Read as Jonathan Mugan talks about his career as a Computer Scientist. Find him at www.jonathanmugan.com or www.jonathanmugan.wordpress.com and on the Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. @jmugan
What do you do for a living?
I am a computer scientist.
How would you describe what you do?
I use information and computation to solve problems and make our lives easier. The bigger picture is that I am trying to make computers as smart as humans by giving them knowledge and context. Knowledge allows them to understand how the world works, and context allows them to understand what you need right now.
What does your work entail?
I think up new algorithms and approaches. I then try those out by running experiments, and I package up the programs and results and give them to the customer or the scientific community.
What’s a typical work week like?
I spend about 20% of my time in meetings talking about problems with other people; about 20% of my time writing programs; about 20% of my time just thinking; about 20% of my time writing down previous results to show other people; and about 20% of my time reading to learn about new approaches and insights.
How did you get started?
I was in my mid 20s standing in my kitchen, and I realized I had no idea how a TV worked. I had never been a technical person, and at that moment I recognized that I had dismissed half of human knowledge. That started me on the path to going back to school to study computer science. Previously, I had studied psychology because I wanted to understand our thought processes, and at the time I was working in information technology, so computer science seemed like a natural choice.
What do you like about what you do?
Computers are transforming our society, and I love being a part of that. Computers get smarter every year, and human intelligence stays about the same. So it is likely that in our lifetimes computers will become as smart as us and then exceed our intelligence. I can’t imagine what that is going to be like, but I want to understand it as well as I can.
What do you dislike?
I wish I got to work outside more. I would love to have a job that took me to off-the-beaten-path places all over the world. Computer scientists almost always work in indoor environments.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I work for a company that does research for the US government. I am also an adjunct professor at a local university.
How much do people in your field make?
The average is about $60,000 to $130,000 per year. If you start your own technology company, you can make an unlimited amount of money, or you can make nothing.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
Starting salary for a bachelor’s degree is usually around $50,000 per year; for a master’s degree it is around $70,000 per year; and for a PhD degree is around $80,000. Those numbers can vary quite a bit by geographic location.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
You can do computer science with either a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a PhD degree. A bachelor’s degree takes four years. A master’s degree takes another two years, and a PhD degree takes another four to six years. Don’t do a PhD if your goal is to make money; a master’s degree is probably best for that. A PhD can take a long time, but while you are in school for a PhD in computer science, your tuition is generally paid for, and you receive a stipend that is enough for a young person to live on. The advantages of a PhD are that you are able to explore all the way to the boundary of human knowledge, and you have more freedom in choosing the problems you work on once you begin working.
What is most challenging about what you do?
The challenging aspects of this field are the same as the challenging aspects of many fields. You have to work well with other people and be able to deliver quality results.
What is most rewarding?
My passion is building smart computers. When your passion is the same as your job, you don’t feel like you have to work at all. You just get up in the morning and do what you want to do.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Become passionate about math, programming, and data. Do everything you can to get under the hood of how the Internet works. For programming. You can see here for a quick blog post I wrote on getting started on a language called Python http://jonathanmugan.
If you find that you can’t become passionate about math or programming or data, that’s okay. There are a lot of great fields out there, you just have to keep looking.
How much time off do you get/take?
It is pretty standard to get 2 weeks of vacation a year.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Computer scientists like to say that computer science is as much about computers as astronomy is about telescopes. Computer science is about math and information and protocols. Those things just happen to be implemented on a computer.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I want to build machines that are as smart as us.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
If you don’t see yourself as someone who can understand technical things such as computers, don’t let that keep you from exploring and trying to understand what it is all about. I didn’t see myself as a computer person until I was in my 20s.