Guest blog: A day in the life of a graduate data scientist in the public sector

Since the inception of our Data Science Graduate Programme in 2019, the programme has expanded from just a small group of six graduate data scientists working exclusively at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), to 170 places filled across 31 participating public sector organisations for the 2022 cohort.

Applications are now open for the Data Science Graduate Programme 2023 to 2025 on Civil Service Jobs! All the details on how to apply are available on the job advert. More information can be found on the Graduate Programme information page.

In this guest blog post, Lilly Taylor, a graduate data scientist currently in her second year of the Graduate Programme, gives an account of what it is like to work as a graduate data scientist in the public sector. Lilly also shares an insight into her experience being part of the first cohort to have expanded outside the ONS, having completed her first year of the programme at HM Treasury, before securing a managerial role at the ONS during the second year of the programme.

Hi, I’m Lilly and I will tell you a little bit about my own experience and perceptions of being on the Data Science Graduate Programme, the opportunities that being part of this programme have unlocked for me, and some general points, which I think are helpful for any graduate data scientist in the public sector to make the most of this opportunity.

Given that all organisations are different, this means that there is a huge diversity of experience on mine and subsequent cohorts. So, if you ask a graduate data scientist what a day in their life is like, you’re going to get different answers depending on whom you ask!

I’ll begin with some points to help you determine whether or not to make an application (and, I hope, encourage you to do so!)

You don’t need to know how to be a data scientist before you join

Perhaps you’ve come from a non-traditional data science background, or haven’t had much coding experience, or have never worked in a data science role before. Rest assured, you will not be alone! Plenty of people on the programme are in this position. The programme isn’t here for people who know everything already; it’s designed to help you learn all the techniques you need to become a data scientist in the public sector, all within a supportive environment.

You will be taught and supported by other data scientists and you will be able to ask as many questions as you like. Moreover, you’ll be given lots of time to get up to speed in your role and certainly won’t be expected to be proficient from day one.

Personally, I came to the programme having studied chemistry while mostly coding as a hobby prior to starting and was keen to upskill myself in data science.

The key ingredients are to be passionate about data science and have an enjoyment of solving problems. If you are, this programme is for you. Fight off imposter syndrome and put in an application – don’t screen yourself out before you even apply!

You don’t need to be a fresh graduate to apply, and equally, it’s absolutely fine to be a new graduate without professional experience

The programme is open to fresh graduates and seasoned professionals alike. You may be a new graduate with no experience in the workplace. Perhaps you don’t consider yourself a graduate because it’s been years since you finished your degree, and you’ve come from a different field or career path. You may be skilled in some areas the programme teaches but want to strengthen others.

The programme is open to people from all of these situations. Having a diversity of participants on the programme makes it all the richer, so whether you’re someone who has newly graduated, or you’re looking for a career change to become a data scientist in the public sector, the programme is for you. The key ingredients are enthusiasm and curiosity.

The Graduate Programme opens doors to some very interesting roles

There are two routes into the public sector Data Science Graduate Programme; either as an external applicant, or the opportunity to partake in the training programme as an existing civil servant/public sector employee in your current role.

Applying as an external applicant has the potential to unlock some excellent roles across the public sector.

I was very fortunate in my allocation to HM Treasury. I found the Treasury an extremely exciting place to work, where you have the chance to work at the centre of government policymaking.

I joined as one of four new data scientists in the newly established HM Treasury data science hub. In the time I was there, the team grew, including appointing a chief data officer to head up the team, which was a huge step.

This year, HM Treasury opted to put a further 15 existing civil servants through the programme, which is a great development in building the organisation’s data science capability.

You may have the opportunity to work on multiple data science projects

Given I was working within a central data science team within the Treasury, this meant that I was able to carry out a broad array of data science projects for different parts of the organisation. This made for a huge variety of work to get involved with, picking up different data science techniques along the way.

In my first year on the programme, I worked on:

  1. A sub-national government expenditure dashboard where I developed skills in geospatial data visualisation and SQL.
  2. Automation of a GDP nowcast, where I developed skills in cloud computing (using the Microsoft Azure stack) as well as general data engineering and automation principles.
  3. A diversity and inclusion project, looking at HR data to support and direct initiatives to improve diversity across the workforce (picking up skills in data preparation, multiple regression, logistic regression and survival analysis).

Working across a variety of projects and techniques was great.

Even if you don’t get exposure to a broad range of data science projects within your role, the Graduate Programme is designed to  provide additional opportunities including hackathons, coding club events, mini-projects and a final Kaggle competition.

Lastly, regardless of what project you work on, the key benefit of working in the public sector is that you are working for the public good – something that really appealed to me when looking to join the civil service.

