EP 255: How an Astrophysicist Career-transitioned and Relaunched in Data Science with Avanti Tilak
Avanti Tilak's career transition and relaunch from astrophysics and academia to corporate data science was a triumph after a long, frustrating period of setbacks. Avanti explains how she updated her skills, which freelance roles contributed to her progress, how she dealt with repeated rejection, and what ultimately led to her successful relaunch into the corporate world via IBM's Tech Re-Entry program. Two and a half years later, she was part of a layoff from IBM during the pandemic. This meant that Avanti, at this point an experienced healthcare data scientist, needed to look for a new job. Her next role was at a small innovative start-up. She is now at a traditional health insurance company. Avanti walks us through her entire career path during our conversation.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and before we get started, I want to remind our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to the iRelaunch job board. And employers that are looking to hire relaunchers regularly peruse our job board, that's why they come to our job board. Any of you who want to make sure that you are being seen as an eligible relauncher should make sure that you're on it. Excited to have you join that and now excited for all of you to join us on the podcast.
And, today we welcome Avanti Tilak, who is an astrophysicist turn data scientist. After earning her PhD and postdoc, Avanti took a seven year career break while trying to transition into data science. She has been working with healthcare data for the last four and a half years and has broad experience in healthcare data science from working on a production team and a multinational tech company, to a small, innovative startup, and now in a traditional health insurance company.
Avanti, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Avanti Tilak: Hi Carol. Thank you for having me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, it's particularly exciting for me to be speaking with you because as you and I will talk about in a little bit, I was there at the moment of your initial relaunch, as part of the IBM Tech Reentry program. And in person, that was when we did in-person orientations, and we were at the IBM headquarters and where all the learning and development happens. It was a really exciting place to be at an exciting moment. And, we'll talk about that, but I just wanted to note that at the very beginning, this doesn't usually happen.
And now here we are four and a half years later, and there's so much to talk about and so much evolution, and I always appreciate the perspective of a relauncher who's been back in the workforce for a number of years and now can look retrospectively at how it felt at the very beginning or, before all the evolution happened.
Welcome. And maybe we should start with a little bit about your background. What did you do prior to your career break, and then what prompted you to step away from the workforce?
Avanti Tilak: Yeah, actually that's a great place to start always. So I came to the US on a student visa to study physics.
I graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2006 with an MA in physics, a PhD in astronomy, and then I was at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for four years working on postdoctoral research. And, in 2008, this stock market crash happened and research budgets everywhere just shrank. Everyone seemed to be competing for the same piece of pie, and the pie I could get to was even smaller because I wasn't a green card holder or a citizen yet.
That was one part. Then even if you managed to secure a grant or a research position, you had to move institutions because of the funding rules, which meant I would have to move my family every three years. And I could see my seniors from grad school, they were on their third and fourth postdocs.
It didn't look like that cycle of moving and that uncertainty was going to end quickly, astronomy doesn't really feed into an industry, so everybody stays in academia or at least stayed at that time. And there simply weren't enough faculty jobs. . So it all just seemed too daunting and so I decided to take a step back and reevaluate what my goals were.
So yeah, that, that was, I guess the motivation for the career break.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. That must have been quite a period for you to step back and reflect and think about what the future was going to look like. And, as you're mentioning, potentially thinking about a transition from academia into corporate America or the private sector or something, because of this very specific issue about postdocs and moving around and just how that works.
So can you tell us a little bit about the timeline of that thought process and then how you eventually directed yourself around to end up at data science as the field that you were going to transition into.
Avanti Tilak: Yeah. By the time I left academia, I had a son, he was a toddler at that time, and like I said, I just didn't want to keep transplanting our family constantly.
And I want to preface the next part by saying I loved this time I had with my kids. I really enjoyed all their silliness and the joy when they master something for the first time, whether it's walking or getting the spoon in their mouth or whatever it is, it doesn't matter. I have no regrets about it, but I think I went through a period of mourning for my career.
I had wanted to be this scientist, an astrophysics person since almost middle school. And I had worked hard for it and I thought I had achieved it, and then I was making this conscious decision to walk away. And I didn't really have a plan b I was leaping into the abyss, that's what it felt like for that part of my life.
