David Bholat, AM’06, PhD’12: A doctorate in anthropology led to a career in data analytics

By Sarah Fister Gale

UChicago alum David Bholat helps to lead the Bank of England’s Advanced Analytics division, which he helped to establish in 2014. His path to that position might surprise some: instead of a traditional STEM academic track, collecting degrees in computer science, analytics and statistics, his academic career focused on social sciences, a choice he believes has contributed  to his and his team’s success.

Bholat grew up in Redondo Beach, California. His father, an immigrant from Burma who arrived in the country with “a proverbial $10 in his pocket” according to Bholat, put himself through community college and eventually earned a Pharm.D degree. His mother, who originally had to leave high school early, followed a similar path ultimately completing her MD. .

“They impressed upon me from a very early age that education was important,” Bholat says. “Their story is a lot more impressive than mine.”

A philosophical fork in the road

After high school, Bholat attended Georgetown University in Washington DC graduating with highest honors  in international affairs. He had planned to continue on to law school and eventually to work in public service. “But in my early 20s I found myself in a philosophical mood, which happens to a lot of 20 year olds,” he notes. He realized that instead of working within public institutions, he wanted to take a step back to explore their history and framework -- and how they could be improved.

In particular, the banking industry and how money was created captured his attention. “Money and banking are places where the boundary between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors are blurred,” he says. “This makes them particularly interesting areas to study.”  So he left DC for the University of Chicago to pursue a Ph.D.

When Bholat arrived in Chicago, it was the beginning of the financial crisis, which provided clarity to his research interests. He discovered that UChicago was an ideal place to further his work. “UChicago is a place where you can think deeply and explore what something means, as they say on campus, “in theory”, instead of immediately looking for the policy impact or the commercial applications,” he says. “Such spaces are becoming increasingly precious.”

Bholat also loved the interdisciplinary environment at UChicago, where he took courses in political science, economics, anthropology, history, and finance, among other fields. “Providing students with that range of experiences is really fruitful,” he says. He points to David Epstein’s bestselling book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, which argues that the people who make the most significant breakthroughs are the ones who have a breadth  of experience. “This allows you to think laterally and draw concepts from various fields to generate new insights.”

Interdisciplinary data science

Bholat went to the UK in 2009 on a Fulbright Fellowship as part of his doctorate studies. As he was finishing his PhD, he was recruited by the Bank of England to help formulate a new data strategy for the central bank following the financial crisis. In that role, he influenced senior leaders to embrace a Big Data strategy through high-impact studies using microdata. For example, a project he devised with the Open Data Institute analyzing loan-level data from peer-to-peer lenders was covered on the front page of the Financial Times.

The success of his team led to his promotion and the creation of Advanced Analytics. “I’ve tried to recreate my experience at UChicago with my team here,” he says. He manages ten data scientists and researchers who come from a variety of backgrounds, including computational linguistics, math, physics and philosophy. Each person brings a unique perspective and toolset to the problems they are trying to solve, Bholat says. He calls it “the secret sauce in the work we put out.”

When he’s not crunching numbers for the central bank, Bholat is also a prolific and diverse writer, publishing on topics ranging from financial history to text mining techniques. His work has been featured in the Journal of Monetary Economics, the Journal of Banking Regulation, and the Journal of Common Market Studies, among others.

Bholat notes that his career proves that you don’t have to be a computer science major to have a successful future in a STEM career. “Employers want hard-core data skills, but they also want critical thinkers,” he says. He points to research from the World Economic Forum that shows problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity are the top skills candidates will need to thrive in the future of work. 

“Critical inquiry and deep research may be difficult to communicate on a job application, but these skills have been invaluable to me,” he says. He encourages the current generation of social sciences students to think creatively about their own career paths -- whether it leads to academia, public policy, NGOs or the private sector. “There are many opportunities where you can make a contribution to society. You just have to find the avenue that is right for you.”