Does the idea of working with spreadsheets bore you? Surely, one could probably think of a million things they’d rather do than stare at endless amounts of rows, columns, and cells. But don’t shelf it just yet. Sometimes, even the most “boring” things in the world can become a source of inspiration if you examine them from another angle. Practicum graduate Melissa Raje discovered her interest and passion for data analytics through spreadsheets, which, in turn, resulted in a much-anticipated career shift. We spoke with Melissa about her journey from customer service to data analytics, and how Practicum led her along the way.
Melissa Raje was feeling like her personal development had come to a halt. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in animal science, she got trapped in a chain of increasingly mundane jobs, the last of which was customer service work for a pharmaceutical startup.
“Even though I had a tech and science background, my job was very mundane,” she recalls, “People calling to ask, ‘Where's my order?’, ‘Where's this?’, ‘What kind of products do you have?’. I was getting tired of just relaying information. I wanted to do more investigating and presenting information, rather than just looking it up and passing it on. I needed something more intellectually challenging.”
By that time, Melissa’s frustration had already been building up for a while. She tried learning Python in 2015 during her first maternity leave, but discovered that combining learning with childcare was a hard thing to pull off. But after having her second child in 2018, she realized that this time might be her only window of opportunity. “In January 2020 [my younger daughter] was about a year and a half old. I felt stuck and I knew then that I had to do something while I still had a little more freedom.”
As if on cue, a new opportunity popped up: her manager and colleague showed her how to do pivot tables and vlookups in Excel. Melissa realized that, not only did she enjoy it, but there were also so many career opportunities she wasn’t considering. “I liked it. I liked the filtering, vlookup, pivot tables, and pulling and manipulating data. I think before I was looking into bioinformatics as a field, but not necessarily into the details of what I would be doing. But after this job, getting into Excel and learning this, and actually working with the tables in Excel, I wanted to do something with data analytics,” she says. With a direction chosen, she started looking into master’s programs in the field, but couldn’t make up her mind. Until she spotted Practicum’s ad on Facebook.
The DA course consisted of a number of two- or three-week-long sprints that included reading, coding practice, and project assignments. Melissa could read and practice coding at her own pace, but she had to submit her assignments on time to unlock the next sprints — and combine her studies with her job and childcare. Hard enough as it was, the beginning of the Data Analysis course also coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. Still, the course inspired her to keep going. “I struggled initially because I started in February, and then the pandemic hit. And then so many things were going on,” she recalls. Melissa had to go on hiatus. She put studying on hold for a couple of months, then afterwards came back and continued right where she had left off — at no additional cost. “But I made it through, which I'm really happy about,” she admits.
Melissa didn’t just make it through: Practicum enabled her to examine the ins and outs of data analytics and helped her decide if it was something that would sustain her long-term. “Before Practicum, I thought [data analytics] was something that I might want to do, but I didn't really know the specifics. I was just guessing in the dark.”
All of the code she wrote within the program was evaluated by professional code reviewers. It helped Melissa let go of her initial perfectionism and just allow herself to learn. “The first time I was holding back a little bit. But once I got in there and started just putting code in there, and just submitting it, even though I knew it wasn’t right, I got feedback. And that helped me break out of trying to be perfect.”
Her interest and passion helped Melissa juggle all her responsibilities too. She had to pull off plenty of late night study sessions after putting the kids to bed. “Sometimes I would be up until midnight or one o'clock, just because I was so engaged and didn't want to stop.” The pandemic and working from home even gave her a little extra time, and she often studied in between calls with her clients. “I could study while waiting for phone calls and emails. I think working from home has really helped. If I was still going into the office every day, and then coming home, making dinner, putting the kids to bed, and then logging on to study, it would have been a lot more difficult.”
Besides, with a background in science, it was easier for her to grasp the concepts taught in the course. At her first job in the microbiology lab, her work involved dealing with data for virus specimens, so she was already familiar with some data-related terms like “false positive” or “false negative”. “I think I was always interested in working with data,” says Melissa. “I didn't start doing that until my current position. I was always interested in what goes on beneath [the data], so I don't think it was a hard transition at all.”
Melissa became so committed that she applied for a master’s program in data analytics when she was halfway into the DA program. She gives it credit for boosting her confidence. “Before [the DA program], I didn't know if I could do it. I'm not sure if I would have applied to grad school if I hadn't done Practicum.”
Graduate school isn’t the only new development in Melissa’s life. She was recently offered a part-time research assistant position at her college, and shifted to part-time work in her customer service role. She’s already using the things she learned with Practicum to optimize her work. “Several times a week, we have to go and make a report for [the items hospitals order from us]. But I’ve already put it together. I created a program where I just save the Excel files and run Python. It takes all the information and then automatically puts it in there. So, it saves me like two hours of work. I did that on my own,” shares Melissa.
She doesn’t want to rush her job search, though. She has two part-time jobs and grad school on her plate already, so she’ll wait until the fall to start applying for new roles. She wants to stay in the healthcare industry, but is already eyeing the machine learning field. With a passion and determination like hers, we’re sure Melissa will have an amazing career.
Data Analysis is an exciting field. Check out Practicum’s DA program to see if it’s the right fit for you!