And so I started thinking of other interests I could pursue, other fields I could go to. Around the same time, data science was starting to pick up steam. So this was like 2011, 2012. I always loved wrangling with data and making sense of it and trying to see how it fits into the big picture. That joy of discovery. And, it, it seemed to align a little bit with this new data science field where people were taking data and trying to make sense of it at the end of the day. You look for patterns and discover new insights. So that's how, at least that was my mental process, making that shift from academia and astrophysics to data science.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And then what happened after that? You sort of, it's a brand new field, so that's kinda interesting in itself. And it sounds I, I understand now your reasoning in terms of what, what could I, what was I doing before that could translate into this and it's an exciting new field.
So did you think right away that you were going to have to do any specific upskilling or reskilling? And what was the timeline along that you gave yourself? Did you set deadlines or did you say, I'm just gonna proceed at my own rate and I'll know when I'm ready for it to turn into something else?
Avanti Tilak: I think, once I decided I was going to do this, I had to upscale. I taught myself programming Python and R because those seemed to be the languages they were using for data science. I did not set myself a timeline because it seemed I knew it was going to be a difficult transition. And I felt if I said I have to get a job by X date, it's going to end up being self-defeating because it's like, none of, the other side of that equation was not in my hands.
So it didn't make sense for me to hold myself to something when the other party has to say, okay, we'll hire you. Yeah, I wasn't getting back into the field so to speak. But I did start networking very actively. Around the same time I, think, 2013, 2014, a new PyLadies group started in Boston and Cambridge area.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm sorry, can you say that again? A new what kinda group?
Avanti Tilak: PyLadies. So it's actually, P y and then Ladies, it's a, it's like a meetup thing. And they have these satellite groups all across the country and one of the women here decided she was going to start one for our area. And it was just such an amazing resource for me.
Because I could learn there. I could practice presenting. I could practice, like job interviews even. And everyone there was amazingly supportive. It was like this network of women who were my cheerleaders and my, they were really, give me your resume. I will give it to our recruiters. There were so many people that I met through that group and just a very supportive environment. It sort of came at the right time for me because I knew I had my family in my corner , right? But it's different when your mom or your sister or your husband says, yes, you can do it. They love you. They're supposed to say that. That's what like the lizard brain says, the one that's doubting you.
And instead, I had this new network of people who I had just met who weren't in love with me or anything like that, but they were still like, yes, you can do this. Don't give up. Like they were just, it was like a different perspective.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Let me just ask you one clarifying question. So in the PyLadies group, Py had to do with Python?
Avanti Tilak: Yeah. So we were learning Python. Sorry, I should have said that first.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So you're learning Python as a group, but are most of them working full-time or was there [unclear].
Avanti Tilak: Yeah, most of them were working full-time. Most of them were like, some of them were learning Python because they hadn't learned it before, but they were like engineers, they were product managers.
They were trying to either move into software engineering or broaden their skillset or get some like that built that community. So it was like a mix of expertise levels.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I see.
Avanti Tilak: There were people who just knew it and other people who were like, wait, how do you do this in Python? Like, so it was, it was a good,
Carol Fishman Cohen: So they, some were taking courses on their own, and then they come together to talk about questions or problem solving.
Avanti Tilak: Yeah.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I see.
Avanti Tilak: Or build a project or just, yeah, it, it ended up being like my lifeline.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, so that was like almost an offshoot of you, you decide on data science, you are upskilling by taking particular courses and then this group catches your eye because you're thinking this might be a good community to be in while I'm learning Python.
Avanti Tilak: Right.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Interesting. Okay. So tell us a little bit more about how you approach the job search. I have to also say, I love the idea that you didn't set a deadline for yourself, that you weren't putting additional pressure on yourself by doing that. So how did you approach it? I know you said you had all these cheerleaders.
Were there any hurdles that you ran up against along the way?
Avanti Tilak: Yeah, there were two major obstacles, I would say. One was the career break itself, right? And then the lack of actual work experience in data science. I did not have any of the traditional backgrounds for a new field. I it was a new field.
Nobody knew who, what they were hiring. But in general, if you had a background in software engineering or computer science or statistics, those people were more, I think, hireable, or at least that was the impression I got. And I didn't have any of those things in my background. I had done some modeling, but on very small scales as part of my work.
And so even when my friends submitted my resume somewhere, or if I applied for a job somewhere, most of the conversations would end with the gap on my resume. They would say, oh, it's very impressive, you should work for NASA, but you don't have any experience in this.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I see.
