Alumni Profiles Series: David Sparks
David Sparks, Ph.D., received his degree in Political Science from Duke in 2012. He is currently the Director of Basketball Analytics for the Boston Celtics and lives with his wife, a Ph.D. candidate in American Literature, in Waltham, MA.
What made you decide to come to Duke (and graduate school, in general)?
I was encouraged by one of my undergraduate professors to consider graduate school—and the more I thought about continuing my course of study and working as a professor, the more I found the option appealing. When I visited Duke, I was struck by how excited everyone was with their work. I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
How DId you transition to your current position?
I was mostly unfamiliar with statistical programming prior to coming to graduate school. Following my first year of coursework, I sought opportunities to practice this skill and began to explore baseball and basketball statistics. After creating graphics that detailed various aspects of basketball history, I created a blog in order to share them with a broader audience.
Eventually, I ran across an opening for an internship with the Celtics on a basketball stats message board that I frequented. I applied and got the internship, which later turned into a consulting job, and eventually lead to my current full-time position. My current boss informed me that he was familiar with the work I had been posting to my blog.
I was very fortunate to have a hobby that so neatly meshed with my Ph.D. work: the skills I learned in class could be applied to basketball and the experience I gained working on basketball strengthened my programming abilities. Although I did ultimately receive an appealing offer on the academic job market, the opportunity to work for a professional basketball team—one with which I had developed a pretty strong relationship—was too good to pass up.
Tell us about your current position. What are some of your favorite parts of the job?
In my current position, I spend a lot of my time developing, testing, and refining models of basketball—from on-court strategic decisions to more holistic evaluations of player ability. I work hard to develop subject matter expertise and spend most of my time watching basketball, talking about basketball, and writing statistical code. The best thing about my job is the extent to which I get to be creative, solve problems, and continue to learn—essentially, the best parts of graduate school. It really is the perfect job for me.
How would you say your Duke experience prepared you for your current position?
My training as a social scientist taught me many essential skills that I use daily, such as methodological training, statistical programming, and theoretically driven modeling. Further, my graduate school experience made me a better “student of the game”: there are things I don’t yet know, and I am ready to learn.
What was the best career advice you’ve received?
One piece of advice stands out as being the most generalizable and something I recall frequently. In discussing my summer plans with Professor Michael Munger, he told me (paraphrased): "Your time will never be more valuable than it is now. His point was that all the work I could complete before going on the market (publications, fellowships, etc.) would have substantial long-term returns, and he was right. I have found that I never regret today having done something yesterday to get better.
What advice would you pass along to current graduate students?
Do hard things. The sooner you can learn something new or gain skills and expertise, the longer you will be reaping the fruits of that effort.
If I could offer a second piece of advice, I would recommend taking advantage of the access to world-class experts and institutional support at Duke while you can. There will never be an easier time to ask questions and get help than now.
What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
I have great memories of sitting in the sun with my wife on the bleachers of Koskinen Stadium, watching Duke soccer. I also fondly remember the camaraderie that I developed with everyone in the Political Science program—in particular, our robust department pick-up basketball tradition. It was the perfect way to get to know my classmates (and professors), and to take a little break from all of the hard things we were doing.
Mark Dudley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science, studying the intersection of political geography and Congressional redistricting.