Jean-Baptiste Rouquier

Data Scientist.

Former research staff in computer science in two government-funded research institutions, France.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Research staff experience

After a three-year PhD, I had three years’ research staff experience in the area of complex networks. I applied my specialism in several different fields where there is rich data to capitalise on. My co-authored publications range from transportation research (‘Shared bicycles in a city’) to science and public policy (‘Scientists who engage with society perform better academically’).

Following my PhD in computer science at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France, I became a postdoctoral fellow employed by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), at the Complex Systems Institute of Paris Ile-de-France (ISC). There, from 2009–2010, I measured, modelled and simulated complex systems and complex networks (such as social networks), and analysed the large datasets collected and their dynamics. In 2011 I moved to Bordeaux for a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at another public research institution, INRIA (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation), where I worked on the visualisation of complex networks.

During 2011 I was offered a ‘chargé de recherches’ (tenured research staff) position by a third public research organisation, having applied through its national competition for permanent posts. However, I’d also been on the lookout for jobs in the private sector. I was offered the job of researcher/engineer in a very small company, and I had to choose between the two.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make - after all, achieving a permanent research staff position had been my number one professional goal. I weighted several criteria in order to make my choice: alignment with my background and skills; potential for working on interesting questions with smart and nice colleagues; pay; commute to work; future career opportunities...

Had I received only the former offer, I would have gone there with no hesitation and I'm sure I would have been happy. However, I chose the private sector route and I'm happy to have done it.

Transition to new career

The total acceptance of my decision from friends was the only – but important – form of support I received during my transition to the corporate sector. 

I wasn't especially active in searching for opportunities outside public research,  but I did set up a profile on LinkedIn and Viadeo, and showed interest in the various contacts I was glad to receive, from there and from my PhD advisor.

The first company I worked for provided risk management research services to the financial sector. It sought and applied techniques from different fields of science to help make investment decisions under uncertainty. My role was a combination of original research and computer engineering.

In 2012, I was approached by Criteo, a company that had contacted me on a previous occasion. The job I was in wasn't satisfying for a number of reasons, so I moved to this very different employer. Criteo is a global organisation with some 1200 employees, which develops new ways for advertisers to attract, and sell to, online buyers.

Current job – and how it compares

My attraction to data - how it can be refined into insights and predictions, like turning freshly picked coffee fruit into the perfect ristretto - led me to become a data scientist. It seems there is some demand for that, which is lucky!

At Criteo my role is to improve the accuracy of machine learning algorithms on big data, especially by generating, analysing and selecting new data to improve the prediction engine.

The setting differs a lot from public research institutions and the contrasts would be worth a whole book! I’d mention for a start:

-       the economic pressure to stay profitable

-       you have no choice over which colleagues to work with

-       good execution: things get done. There is no potential collaboration or article dragging on for years. Done is better than perfect

-       the availability of the people and money that are needed to advance projects (your input on which project should be worked on first is valued, but most people don't choose what they work on)

-       about double the pay. Good work is eventually rewarded

-       fewer administrative tasks

-       quick feedback on most things

-       no need to work at weekends (except in startups)

-       you can be fired anytime (with a few months’ notice). But if you've worked well, you'll find another job. You do need to keep an eye on your career

-       much less flexible working hours 

Competencies old and new

In this very different environment, I apply many of the competencies I developed when I was research staff.  These include the ability to: work autonomously and define the relevant problems to solve, with rigour and creativity; quickly learn theoretical topics and methodologies, with an in-depth understanding; explain difficult and abstract concepts to specialists and non-specialists.  The perseverance I developed in my research staff posts has also served me well! 

The main new competency I’ve needed is the ability to deliver work quickly - even if it is imperfect. I’ve had to lose the more perfectionist mentality of academic research.

Reflecting on my career path

I'm happy with my career move. Given the plummeting number of positions in publicly-funded research, there should be more consideration of the potential in the private sector on both sides, both by early career researchers thinking about their future and recruiters planning to hire. 

Suggestions and advice

Many researchers have only a limited vision of what the private sector entails, so, get to know it, even if you won't end up there. Science is based on facts and experiments. Use the same rigour and do your homework: get information from contrasting people and sources so you will be entitled to judge the private sector. It can be a great career path too!