Avanti Tilak: Or they would say, I don't have experience with real world data. So there is this website called Kaggle where people go and get data sets and try and develop their own data science projects. And it was fairly, it wasn't new back then, but it was still early days for them. And so I had done a couple of projects on that and I would try to talk about that and they would be dismissed, like, no, but the data is too sand. It doesn't really reflect how difficult the job is in the real world. I think I used to keep a record. I used to have a spreadsheet and one year, and I stopped checking after that year. One year I had applied for 300 jobs. I got callbacks from recruiters for 50 and I made it to 10 hiring managers.
And then two of them spent the entire call talking about my name. I still kept track of where I had applied, but I stopped obsessively tracking who's calling back, what's working. I was like, I don't think this is working for me. And that's okay.
Carol Fishman Cohen: What before you keep going? What? Can you spell out that website that you were doing the project sets on?
Avanti Tilak: Yes. it's called www.kaggle.com. K A G G L E dot com.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you, for our listeners who might be wanting to write that down. Yeah, so that's a, it could be so demoralizing. So many interviews. so many applications, a handful of interviews, the experiences that you had.
So what kept you going during that time?
Avanti Tilak: It was really my support network. it was just them saying, it's okay, you can do this, and giving me new ideas or introducing me to new people. Talk to them. I know somebody, come to this meetup, I'll introduce you to this person. Like they just kept me going. And, it was, I also started thinking about this in a more, in a different way. Okay, fine, if the conversation is ending and I don't have real world experience, let me see if I can start doing some freelance projects. And I tried to do a few, again, ran into similar problems.
I did a few like proof of concept projects or data mining or just building a CRM dashboard, that type of thing. And it did help me identify areas where I needed to do more work because some of the things, you don't get the experience unless you actually do a project or work on something.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Right.
Avanti Tilak: It was, I used that sort of to keep me motivated.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And the freelance assignments that you were doing, the, these small projects, were they through some sort of a, like a gig website?
Avanti Tilak: Yeah, I signed up Upwork.com, and also at these meetups and things, I would meet people and be like, okay, alright, let me see if I can do this.
And it really, money-wise, it wasn't a big deal, but there were opportunities. There were all opportunities so I could keep learning.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And more to talk about in the interviews when those things came up. Alright. Okay. So you're at this point, at what point did the IBM Tech Reentry program get into the discussion.
Avanti Tilak: Yeah. So 2017 was actually really hard. And I was about ready to give up on this strategy. When I started my job search like 2013, 2014, data science was so new. There were no degree programs. There was no, this is a pathway into data science type of thing, there was nothing like that.
And I had toyed with the idea of maybe doing an MBA. And I was basically told that don't do it, you are already overqualified because you have a PhD. So why are you going for a general MBA in something that is not related? But by 2017, things were a little different. There were accredited data science and data analytics masters programs.
So I thought, maybe I should look into that. Like just take a step back, not apply for anything because the rejection does get to you after four-ish years. I was just like, I'm exhausted. I need to rethink this whole thing. And then one of my friends from PyLadies, she came to me and she's like, look at this thing, you have to apply. I'm like, I've decided I'm not applying for anything. I'm done with applications. They are horrible. And she was like, no. You have to apply for this. This is for people getting back into the workforce. This is this, that's what you are, you have to do this. And I remember sitting at the local library and she's like standing over me while I'm filling out the application because she was like, otherwise I know you won't apply.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.
Avanti Tilak: Just okay, fine. That's okay. I'll apply . And yeah. I think that was like, I'm really glad she did that, that made me apply. , because it really changed everything for me. I think I got a call back from the recruiter. Then I spoke to the hiring manager and a couple of people on her team, and then they ended up offering me the internship.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Yeah. That must have felt so good.
Avanti Tilak: It did, I was like oh, can't believe this is actually happening.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And then, so what happened after that? I don't know how long it took for you from when you first applied to when you got the offer and then what happened in the initial weeks of actually being in the program?
Avanti Tilak: Yeah, I think I applied in October or November and I heard back from them. Like, I actually forgot about it, and I heard back in February. And the program started in March.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, wow.
Avanti Tilak: So it was like, there was this weird two or three week period where I was like, I think this is happening. I don't know if this is happening.
Wait, what do I do about childcare if this actually happens? So it was a little stressful, but in a good way this time. And, . I think once they got the job offer to me, like the first or second week of March, it was just very smooth sailing. Like everything. Once I was part of that program, it was all so well organized.
