Mairi Macdonald

”I guess I would say don’t count yourself out, and don’t be afraid to jump; I didn’t have a clue I’d be going down this route only six months ago.”

photo of Mairi MacdonaldHow did you find your way into tech?

I only began to consider a career in tech relatively recently.  I was a strong student in school and stepped on the ‘get into medicine’ conveyor belt pretty early, though I quickly realised at uni that it was not for me. I really struggled to pinpoint an alternative degree that matched my proficiency in maths and science with my interests in social change and human behaviour. Later at 25, I was waiting to start a social science degree and was parenting my two-year-old twins, when I realised that my childcare costs would be too prohibitively expensive to allow me to undertake a traditional degree.

I started to read about applications of machine learning and soon recognised that data science does not stand alone but has application in all fields, and for someone with broad interests this really appealed to me. In an ideal world I see myself working at the intersection of computer science, social science, and psychology; using practical, hard science tools to understand and design interventions for social problems. I’m also very interested in data ethics. Growing up in rural Scotland I had very little exposure to what the possibilities in tech might be and assumed it would be too complicated and very dry – the opposite, I now realise, is true.

In order to step into tech I looked for graduate apprenticeships.  One opportunity in my area grabbed me: a position in the Improvement Service. A little over a month later I began my BSc in Data Science through the University of Stirling while working four days a week as a trainee data scientist with the Improvement Service.

What do you like about your course?

Obviously the earn and learn opportunity is very secure and has made further education viable to me, but also it is very valuable to see real-world applications of the degree in my job every week. It can put the more abstract aspects of the course into context. As an adult learner, I have better time management skills and can manage work and study simultaneously.

I’ll be graduating at 29, but with four years’ work experience. Having experienced university before, I can also say that remote learning suits me very well. I can learn and study very flexibly around my job and childcare, and content delivery is engaging and stimulating. The faculty at Stirling are very supportive and approachable, particularly so for the GA cohort.

What advice would you offer?

It took me long enough to be able to point to a career and think ‘that one is for me’, and then was fortunate enough to stumble on a pathway soon after – that is half the battle I think, and one that many people struggle with. I was beginning to feel like I’d ‘missed my chance’ and was frustrated at the pressure put on me to misguidedly pick a future at a young age. Starting something completely new at 25 as a parent of young children seemed a bit mad, but it was a brilliant decision and I’m certainly not alone; I study with peers 20 years my senior.

I guess I would say don’t count yourself out, and don’t be afraid to jump: I didn’t have a clue I’d be going down this route (or even that I’d be good at it) only six months ago. There is plenty of room in this industry for the most niche of interests, and it is so important that the sector includes diverse minds and voices so that human bias is not built into data science. I’m still slightly amused that I ‘work in tech’ because it’s not what family or friends expect from me, but I now find I am excited and almost impatient to study, and I’ve had a very successful start.