into the 'D' of development, the world and the tech may have changed, so there's strategic value in education outside the traditional CS, mathematics and analytics," Agarwal says.


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