How a Data Visualization Student Got Hired by George Soros' Foundation

December 3, 2019

Seth Schimmel talks about his experience in The Graduate Center's master's program and offers advice to current and prospective students.

Seth Schimmel (Credit: Alex Irklievski)
Seth Schimmel (Credit: Alex Irklievski)

Seth Schimmel still has two semesters to go in The Graduate Center’s M.S. Program in Data Analysis and Visualization, but it has already helped him to get a new job. Since January, he has worked as a research and data support specialist for the Open Society Foundations (formerly the Open Society Institute). Founded by financier George Soros, it is now one of the largest independent grant-making institutions in the world.
Schimmel is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who previously worked for two years in The Graduate Center’s Human Subjects Research Protection Program (HRPP). He recently spoke about the master’s program and how he balances his studies with his new position.

Graduate Center: How did you first become interested in data visualization?
Schimmel: I became interested by way of my undergraduate studies in philosophy and cognitive science, and in creative writing. Through philosophy of language courses and a few writing courses focused on new media, I started thinking about the social and material dimensions of computer-mediated language and digital communication, and even wrote a few books meditating on different aspects of the subject. 

I initially wanted to learn how to code so I could do more with text to make poems and books. One thing led to another, and while working at The Graduate Center, I started in the liberal studies program. I jumped into computational linguistics classes, then really took to coding and data analysis and visualization more generally, and I became part of the first cohort of the M.S. program. At this point, I’m more interested in data analysis and visualization in service of the social sciences, but I hope to get back into creative text-based projects in the future.

GC: How has the M.S. Program in Data Analysis and Visualization helped to advance your career?
Schimmel: There are two major parts to my current job at the Open Society Foundations. In supporting research endeavors, I draw on some of what I was doing in my previous job at The Graduate Center: helping people to develop and scope research protocols. But I’m also facilitating literature reviews and field scans, and organizing and curating collections of datasets and research materials.
On the data side of my job, I support a variety of data analysis initiatives and work on using natural language processing driven methods for thinking through data. Day to day, I’m doing lots of data pre-processing and manipulation so that our programs can hit the ground running, as well as analyzing data in working groups with the programs’ information specialists and other team members.

The Data Visualization Program increased my familiarity with different data analysis techniques, software, and programming languages — compared to when I started, my skills around the board are a lot better now. I offer my expertise where I can, including: ensuring replicable analyses, crafting effective visualizations and reporting, and using different data resources to inform decisions and help colleagues identify potential partnerships and collaborators.
GC: Do you find it challenging to manage your coursework and your new job?
Schimmel: The flexibility of the program is a big benefit. I’ve gone back and forth between one and two courses a semester, and the fact that most of the classes are at night helps to make it all work. I’ve noticed that a lot of my peers are coming to class from work, too.
Going to school part time gives me a chance to pace myself and, at the same time, to get applied, practical experience and experience communicating with different audiences. I learn new concepts in class each week, and finding the right contexts for utilizing new concepts and techniques on projects for work is a fun challenge. 
GC: What would you advise potential students who are considering the program?
Schimmel: One great thing about the program is that you can learn to communicate about data analysis, data science, and data visualization in a holistic, interdisciplinary kind of way. I’m helping facilitate others’ research and data projects, so communicating about data and with data is a skill I leverage every day to help people do their work and to make sense of all the evidence and information they need.
One of the benefits of being at The Graduate Center is how robust the research endeavors are when it comes to social science and the humanities. I learned R programming in social science courses, which I enrolled in to learn about research methods, and learned Python while studying computational linguistics. The flexibility of the curriculum lets you take advantage of all The Graduate Center has to offer. I study with scholars who fundamentally understand the intrigue of working with data across disciplines.
And CUNY is a great institution. Just being at The Graduate Center is a plus.