I get asked one question in particular more than any other—how did you get your job at FiveThirtyEight? It’s a reasonable thing to ask. Data journalism is still so new and rapidly developing that I don’t think there’s any standard path into a position like mine. To whatever extent there is such a path, it probably runs through the same paths as traditional media jobs, either via J-school or from outlet to outlet.
That’s not the path I took. I started by getting my PhD in evolutionary genetics. I had a long-term ambition (since I was a kid) to get my PhD in something, and I felt passionate about understanding evolution in particular. I had the idea (along with many other people) to combine genomics/systems biology methods with evolutionary questions, and so went about finding an opportunity to do that.
I loved the first half of grad school. The first two years of most PhD programs are focused on learning the skills and theory within your discipline, before applying them later on to a research question. My program was an incredible intellectual environment, and I was able to test out ideas among a varied, brilliant group of students and professors.
At the same time, science can be stifling. Setting aside matters of intellectual curiosity, graduate school is also about getting you a job and launching you into (most frequently) an academic career. To that end, a great deal of it is devoted to the messy everyday business of doing science: publishing papers, applying for grants, going to conferences, making the appropriate contacts, and so on. Much of that everyday work isn’t about science at all. I know that academia isn’t unique in this. Like many careers, you have to grit your teeth and accomplish certain goals in a prescribed manner, even sometimes (for me, often) to the detriment of your broader, intellectual mission.
Around about halfway through graduate school, I became increasingly frustrated with that side of my job. I started looking around for a more creative outlet, one where I could ask interesting, data-centric questions without needing the payoff of a full-fledged academic paper to justify my efforts. I started a blog—this blog—and forced myself to do about one piece every two weeks on any topic that interested me. (That pace was calculated to be difficult and uncomfortable, but achievable.)
Perhaps the hardest thing about any regular, frequent writing assignment is finding enough material to sustain it. In search of topics for my blog, I turned to baseball, which has an abundance of available and well-curated data. I mixed a few baseball topics into my rotation, typically doing fairly simple modeling work.
I had neither expectation nor plan that this writing would lead to anything, but about a year into writing my blog, I received an email from Ben Lindbergh, who was then the Editor in Chief of Baseball Prospectus. He asked if I’d like to write for them. I said yes, reasoning that I’d be doing largely the same thing but getting paid a small amount for it.
I wanted to keep the same bi-weekly to weekly schedule, but again, I had no particular ambition to make a career out of my baseball writing. Frankly, I figured I’d be a spectacular failure, which is how I enter a lot of situations. Imagining that I’d be belly-flopping anyway, I decided to be bold in doing so, and try to take on topics too big or complex for others to attempt. I asked Ben if I could name my column Moonshot, partially as a sarcastic joke on myself, and partially in reference to the other, baseball meaning of the word.
I found myself loving the work at Baseball Prospectus. Instead of largely speaking into the echo chamber of my blog (or the broader, but still depressingly empty world of science), I was getting feedback—not only from Ben and the other wonderful writer/researchers at BP, but from the internet at large. (A paradox of internet writing tends to be that the fewer the people reading your work, the greater the percentage of the feedback that is positive.)
After a handful of articles, I was contacted by an MLB team about doing consulting, an opportunity at which I jumped. That seemed to legitimize my efforts, and so for the first time I started considering baseball-writing related careers, instead of just the default academic science path. With that said, I explored team-related opportunities and found them wanting. And with no immediate prospects at other media outlets, I tabled that prospect.
One year into my work at Baseball Prospectus, Nate Silver contacted me about the open baseball writer position at FiveThirtyEight. Apparently Ben, who had recently joined Grantland, had recommended me. I didn’t apply; I hadn’t considered myself good enough to have a shot. But following a few phone conversations, I had a contract offer from ESPN for part-time work that would be about the same time commitment as what I managed at BP.
At this point, I started to consider the idea of a career as a writer more seriously. The contract offer took place as I was finishing my PhD, in the last year of it. For those who have survived graduate school, you’ll recognize this chapter as the toughest time. (The difficulty was further compounded by working two jobs, as well as some changes in my personal life.) For me and for most people, this period is mostly about the part of graduate school I liked the least: finishing papers, pleasing faculty members, and lining up some kind of post-graduate opportunity to show that you are ready to receive your PhD.
Partially as a result of the misery of finishing my PhD and partially because it was the natural continuation of a longer arc in my life, I started scheming toward a career in journalism instead of science. I succeeded in getting a temporary postdoctoral fellowship while I made up my mind and surveyed my options. By the time I had to make a decision about going on to another fellowship, I was completely certain and ready for a change. I renewed my contract with FiveThirtyEight, quit my postdoc, and set about freelancing to build a more full journalistic resume.
I don’t know that there are any major lessons to take from my career path except: be extremely lucky. I certainly was: I owe my whole career to Ben Lindbergh finding my site on a list of Google results. What are the odds?
To the extent that there is a lesson, I’d say it’s that you should start a blog. This is the advice, puny as it is, that I give to nearly everyone. When I was still blogging anonymously, I thought of each piece as a lottery ticket. Like the lottery, the expected payoff on any given ticket is negative, but you can maximize your chances by getting more tickets. Most of my blog posts went basically unvisited, or perhaps by a handful of Facebook friends. Once I got to the front page of Reddit, but it never went any further beyond that.
The winning ticket, so to speak, was a random piece on baseball player injuries that happened to be posted around the same time that Ben was researching one of his articles on the same subject. I doubt it was the best piece on the blog at the time; I’m ashamed at the quality of it now. But it was Good Enough to lead to the next opportunity, which took me to the next opportunity, and so on. I can’t claim much credit for the progression except insofar as I was doggedly persistent in continuing to write on a regular schedule. The rest was good fortune.