I was ready to hit the road within a week or 10 days. I was like, wait, now I have to wait for a little longer. This is weird.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That it's, and this is the part where we can talk about this is when we met.
Avanti Tilak: That's right.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And I have to give a shout out to Jennifer Howland from IBM, who was the driving force behind IBM Tech Reentry, who ultimately retired from IBM after 35 years, and then came to work for iRelaunch advising other employers on starting their programs and recently just really retired, officially retired a second time, after three years with us. And we've just had a long, wonderful relationship. So I wanted to do a shout out to Jennifer for her integral role.
And we, at iRelaunch, we partnered with IBM as part of the STEM Reentry Task Force, which is a joint initiative we run with the Society of Women Engineers and IBM was in the inaugural group of companies as part of the STEM Reentry Task force around this whole concept of technical women and men, but primarily women, relaunching their careers.
And, we're still in this initiative with the Society of Women Engineers. We just finished our seventh year. I think we've had almost a thousand relaunchers now in the task force company program. So, to reconnect with you, Avanti, in 2017, which was the second year of the IBM program, is very meaningful.
And part of what we did, because we used to do things in person, was that we had that orientation together and we met and you were at the very beginning, and to be connected with you right now is very exciting and, just really emotional for me and I'm so excited for how things have evolved.
Let's fast forward, you went through the IBM Tech Reentry program. You ended up in a role at IBM for a number of years. And what, so what happened after finishing the program and what kind of role did you go into and what happened after?
Avanti Tilak: I was converted to a full-time data science position after my internship was over.
I think, I was already part of the team that I was finally placed in. Basically when I started, my hiring manager said, listen, treat this like a three month job interview. Show us what you can do. It's not, we are not standing over your shoulder trying to see what you can do. It doesn't matter if you have to look things up or if you have to ask for help, because that is always a part of the job.
Nobody works in isolation. I do terribly according to tests, by the way, but this, I could do. I was like, ok, if you give me a project, I know how to do this. And I actually had two mentors. One was another woman who had been through the previous situation of returning to work. And so she helped me with some of the, how do I tell my manager I need to be out by five to go pick up my kids, part of my life.
And then I had a separate mentor who was more like the project lead. And we ended up finding a research project for me to work on. So it worked. It was like a perfect bridge between my old life and this new life. And yeah, so I was already part of the team by the time I started working there as a full-time employee.
So that part was relatively easy, that transition, so to speak. But then, I got laid off from IBM in June, 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
Carol Fishman Cohen: The pandemic, right?
Avanti Tilak: Yeah. And that was, I had a moment of panic, like sheer panic. I was like, oh my God, I've done this before. This is awful. I don't know how I'm going to do this again.
But this time it was different because I had experience in the field. And, when I applied for jobs, I almost always got the call back from the recruiter at least. And I was making it to the hiring manager almost every time. I made it to, for the rounds, like with team members, or panel interviews or recording test or whatever it was. And I was able to find a great job with a great company within six months. It was a completely different experience this time.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I think that's so interesting for you to call out. You've actually been through the experience as a relauncher and then been through the experience really not a relauncher anymore because you're coming off of another job where you're saying you have the relevant experience and it's like night and day.
Avanti Tilak: It really was. It really was. I know I was in complete panic mode for a while, and again, my network came in. They were like, no, you got this. A couple of other people were laid off with me and we formed this little band. We would talk every other day. Where did you apply? Where did I apply?
I found this lead. I don't have enough experience. Maybe you do, you should apply there. I will introduce you to the recruiter. So we made this our own little reentry program, so to speak, to support each other. And it was just, it was really, very different.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. So what kind of role did you end up with and were you, I'm guessing after two and a half years at IBM working in data science, you are at a completely different level now in terms of sophistication and understanding of the field.
So what did you, what role did you move into?
Avanti Tilak: So it was, again, data scientist within the healthcare space. I was doing, I was actually doing things very similar to what I was doing at IBM, but because we were a startup, there was a lot more scope to do other things as well. Each project wasn't necessarily, or each role wasn't necessarily narrowly defined, so I could say, Hey, Let me take this, our main product that we have and tweak it and see if we can get some results that might be relevant to our clients.
