Everyone’s journey as a research scientist is different. My path was particularly non-linear. I began my career in the trade publishing industry, editing “helpful” non-fiction books. As a writer and editor, I noticed a lot of patterns in language and the way we communicate. After several years as an editor, I decided to change direction and to pursue a doctorate in computer science. I wanted to solve the problems I was noticing in communication and, ultimately, identify ways that language could positively impact people’s lives.
I believe that my background as an editor benefitted me as I entered computer science because I could approach projects and research from a different perspective. I specialize in natural language processing – a collection of techniques to help machines understand human language – and I’m now applying those skills at Grammarly. My days can be hectic, especially as a working mom, but here is what a typical day looks like for me from start to finish.
As a single mom of a Kindergartener, my day starts by getting my son ready for school. Before we settle into our morning routine, however, we cuddle and chat in bed for a few minutes, which is a calm way to begin our day together. I savor these moments with him – I know they won’t last forever!
Mornings are especially busy, and it requires heavy multitasking to get everything done. While my son watches TV, I make him breakfast and myself a coffee before checking on any urgent items from email and Slack. Finally, I prepare an after-school snack, walk the dog, and we get ready to head out the door.
Settling into my second role of the day
When I first get to work, before I go through emails or tackle my to-do list, I start by reading and staying up-to-date on the latest research. One of my favorites is the daily digest from arXiv (pronounced archive), an online source of scientific publications. Every morning, I read through the abstracts of new research published under “Computation and Language,” which is where the NLP papers are submitted. Reading about trends and findings helps me stay informed and up to date on research advances, allowing me to do my job more effectively.
Why planning is a priority for research teams
After I’ve caught up on industry news, the real work begins. As is the case for many working professionals, meetings take up a large portion of my day.
A research scientist will either be a project lead or a project team member. Project leads are directly responsible for the quality and success of that project. This involves planning the research project at a high level, making sure the team members are on track, and coordinating with other teams as needed. Project leads also work on the research component but assume much of the overhead, allowing the individual team members to focus deeply on researching and developing the models.
Like most organizations, strategic scoping and planning ensure we’re on track not only within our department but also with other teams in the company. That brings me to my next point – something that people might not know about research scientists: collaboration is key.
Collaboration and connection leads to success
To do our jobs well, collaboration is paramount. At Grammarly, it is ingrained into our workplace culture. Multiple projects are going on at any one time, and in my role, I’m working with many people across the company. This approach fosters more creativity as our teams can see problems from multiple points of view. Something I’ve learned is that different teams have their own sets of goals and concerns: As researchers, we focus on developing reliable models – and sometimes meeting this goal overshadows the broader scope of the project. Other roles have different priorities, and we need to keep each other’s concerns in mind. If we don’t, ultimately our solutions will fail because we aren’t looking at the bigger picture.
I’ve also learned that it’s important to connect with teammates outside of day-to-day duties. Our office has lunchtime blocked off as a recurring event on our calendars, so every day at 12, we sign off for a break to sit around a table and chat while we eat. This lets us switch mental gears, flex different mental muscles and talk about things outside of work – and it’s also a chance to get new ideas for problems we may be stumped on. There is a great deal of knowledge to be gained from these conversations. I find that when we step away from our computers and “turn off” our work brain even for a short period, we’re ultimately more productive overall.
Throwing out the “rule book”
Whether morning or afternoon, when it comes to our research-focused roles, there’s no “rule book” to draw from. Sometimes you get the results you expect, but other times you don’t and have to revisit the models, data, or evaluation – or all three. To be successful – and to avoid burnout – flexibility is key. A flexible mindset enables you to recognize when a plan isn’t working and to recast the project components to find the best solution. It is also why we work as a team rather than individually – this allows us to pivot when necessary and band together to find a solution.
For example, when exploring a new research direction, one of the early milestones is a proof of concept that demonstrates the new problem can be solved using some proposed modeling techniques. Many models published in academic papers are just proofs of concept: the model “works” according to a scientific, quantitative evaluation – but it hasn’t been designed or tested with an end user in mind. It’s not just that it “works” that makes a project successful: it depends on the feedback from users and whether it works well for them. Inclusivity is an essential part of everything we do – making sure that it not only works but is inclusive on all dimensions.
Disconnecting mentally, but staying connected personally
After my work day, I settle back into spending time with my son, and I turn off my email and Slack notifications. Talking about our day and making dinner together is really important to me. This is the time of day that my team knows I’m relatively unreachable, as I deliberately disconnect from work.
The thing that people might not understand about being a mom and working professional is that I’m still the same person: There’s an inherent connection between what I do day-to-day and how I parent. My work role is a blend of art and science, and especially due to my unique background as an editor, I’m able to see many different perspectives. As a mom, I try and inspire this type of creativity and open thinking in my son. He’s an engineer in the making and we love building things together, which allows for creativity but also for developing valuable skills like problem-solving. On the weekends, we go on playdates to museums, parks, and musicals to feed our curiosity even more. My goal is to make sure my son grows up seeing the world from many different angles. It’s a skill that’s required of a research scientist, but I also think it’s truly a valuable skill to have as a person.
Balance is how I ultimately make it all work
After my son goes to bed, I get back online for an hour and check if anything urgent needs attention. While signing on to work at the end of the day isn’t ideal, like most working parents, I need to find a balance. Unless there’s an urgent deadline, I try to limit the time I’m at my computer in the evenings. I tend to get sucked into my work, which can interfere with my sleep. As a working mom, I get so little sleep as it is that I need to guard it judiciously. If something can wait until tomorrow, it will! Otherwise, I’ll plow through the work and leave the dishes, laundry, and tidying-up until the next day. This is one way that allows me to be fully present with my son and give my full attention to my career. At the end of the day, striking a balance between my work and home life is what allows me to be my best self, both as a mother and a research scientist.