Preparing Data Science Students to Excel in the Coronavirus Job Market

"Data scientists are still in demand and are getting internships and job offers. We just want to use every resource we can to ensure that our students excel on interviews and get the jobs.” — John Hyde

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Chin-Wen Chang, a 2019 alumna of the M.S. in data science program at Columbia University and a senior data scientist at Johnson & Johnson, asked two current students probing questions about their class projects, datasets, algorithms, and data visualizations via Zoom. She also asked how they typically articulate their findings to professors. Sometimes the students had answers at the ready, but they also stumbled. And this was precisely the point of the exercise: To allow students to make mistakes during a practice run, so they will be better prepared for actual interviews with employers.

The technical part of data science interviews is often the longest and most difficult part, and students must be prepared to succinctly answer all questions about their skill sets, according to John Hyde, assistant director of career development and alumni services for the Data Science Institute (DSI) at Columbia. "Big tech firms and finance firms put students through successive rounds of four or more interviews, but they first want to see that they have technical proficiency."

Accordingly, the DSI career development team now hosts virtual mock interviews to prepare students to excel in a Covid-constricting job market. Chang and other DSI alumni interview two to four students at a time about their technical skills and previous experiences. The sessions are also recorded—with permission, of course—for the students to review and refine their responses with career advisers. “Most students have never heard themselves be interviewed," Hyde noted. "This way the students can go back and listen to the recordings and hear how they answered the questions. It’s quite enlightening for a lot of our students.”

So far, more than 60 students have participated in the new virtual interview preparation initiative.

Yunbai Zhang, one of the DSI students interviewed by Chang, is grateful for the initiative because he has a second round interview with Amazon coming up. He finds questions about behavior, such as “how did you convince your manager to accept and implement your project?” or “how have you turned a creative idea into a viable project?” to be the most challenging part of a technical interview. “I tend to answer questions like that by discussing the step-by-step logic I used on a project,” he said. “But in doing this mock interview, I realized that’s the wrong approach. Employers want to be persuaded, not drowned in technical detail.”

Zhang now has time to review the recording of his conversation with Chang, discuss how to improve his performance with Hyde, and prepare for round two accordingly.

Chang, the alumni interviewer, also has a doctorate from Cambridge and remembers what it was like to go through a gauntlet of tough interviews. She encourages current students to put themselves under the spotlight and feel the stress. "The more I practiced, the better I performed in the real interview process," she said. "It’s great to see that DSI students are working hard to improve their interviewing skills to ensure they get the best data science jobs on the market today.”


Media Contact: John Hyde, jh4253@columbia.edu


550 West 120th Street, Northwest Corner Building, Suite 1401, New York, N.Y. 10027    212.854.5660
©2020 Columbia University