And I could do that. There was more scope for experimentation. There was more scope for just what else can we do, that innovation piece was really like, very exciting. It was great. I feel like I had a solid foundation before and this really allowed me to grow.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, so interesting. So when you were at IBM, just to clarify, you were in a healthcare area?
Avanti Tilak: I was, yes. So for the entire two and a half years I was part of Watson Health, which has now been spun off. But we were working with claims data to predict patient outcomes, patient costs. In my next job I was working on patient costs. Now I'm working on patient issues like outreach and engagement. And so it's been like different aspects of the same space.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. I'm thinking about this. So you're in this enormous multinational company for your relaunch. And then you moved to a startup, almost the polar opposite.
Avanti Tilak: Yes.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And then you made another move after that.
Avanti Tilak: Yeah. So now I'm in a traditional healthcare company and I just felt given all this expertise I was building within healthcare data science, the insurance companies are a big part of it. And I needed to understand how they worked, I needed to understand the clinical data space. So it seemed like a good move from the, again, that opportunity to learn, opportunity to grow, standpoint. It really has been very educational.
Carol Fishman Cohen: It's like you're demonstrating being a lifelong learner, a fearless learner, career break or no career break.
And I just think that is a quality that is prized among employers who are wanting people to join their team. And I'm also just thinking about these three different experiences that you have from a career progression standpoint for in the future, you are poised and ready for some amazing moves going forward.
From what, yeah. So, I think it's so exciting. Yeah. Alright. Any other comments about the journey, about looking back retrospectively on where you were on day one at IBM Tech Reentry versus where you are now? Any thoughts on that?
Avanti Tilak: I do feel more confident. I remember standing in the lobby that day trying to, like waiting for somebody to come and fetch me because I didn't have my badge yet.
They were supposed to do that on that day in the office, and it was nerve-wracking, right? I had never been part of corporate America. What I knew of corporate America was through friends or my husband or the media. I had zero experience. And now I feel like, okay, I can do this.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah.
Avanti Tilak: It's not that different. I dunno why I had this sort of ping in my head.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I think it's great for people to hear you say, because a lot of people who are listening are really at that very beginning piece and are probably having the same question of themselves. And then to hear you say on the other side of it, I'm not really sure why I had that feeling, especially judging from where you are now. Avanti, we need to wrap up our conversation right now and I've loved it so much. I want to ask you the question we ask all of our podcast guests, which is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?
Avanti Tilak: So I thought about this a little bit, and it's going to be a little long because there were a couple of things I really wanted to say. One was to keep learning, keep looking for those opportunities, not for the pay or whatever, but just to learn. Sometimes you have to learn and unlearn and relearn things, and that's okay. You'll figure it out. It's fine. Just keep learning. That will get you very far.
Two, ask for help. This can be a long process. It's a marathon. You may need help with different parts of the actual job search specific things, but also for your mental health, for your soul. And so be kind to yourself. It is okay. Ask for help when you need it from friends, family, or mental health professionals. It's really okay.
Don't be too hard on yourself. And then get back up. Make your ego, I like to think of my ego as a cyst. It is small, but indestructible. It's small, so I can keep learning. But it's indestructible because without that hardened core, you may have a hard time handling the rejections, the setbacks. And you have to keep remembering that it means they are losing out on you, not the other way around. You'll find the place that deserves you that will be right for you, and you may have to find it again and again. And that's okay too. Too, from my favorite movie, just keep swimming. Just keep swimming,
Carol Fishman Cohen: I love that, that advice is incredible, and on so many levels. And I just love this perspective of that company ultimately that deserves you, is going to get you, and to keep that even in the darkest point of your journey where you're in the middle of a long string of rejections that can last an extended period. To think about what Avanti is telling all of us. Think about your words, Avanti, I think will be really helpful and inspiring to people. Avanti, thank you so much for joining us today.
Avanti Tilak: Thank you so much for having me. I really loved connecting with you again, Carol. It's, yeah, it was just really nice seeing you again after a while.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, same with me. The connection is so meaningful, especially at this moment. So thank you.
And to our audience, thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host.
Please remember to reference and use iRelaunch.Com as a resource for you for all the aspects of your relaunch. And another reminder to make sure that you get your resume and your profile identified on our Job Board, because at the end of the day, that's where the employers are coming to look for relaunchers. They come to our Job Board specifically to look for relaunchers.
So thank you so much for joining us. And Avanti, thank you so much for joining us.