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Once a physicist: Damian Rumble

Damian Rumble joined the customer analytics team at insurance company Aviva as a data scientist after completing a PhD in observational astrophysics.

What sparked your interest in physics? 
I have always been fascinated by the natural world, and as a child I was awe-struck by the volume of knowledge humans have about the universe around us. Nothing was more incredible than the idea of visiting strange planets in and beyond our solar system, and this passion was fuelled by books such as A Brief History of Time and the TV documentary series Horizon. At school, some subjects seemed taxing, but this was not the case for physics – I had found a subject that could capture the enormous complexity of life around us in a series of simple laws that are both immensely powerful and intuitive.

Did you ever consider an academic career? 
Well, I completed a PhD in astrophysics so I guess I have already had an academic career! However, there was a time when my life could have taken a very different path. I found I got a lot out of art at school and also did work experience at an architecture firm. I did an A-level in geography and found I was fascinated by the economic and social systems that govern society. Ultimately, my original love of physics and my superior grades made my university subject choice for me. Did I consider an academic career beyond my PhD? Yes, and I quickly decided against it. From the start my PhD was a means to an end, an opportunity to train up in technical skills and contribute to our understanding of the universe. I enjoyed my research but became frustrated with the academic environment. I guess it was a case of the maxim "don't make your hobby your job" that was partly responsible for my disillusionment.

How did you get interested in data science? 
I had a mini-revelation during my PhD when I realized that what I enjoyed most was using the skills involved in my research, such as coding, problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. I knew that the secret to a fulfilling and stable career was finding a job where I could employ these skills in a commercial setting. I had initially wanted to get a job with the European Space Agency, but again and again I found the roles required engineering expertise beyond my training, and so reluctantly I had to let that idea go. About the same time I had a chance meeting with a friend who told me about her new job as a data scientist. It was clear the role used all those same skills I loved to use on a daily basis, as well as being seriously up and coming across many business sectors. While I am not especially interested in insurance, I love my role as a data scientist at Aviva – for the most part it feels like an extension of my research.

What were some of the challenges in moving from academia to a corporate role? 
First, getting the role. While my CV was good enough to get me interviews, I would often fall down on my lack of practical commercial experience and domain knowledge. I took part in the "Science 2 Data Science" fellowship and that was key to providing some business context to my academic skill set. Once in the job, the first major hurdle was the language barrier. The sheer level of corporate jargon, management techno babble and acronyms was infuriating. However, there was sufficient support to ease the transition into a business role. A somewhat unexpected challenge was the expectation that was placed on me due to the reputation of having a physics PhD. Significant parts of the role involve co-ordinating work with regular employees of Aviva who, despite having a university education, show an outright aversion to any technical discussion beyond the use of a spreadsheet. At university there was constant discussion and criticism of work; whereas in business, people will often accept your work no-questions-asked, meaning you have to be all the more responsible for whether your findings are correct or not!

What does your current role entail? 
I work in the personalization team at Aviva. In essence this is a branch of marketing where we are developing algorithms to deliver content more efficiently. If you had told me three years ago that I would end up working in marketing, I probably would have recoiled in horror. However, the ethos of the team is all about putting the customer first. We are trying to model our customers' behaviour so that we only send them marketing material that is in tune with their own interests. In the past, companies would have just spammed their mailing lists and this would have made a lot of people unhappy. In the future, you will only be contacted by a company about a product or service if you are highly inclined to be interested in it. All of this is possible by utilizing the vast resource of data that every company has and an array of complex and intricate algorithms.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work, if at all? 
My physics background has been key to my success in my new role. Much of my PhD was centred on turning an abstract question into a concrete hypothesis that can be coded up and tested using the available data. Data science follows exactly the same principle. More specifically, when I started attending interviews I found it difficult to relate observing cold, dusty star-forming regions of the galaxy to modelling sales or customer churn. However, I quickly discovered that many of the practices I had been carrying out in academia were in fact the same in principle as those in commercial data science, albeit under a different name. Interestingly, simply being a physicist as opposed to having a business background may have also helped. Hiring people from within the business world is believed to breed a stuffy, corporate environment, whereas bringing in people from outside can help drive innovation by introducing new ideas and attitudes.

Do you have any advice for today's students? 
Physics is widely believed to be a safe bet to ensure a future career. However, if you just sit back and wait for this to materialize it probably won't. I have met many people, myself included, who have finished their physics degrees with lots of enthusiasm but little direction. My advice would be to identify what skills within physics you enjoy and look for jobs that use those same skills. I would also note that getting job satisfaction is as much about the environment that you work in as well as the nature of the work. Don't be prepared to accept a job that compromises on your work–life balance.