How to Transition From Philosophy to Data Science: An Interview With Data Scientist Kyle Boerstler

Dr. Boerstler – The Featured Guest: In the ongoing series of interviews with PhDs with diverse perspectives about academia and career pivots, I interviewed Kyle Boerstler. Dr. Boerstler is a Data Scientist at Activision.

About the Interviewer: Ryan Collins, PhD is the founder of After your PhD. He graduated from Indiana University Bloomington in 2021 with A PhD in Media Arts and Sciences.

Can you describe in your own words your current role and responsibilities?

Dr. Boerstler: So I am a disruptive behavior data scientist. This is basically a fancy way of saying I’m an anti-cheat data scientist. I focus on trying to eliminate disruptive actors and our competitive online environments. This can range from direct cheating within the game. It can also sometimes transition over into anti-toxicity, things that we do not want in our spaces. We want a safe and inclusive gaming environment as much as possible My main responsibilities consist of using data to detect and mitigate people who would otherwise disrupt our online environment.

Did you ever imagine you’d be doing this?

Dr. Boerstler: I still can barely believe that I’m doing this. It’s such a cool job. It’s surreal every day to come in and do the things that I’m doing. So it’s a lot of fun and not something that I ever would’ve seen myself doing, uh, even a year and a half ago when I was on the job market.

I don’t think that was your plan all along to work at a big gaming company. Can you briefly talk about this journey from your philosophy PhD to where you are now?

Dr. Boerstler: It is the story, that I’ve told hundreds of times and there are varying levels of detail, but the gist of it is I went into a PhD in philosophy because I loved teaching and I loved students. And so I had a passion for engaging with students and mentoring them and assisting them in their educational journeys. I got a master’s degree first and realized that I was not making any money at all. So then I went on to the PhD, finished that, and also realized, it was also not gonna make very much money.

And that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. It’s a huge strain on family whenever you have to try to do multiple postdocs, lots of moving, and things like that just to kind of get your academic career started. So whenever I spent my first year on the job market, I was primarily targeting academic jobs, but I failed that first year, which is the same year I was finishing the PhD. The next year I opened up the search to non-academic jobs as well and I actually landed a job as a clinical ethicist. So my specialization is in philosophy, as well as bioethics. This lent itself to the possibility of me bringing my ethical background in philosophy into a clinical ethics position. And a clinical ethicist is someone hired by a hospital to consult on ethical cases for both doctors and patients and also they would serve on the oversee research.

There were various tasks and duties like that for the hospital system. So I was offered a job at a hospital system in Michigan. And so we were living in Florida at the time. And so we started to pack and had our house halfway packed. We had a realtor about to put our house on the market and I was offered the job in February of 2020. And so of course right at the same time Covid was kicking off. So what ended up happening is our house was gonna go on the market on a Monday and I got a call from the person who hired me at this hospital system in Michigan on the Friday before. And she said basically, “Please don’t move to Michigan. We don’t have a job for you because we are bankrupt as a hospital.”

So I went to my chair because he had hired me as an associate or a visiting teaching faculty after I finished my PhD to help me out to kind of bridge the gap to getting my first academic job. And I asked him, Is there any way you can renew my contract because my career launching job just fell through? And he said, “Well, once we heard you got that job back in February, we promised the money to a new postdoc that’s coming in next year. So now there’s no money to renew your contract.”

So I went from having my career launching job, settled into in May I was unemployed with a PhD.

What that the moment that you decided that you needed to explore new careers?

Dr. Boerstler: Yeah, I would say that there wasn’t a definitive moment. There was just kind of a period of searching and waffling like, do I want to keep giving the academic track a shot? Do I want to wait out COVID-19 and try for the clinical ethicist track again? Or do I want to launch into the unknown after spending, you know, five full years getting a PhD and just do something completely different? That’s a pretty hard decision to make. You know, especially when it kind of comes out of the blue. It’s one thing if you kind of are halfway through your PhD and you decide, you know, I’m not gonna do this academically, so I’m gonna have a plan going into my dissertation that I’m gonna basically transition immediately. I never had that. I was fully committed to doing the academic route.

I noticed that throughout your journey though, you went to boot camps and you were into personal projects. And I’m curious how these projects help.

Dr. Boerstler: I would say most likely the biggest contributor to my current job is, uh, LinkedIn networking. Kyle: So I would stay my personal projects and my interests that I kind of brought to the table put me on a platform that made me attractive to talk to. I don’t think that without the networking if I have had a cold applied to the job that I’m currently in I would’ve even been looked at. I can’t say that it would have necessarily got me an interview. I had actually been friends with the person who hired me for going on nine months before she offered me the job because of LinkedIn. Now I will say it was my capstone project at my boot camp that kind of got her interested in me on LinkedIn. She thought it was a really awesome project and was really impressed by it. And that’s what started the conversation.

