Pivoting into Data Science: 6 Questions with TikTok Data Scientist Chen Chen, MSDS ’23

Feb. 5, 2024


Chen Chen


I loved the vibe at UArizona—it's like a playground for anyone pivoting into data science.

Chen Chen, who is originally from China and now lives in San Jose, California, received her Master’s in Data Science from the University of Arizona iSchool while also earning her PhD in East Asian Studies (Chinese Linguistics). She recently joined TikTok as a data scientist, where—in addition to working with internal teams on business insights and data labeling—she develops machine learning models to enhance the effectiveness of advertisement delivery.

Why did you decide to pursue the Master of Science in Data Science at the same time you were earning your PhD at the University of Arizona?

I pursued the PhD in East Asian Studies (Chinese Linguistics) because I was interested in second-language acquisition and second-language teaching. I decided to earn the MS in Data Science because data science can be integrated into my own research and also empower my future career.

For my PhD I was specifically interested in second-language acquisition of syntax and semantic interface in Chinese. In the MSDS, I was interested in automated detection of closed-loop team communication.

What did you like best about graduate studies at the University of Arizona?

I loved the vibe at UArizona—it's like a playground for anyone pivoting into data science. They’ve got all these free data and Python workshops, and as a PhD student, I could just dive into any course that sparked my interest. Plus, working at the Data Science Institute as a data science ambassador was a blast, and volunteering in profs' labs. These are great ways to get a taste of different fields!

What was your biggest challenge in the MSDS, and how did you overcome that challenge?

Overcoming doubts about my technical abilities was a challenge in the MSDS program due to my humanities background. The NLP course taught by Associate Professor Peter Jansen was crucial; it not only clarified NLP concepts but also improved my coding skills through practical assignments. This experience boosted my confidence and equipped me with a solid foundation for a career in data science. 

Tell us a bit about your career path leading you to your current role at TikTok.

It’s been on a pretty long road to becoming a data scientist. I started out as a language teacher, got into language research, and then during my PhD, I got into the techy side of things. There, I found out I was into data, but my coding skills needed a boost. The iSchool helped me get the tech skills I needed to start out as a data scientist. Working with Assistant Professor Adarsh Pyarelal got me ready for the real tech world.

As a data scientist, what kind of work are you doing at TikTok?

My role involves developing machine learning models aimed at recognizing user video content, to enhance the effectiveness of our advertisement delivery, ultimately boosting revenue. Additionally, I assist various internal teams, offering them business insights. I also play a role in overseeing data labeling teams, ensuring the accuracy of data labeling.

What advice do you have for iSchool graduates seeking a job at a globally influential company like TikTok?

Keep at it with the job search, and don’t get discouraged by the NOs. It just takes that one YES to change everything. It took me a year, but that one YES finally came through!

Learn more about the Master of Science in Data Science, or explore how you can support iSchool graduate students though scholarships and other initiatives.