What Is a Data Scientist?

Data scientists use technology to examine a large collection of raw data and attempts to make sense of it for a wide range of audiences.

What Does a Data Scientist Do?

Data scientists are an invaluable part of any organization today. They used to be purely for the analyses of big data sets - typically in commerce, government and in science. However, with cheaper and more readily available technology, they are required everywhere. They work largely in offices on computers, acquiring and processing raw data collected over a short or long term period. They then produce statistical reports, maps and GIS, graphs and charts, written reports and sometimes specialist data models which they then present to a specific (decision makers) or general audience (public consumption).

They will often produce these results in line with requirements of the requesting individual or body and present them in a format tailored to that audience. Data scientists require knowledge of the industry in which they work, understanding of the audience and intended outcomes. Data science is largely a transferable skill though. They can work in the finance sector, in retail or e-commerce, in government policy and regional planning. As far as the environmental sciences are concerned, they may be in charge of collating raw environmental data such as pollution levels, average temperature and other long-term climate data trends, water table levels, weather patterns and anything else related to the environment.

Where Does a Data Scientist Work?

Data scientists are broadly categorized as operational research analysts. The roles are similar but data scientists spend more time analyzing outputs acquired from technology. According to 2015 data, the area that employed the largest number of this type of professional was finance and insurance at 26%. Speculation on the markets, banking and risk analysis requires mountains of data and continually generates more of it for analysts to process.

The second largest employer was technical and scientific services with 23%, typically working on a consultancy basis for a range of organizations in commerce, industry, planning and government. With big data now an important decision-making tool, this could be the largest growth area of the next decade.

The third was manufacturing with 11%. This industry uses big data to plan resource acquisition, ratio of manufacture and distribution. Which items sell most in which geographical areas? In clothing, they will use the data to plan manufacture of the range of sizes. In car manufacture, they will plan which models to build and how many.

Commercial business management was fourth with 9%. Big data is now an important part of the business strategy planning of medium to large commercial ventures - customer analysis, feedback, marketing success and ensuring the right products go to the right audiences.

The fifth was Federal government. Data science is useful to Federal bodies such as the EPA for pollution monitoring, NASA to plan space and orbital mission, FEMA to track natural disaster patterns and in school, planning to ensure correct population distribution and catchment.

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What Is the Average Data Scientist Salary?

As of May 2020, data scientists, who fall under the broader BLS category of computer and information research scientists, earned a median salary of $126,830. The highest 10% of earners reported a salary of $194,430 while the lowest 10% of earners reported a salary of $72,210. Software publishers were the highest paying industry during this time with a median salary of $145,920.*

Data Science Jobs & Job Description

Data scientists at the beginning of their careers generally are required to have a degree in computer science, hard sciences or mathematics, as well as a familiarity using one or more analytic software tools or languages. A data scientist at the beginning of his or her career may be expected to take on the following job duties:

  • Perform exploratory and targeted data analysis using descriptive statistics and other methods
  • Work with data engineers on data quality assessment, data cleansing and data analytics
  • Develop analytics within well-defined projects to address customer needs and opportunities
  • Work alongside software developers and software engineers to translate algorithms into commercially viable products and services
  • Produce statistical reports, maps, graphs, charts and written reports based on analysis of data and present these reports to stakeholders

A senior data scientist will take on project management duties in addition to those outlined above. His or her job description may include:

  • Act as lead data scientist for special projects
  • Work with large, complex, diverse data sets and perform appropriate analytical methodology to provide insights and decision modeling
  • Lead the identification of the required data sources and implement methodologies to retrieve and use this data
  • Lead the communication of derived insights in a manner easily understandable by various audiences
  • Proactively stay up-to-date with the latest analytical methodologies and techniques
  • Supervise and mentor junior data scientists

What Is the Job Demand for Data Scientists?

Data science is expected to be the growth area globally in the coming decade with some areas and some countries already reporting a skills shortage. BLS reports the job demand for this profession is projected to increase by 22% between 2020 and 2030.* The reason is, as explained above, cheaply and freely available technology and the desire to streamline business operations through a more scientific lens of data analysis.

What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Data Scientist?

High school students should focus on developing IT skills and math. There are a growing number of data analytics and data science degrees at bachelor's level, but most students will not get to study the subject until the master's level. Aim for math based degrees or anything related to IT and ensure you tailor your studies, including your minors and electives, to data science. It will also be useful at this stage to choose minors that reflect your intended career path. If you wish to work in data science for the environment, then environmental minors and electives will help you here. Similarly, take business minors for a career path in business analytics. Whichever path you take, GIS will be essential in most cases, particularly in geospatial sciences such as climate, planning and emergency management.

A large number of colleges and universities now offer data science as a specific master's pathway to cope with the growing demand and the increasing skills shortage. These MS degrees will teach transferable skills that you could take into almost any job. However, if you opted to tailor your BS/BA studies to the environment, you should be able to continue this process at postgraduate level.

Some roles may require doctoral studies, particularly in high-level decision making or government policy roles, but for the most part students with MA/MS degrees should have little problem finding a relevant role.

Data Science - Related Degrees

What Kind Of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Data Scientists Have?

Data science is a growing area with some important organizations helping to improve standards.

  • Data Science Association: A non-profit organization, DSA provides education, networking and certification in the promotion of data science. Their aim is to improve the methods, tools and application of this emerging field
  • Data Mining Group: The USA's foremost organization for professional data miners. As a vendor led body, it ensures good practice within the industry, for the industry and by the industry
  • Royal Statistical Society: Though based in the UK, it is the world's largest body for those who work with statistics

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for computer and information research scientists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.

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