They go hand in hand, I had to kind of like push the envelope over the next six months in that friendship to develop the connection so that when she had a job opening, I was the first person that came to her mind. Yeah. And she basically reached out to me and told me to apply.

You discussed earlier that your background was in ethics, how does that domain of knowledge translate into your current role?

Dr. Boerstler: It was actually kind of funny cuz they hired me for an antitox-specific role because of my ethics background. But right after I got hired, the focus of the company turned almost squarely into anti-cheat. And so the resourcing for anti-tox became less important. So I got shifted over to anti-cheat. So my ethics background is definitely still relevant but I would say it’s more relevant than a field like anti-toxicity where you’re developing policy on how to deal with people that aren’t necessarily directly breaking any rules but are just creating an environment that’s either hostile or not welcoming to other gamers. So there’s like an ethical boundary of where you should draw the line on what’s an appropriate punishment or an appropriate mitigation and whether or not you should even punish as opposed to let’s reward positive behavior. And that way we encourage people to behave in a less toxic way. There’s lots of ethics that kind of play into that. And also psychology kind of topics. So part of my dissertation was on the philosophy of emotions and I’m slightly leaning into psychology background because of the things I did for my dissertation.

How did you communicate with hiring managers and recruiters that you had mathematical skills when you’re coming from a philosophy background?

Dr. Boerstler: I tried to emphasize was that even though I don’t have a statistics background per se, or even a math background per se that I’m coming from an analytic philosophical program emphasized the logic component. And so symbolic logic and modern logic were a big component of my PhD studies. That translates really well into programming. But I also emphasize that if you really just wanna hire the best statistician, don’t hire me… I look at the entire org’s set of problems and I say here’s the one that I can solve and here’s the one that brings value.

Dr. Kyle Boerstler:

There’s so much philosophy out there that you’re tasked as a graduate student to say, where is the argument that I can contribute to? And the argument that brings enough value to show that I can get the PhD. And so I think that it, what I bring to the table is this ability to synthesize the data in a way that a lot of other maybe traditionally trained computer science people may miss because they’re more focused on the curriculum that they were taught.

I know that the salaries and industry are a lot different than academia, but if money and finances weren’t an issue, do you think you would’ve stayed in academia?

Dr. Boerstler: I would say if I had not had the experience of working as a data scientist, then I would’ve gladly stayed in academia. But knowing what I know and how much fun I have doing the work that I’m currently doing, and just knowing that I’m contributing in a way that actually makes the gaming environment more enjoyable for people makes me feel really good and validated coming to work in a way that academia sometimes did, but quite often did not. When students are really good and they engage with you and they become people that talk to you regularly about the material and seek you out after class, it’s like you can feel very fulfilled and engaged and happy, but then you also sometimes get classes full of people that are completely disengaged, couldn’t care less and just don’t wanna do anything. And then you feel like, it is all meaningless? Is anything that I’m doing really affecting anybody in my classroom? I don’t feel that ever in my current role.

Are there any resources that kind of helped you along your way?

Dr. Boerstler: I can’t say that there was a definitive source, but networking through informational interviews with people was how I gathered 95% of my knowledge about the transition. So now there are really cool things there’s a whole hashtag LinkedIn group dedicated to transitioning academics. Uh, there are hiring lists like for job talent that exist in transitioning academics…..I would just suggest sitting down with people and chatting with them, especially academics who have transitioned. I promise you we will be the number one group of supporters you will find if you are trying to transition because we all have done it, and have seen the benefits and I think that a lot of us may have an even insidious desire to see the academy break a little bit so that it gets better for everybody else who’s there. But you know, we have to start small.

Is there anything else that you or I missed that you wanted to add to this conversation that might help PhDs?

Dr. Boerstler: This information is out there. Be really creative about the jobs you’re searching for. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into like one title because there’s lots of job descriptions that actually line up really well with academic skill sets, but they would have titles that just are super nontraditional. And so, and then when, if you do get to the point in your transition that you are negotiating like you’re going to be tempted to not negotiate because the money is gonna be so much better than anything you’ve ever seen compared to academic money. So that doesn’t change the fact though, that you are almost certainly worth more than the first offer you get. Start your career off as best you can in the transition by negotiating yourself to a higher salary.

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