James Overton -- Programming and Scientific Databases
What stage of your academic career were you in when you decided to seek work outside of academic philosophy?
It was a gradual shift. I started with a MA in philosophy on interdisciplinary scientific explanation, then spent a year and half working as a programmer. I decided to continue my philosophical research and pursue a PhD. When I started the doctoral program, they harped on how many of us would fail to get academic jobs. Like everybody in the room, I thought that they were talking about someone else.
But then my wife and I had our first child, and I couldn’t afford to fail. I needed to think about Plan B. Over four and a half years, Plan B solidified and started to look more and more attractive. Meanwhile Plan A looked increasingly vague and out of my control. Plan A was a tenure-track academic job in philosophy of science. Plan B was working with scientific ontologies. That’s what I do now.
How did you shift over to your current work from academic philosophy?
For years I had wanted to apply some of the technologies I’d worked with to science. I finally heard about “ontologies,” and went to a workshop where I met two radiologists who happened to be from my university. We started collaborating on ontologies for prostate cancer. I realized that my work on ontologies wouldn’t be accepted as a thesis project in my department, so I continued that work in parallel with my research on scientific explanation. Working on ontologies, I met lots of people, learned how their funding worked, volunteered my time on their projects and showed that I was a useful person on their teams. This also involved some programming, which was refreshing and drew on my past experience.
As I was finishing my thesis, Plan B started looking more promising than Plan A. Plan B seemed to depend much more on things I had control over, rather than applying to a tenure-track job that hundreds of philosophers applied for, with only a small number even getting an interview. Perhaps most important, I wanted my family to live in Toronto, and that was much less likely while staying in academic philosophy.
The week after I defended my thesis, I went to an ontology workshop. I told my new colleagues that I’d just defended and was looking for work. By end of the next day, I had three job offers. I started an independent consulting firm and took two of those contracts. The starting pay was much better than a post-doc or junior faculty position, I could work remotely from Toronto, and I was really interested in the work. So in the end, it was an easy decision to make.
How would you put your work into the wider context – what is the impact on science, for example?
I’m the founder of a consulting company called Knocean Inc. Our clients are scientific databases such as the Immune Epitope Database (IEDB), and we integrate their data with other databases using ontologies.
Philosophers are familiar with ontology as a branch of metaphysics, but the way we use the term in my current field comes through artificial intelligence. As people were starting to build AI systems, they realized that they had to include representations of what an object is, what a property is, etc. They called this fundamental categorization an “ontology.” Later, as AI branched into the field of knowledge representation, people started making more specific “ontologies” for medicine, science, and other domains. Nowadays, ontologies are terminology systems – networks of terms designed for both machines and humans. One of the ontologies that I work on is the Ontology for Biomedical Investigations, where examples of terms include “assay,” “material transformation,” and “data transformation.” We have a thousand terms for different assays. At the IEDB we use these assay terms to categorize more than a million published assay results.
The data I work with is very expensive to generate and collect. By making it interoperable with other data, we’re multiplying its value. Another client has data from toxicity trials in rats – large, long-term, expensive trials that will probably never be replicated. If the data stays locked up in data “silos” where we can’t access it and don’t know what it means, that’s a big loss.
A somewhat more philosophical answer: I want to make scientific data, reasoning, and explanations computable. When we have formal representations of the whole process from data collection to analysis, we can replicate the analysis, try a new analysis on the same data, or plug a new dataset into the same analysis. By helping to make the process computable, ontologies improve science.
How would you describe the overlap between your academic and nonacademic careers?
I go to philosophy conferences and present on my work. I write papers with my clients for academic journals. I teach workshops on ontologies, but not university classes. I write code and maintain computer systems, which is different from what day-to-day work would have been like in academic philosophy. I’ve kept a lot of things that I like about academic philosophy, including the flexible schedule and ability to work remotely.
What advice would you offer to philosophers who want to leave academic philosophy, but who haven’t figured out what work they would pursue in its place?
General advice: do the networking, get to know people. The often-repeated advice is true: it’s who you know. I would never have landed this job by submitting a resume. Also, be patient. You have to give yourself time to experiment with different things and follow your interests.
More specific advice: the most interesting work, I find, is at the intersection of disciplines. Try to combine philosophy with something else you’re passionate about. Careful thinking about almost anything will generate something valuable. Also, there’s a lot of good work that involves programming and databases. Philosophers are often good programmers because we think carefully and logically. The most important part of writing a good program is analyzing the target domain and breaking it into simpler pieces.
Other reflections on academic vs. non-academic jobs?
Philosophers are thoughtful people, accustomed to thinking about themselves, the world, and their place in it. Every student of philosophy should consider leaving the university, because there are many important, interesting things that they can do. Too many of my friends from grad school refused to ask themselves those questions.
There’s a stigma against leaving. We need role models to show the different faces of success after getting a PhD. I hope that telling stories of those who left academia will undermine the perception that universities are the only places for philosophers to do interesting, intellectually rigorous work.