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Thomas Davidson, a doctoral student in the field of sociology, at work in the Social Dynamics Laboratory run by Michael Macy, back, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Arts and Sciences in sociology.

Tech companies favor social scientists

Graduate and undergraduate students from Cornell’s social sciences fields are increasingly sought after by tech companies searching for employees who understand social processes, psychology, sociology and economics, but also have real-world data-science skills.

“Not only do social scientists have training in network analysis, but tech companies are interested in things like community, identity, political polarization and ‘fake news,’ and they realize that social scientists are more likely to be exposed to the most important research coming out about topics like these,” said Michael Macy, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Arts and Sciences in sociology and director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory.

Professors from social sciences departments throughout the College of Arts and Sciences say they’ve seen more of their students heading into these careers.

For some tech companies, the move to hire social scientists is a reaction to public pressure.

“Given the role that social media companies seem to be playing in politics, unintentionally, the need for social scientists is even more acute,” said Kim Weeden, the Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Inequality. “It’s become an important job market for our students.”

Tom Lento ’00, Ph.D. ’11, secured an internship with Microsoft Research in 2005, then took a job with Facebook as a data scientist in 2008 while he was still a sociology doctoral student. Today, he’s a software engineer at Facebook working on internal software.

“Facebook is all about how we build communities,” he said. “Even building internal systems, my social science background comes into play in understanding how people interact with each other.”

Lento has noticed changes in the workforce since he entered the field in 2005.

“When I was at Microsoft, it was a diverse group but largely slanted toward tech,” he said. “That’s changing today. You see more psychology and sociology majors or computer scientists with a sociology background. Schools like Cornell are very helpful in that regard because, by design, they are cross-disciplinary in nature.”

 

Linguists help companies communicate

For students in areas such as linguistics, the tech hiring boom is real.

“A subset of our grad students is technically oriented from the beginning, but also a lot come in as linguists and then end up getting jobs in R&D,” said Mats Rooth, professor of linguistics. He noted many more companies today have significant research and development efforts in AI (artificial intelligence), speech science and data science.

Christopher Sundita, M.A. ’15, says he uses his linguistics and language skills daily as an associate product manager and senior search evaluation analyst at Walmart Labs.

“We’re looking at what customers type into the search box and the results they're getting to make sure they’re getting the best search experience,” said Sundita, whose former team at Yahoo and current team at Walmart Labs includes co-workers with non-STEM backgrounds – in music, history, journalism and linguistics. “We’re also testing new features from our engineers using qualitative and quantitative methods to determine the quality of the new feature or algorithm before it goes live.”

Linguists also are in high demand in companies focused on user experience and voice recognition, said Sundita. “The Alexa team has been hiring linguists like crazy.”

 

Making sense of the data

Tech companies’ move to expand their workforce was a long time coming, Weeden said. “These companies have been collecting this data without people who have the background in social science to know what questions to ask, or the technical skills to analyze it and help make sense of it,” she said. “At the same time, they are trying to open up new markets, and social scientists can give them more insight into the culture and context of these new markets.”

Many social science undergrads now choose data-focused courses or join research projects where they hone their data skills, she said. The new cross-college Data Science for All course uses computer science and statistics tools to help students from any field explore and visualize data, make predictions based on data and assess the quality of those predictions.

Interest in information science and computer science continues to climb. The College of Arts and Sciences had 18 graduating computer science majors in 2007 but 90 in 2017; information science majors grew from 14 in 2007 to 43 in 2017. Across the colleges, students minoring in information science climbed from 23 in 2016 to an expected 50 minors in 2019.

Introductory courses in computer and information science are some of the most popular on campus, with a record-breaking 800 students signed up for CS1110 this fall.

“Students are realizing that information science is a great field for people who don’t want to go quite as technical as computer science, but who do want an anchoring in social phenomena,” Macy said.

 

The role of data science in elections

Thomas Davidson, a doctoral student in the field of sociology and a member of Macy’s lab, and Matt Lehman ’19 spent the summer of 2018 at tech firms, working on projects related to big data in elections.

Davidson’s thesis focuses on interactions between political parties, social movements and their supporters on Facebook. He joined a team in Facebook’s internship program working on election integrity issues.

“We’re working to help keep elections safe and prevent bad actors from using misinformation to undermine the democratic process,” Davidson said. “I think computational social scientists are going to be in high demand as tech companies and other businesses recognize the value that the combination of social science expertise with computational methods can bring to them.”

Lehman, a government and statistics double major, worked in Washington, D.C., with Civis Analytics, a company that uses data to reach customers or voters. Lehman is helping one client determine the most effective ways to spend money to reach voters, and another to build a system to look at metrics to gauge Senate and Congressional campaigns.

“I like government and politics, but I also like looking at things from a more analytical and numerical perspective,” Lehman said. “Working here, I’ve learned what data is important in a political campaign and how to prioritize that data.”

“There were a lot of skills I gained during the graduate program that have helped me,” said Facebook’s Lento – “knowing how to construct a research program, how to frame a question, how to develop reasonable hypotheses and go about testing them.” He taught himself Java, SQL and network diagrams on the job, and says social scientists interested in tech should learn at least the basics of coding.

“You have to be willing to jump in and be wrong a lot in order to eventually get things to work the way you want them to,” he said.

 

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Jeff Tyson