Political scientists pursue wide-ranging and diverse career paths. This interview series, developed by the APSA Professional Development Program, highlights the many different ways political scientists carry their skills and expertise into the workforce. For more information, including resources on career options outside of academia, visit APSA’s career page.
Gonzalo Rivero is the senior data scientist of the Statistics and Survey Methodology Unit of Westat. Gonzalo holds a PhD in political science from New York University. His academic research focuses on the fragility of political representation and he has published work on quantitative methods in social research, electoral behavior, attitudes towards corruption, and social media and politics. Before joining Westat, Gonzalo worked as statistician in the Scientific Research Group of YouGov.
What did you study graduate school? Can you say a bit about your research?
Rivero: I studied social sciences at the Juan March Institute and did my PhD at New York University. My dissertation investigated the conditions under which military factionalism affects the likelihood of a military intervention in politics. I was trying to understand why coups are not always successful and why they lead to very different institutional outcomes.
What was your first post-PhD job? What did you do in this position?
Rivero: My first job was as statistician in the Scientific Research Group at YouGov, an Internet-based research company. I handled the usual tasks of a survey statistician in addition to statistical analysis, experimental design, and tool development. I also had the opportunity to do some original research on public opinion and survey methods. My team ran a lot of surveys for academic departments in the social sciences and that helped to make it a smooth transition into industry.
What do you do now?
Rivero: I am the senior data scientist of the statistics unit in Westat. Westat is a large research organization specialized in the design and management of data collection projects, and that includes not only surveys but also clinical trials or collection of biospecimens. My job is to design tools and statistical models to help field personnel and project directors to measure, monitor, and adapt to field conditions. In addition, we are very active in research methodology, and I am usually involved in either the design or the data analysis of some for the academic publications of my team. Finally, because I am the first hire in data science, I also advise and assist with any task in the company that involves predictive modeling, massive databases, or organic data.
Why and when did you choose to pursue a career outside the academy?
Rivero: I wanted to work on research and industry offered me that opportunity. The main difference for me between the research that I do now and what I would be doing in academia is that I touch a larger diversity of topics, they are considerably more applied, and they also allow me to spend more time on the methodological side of the questions.
How has your doctoral training helped you in your career?
Rivero: My job is essentially bringing research questions to the empirical record in order to find the most credible way to answer them, and that is the same thing I did during my PhD. Also, a doctorate puts you in the habit of thinking down the road to identify the difficulties that your research strategy will face and the pieces that will not be convincing to the person that will have to make decisions based on your findings. Knowing which questions you will not be able to answer and how to design your research to make it useful are some of the most practical skills you can get from your PhD.
No matter the technical sophistication of your program, in data science and statistics you are almost always at a disadvantage with people from STEM backgrounds. However, there are things specific to a graduate program in political science that helped me a lot. For starters, a mindset structured around experimental design and causal identification. Also, the few classes that I took on political psychology, political behavior, and sociology have proven very useful when I work with individual-level data. Finally, I have used what I learned about game theory and microeconomics a lot more than I had expected.
I was very lucky to attend a graduate program with a heavy emphasis on research design and to study with people who were very open-minded about methodology. I was exposed to a large diversity of models and technologies, and that has been crucial for me.
Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career outside the academy?
Rivero: The things that you learn during the PhD program about getting a job in academia do not translate well to industry. In order to learn how to do interviews or even prepare your resume you will need some guidance and that may be difficult to get within your department. Reaching out to people with your same background in industry will be very helpful.
Talk to your committee as soon as you start thinking about not going to the academic market, so you can design a dissertation and a graduate program that is tailored to the job that you want.
Finally, the obvious advice for those who want to go into data science is to take as many classes in statistics, computer science, and mathematics as possible, even outside your department. There are now several professional programs designed to help recent graduates adapt their skills to the job market in statistics and data science.
Why have you continued to be a member of APSA?
Rivero: I still consider myself a political scientist and I try to stay active in academic research. But even if I didn’t, I still benefit a lot from the Annual Meeting, POLMETH, and the professional journals.
To read more about Gonzalo Rivero, see his website here.