You will learn technical skills quickly

What the programme does best is isolate lots of dedicated time purely for learning and development. You will have three full days per month in the first year to study the formal technical curriculum, followed by a lighter-touch syllabus in the second year to further your professional development.

The curriculum is pretty much as broad as the field of data science itself. My favourite thing about the programme was that, as well as focusing on some of the traditional parts of data science, such as machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP), it looked at the practical elements of being a data scientist. This included how to write clean and readable code, how to operate the command line, how to use Git version control, writing modular and reusable code and unit testing your code. As well as this, there were also modules on data engineering, including using SQL and working with big data in PySpark, for example.

The combination of a formal curriculum, as well as coding in my day-to-day role, massively accelerated my development of technical skills.

You will be joining a broad community of analytical and data professionals

I came into the programme having already worked as an analyst (an operational researcher) in a couple of different government departments, which gave me an appreciation for the broader analytical community I’d be joining as a data scientist.

Data science sits under both the Government Analysis Function, and Digital, Data and Technology function, enabling you to join a rich community of data and analysis professionals across government. There are lots of events and networks available to government analysts and data professionals which you can be involved with, giving you access to training opportunities, events and even new roles during your time in the public sector.

There is also the Government Data Science Community and interest groups for specialist techniques within this. Your own department may even have its own analytical or data science community for you to get involved in.

You will have the opportunity to progress!

The programme is two years long, and very much sets you up for success. Many graduates have progressed to more senior data science roles since joining the programme. For me personally, this has also been a great opportunity to accelerate my career. Having worked as an analyst in the civil service for a number of years, the Data Science Graduate Programme helped me plug a technical skills gap that I wanted to fill before going into a more senior role.

After the first year of the programme, I was extremely fortunate to secure a leadership role at the ONS, where I have the opportunity to coach and mentor data scientists and analysts in my team. Going through the programme has given me an appreciation of the professional development needs of data scientists and supporting them has been my favourite part of my current role.

What a typical day as a graduate data scientist looks like

The big picture stuff is well and good, but what is it actually like to be a graduate data scientist in the public sector, I hear you ask? While no two days are exactly the same, here is an illustrative example of a day I experienced as a graduate data scientist at HM Treasury.

09:00 to 10:00: Catching up on emails, noting what’s in my calendar for the day and loading up my coding environments and scripts.

10:00 to 10.15: Daily stand-up – we’d set out what we are working on for the day and get any support we needed from the lead data scientist or our peers.

10.15 to 12:00: Coding on an individual project, often interspersed with reading up on some methodology that I’m not yet familiar with.

12:00 to 13:00: Lunch break

13:00 to 14:00: A team meeting so that we could be updated on any organisational issues and team plans, or pair programming with a colleague on a joint project.

14:00 to 15:00: Preparing a presentation for a key stakeholder.

15:00 to 16:00: Writing up some documentation for my work or installing some necessary packages.

16:00 to 17:00: Finishing up some coding tasks and saving my work before logging off!

Some tips for new data scientists on the Graduate Programme

Push to make sure you get the chance to work on data science projects in your role, outside of the curriculum itself. It is when you apply the knowledge you’re learning, that things really click, and stick with you!

Consider volunteering as a programme rep on the Graduate Programme! This gives you the opportunity to be the voice of the cohort to enable the faculty to adapt the course content to what participants need. The faculty are really responsive, so you will have a real impact. Doing this is a great opportunity to develop your leadership skills!

It’s not all about technical skills! Once you get your feet under the table and start to think about how to progress as a data scientist in the public sector, it is great to work towards interacting with stakeholders and mentoring others.

Keep in mind that you won’t be working on machine learning problems the majority of the time. On any data science project, the bulk of time will be spent on preparing your data so that it is ready to analyse. As well as this, not all projects will lend themselves to machine learning, but perhaps to other domains such as automation and creating reproducible analytical pipelines. While you should accept that you won’t always get to work on your first choice of technique, don’t keep quiet about the things you are interested in learning. Flag this to your manager to maximise the chances of getting exposure to the techniques you particularly want to learn.

Find yourself a mentor; these can be really great in fostering your career development, whether it be your technical skills or your wider skills as a public sector worker.

Parting words

I hope this has been helpful in determining whether the programme is right for you, and if you join us as a graduate data scientist, I hope it helps you to get the most out of it! It will be great to see a new batch of data professionals join the public sector. Whichever organisation you land in, you will have the opportunity to work on issues that positively impact the lives of the public, which is incredibly rewarding.

To apply and for more information about the Data Science Graduate Programme, please visit the programme’s information page. Our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page may also be helpful if you have any queries.