Data scientist: one of the hottest and highest paying tech jobs around. In 2017, Glassdoor.com put data scientist at the top of its “top 50 careers” list for the second consecutive year, and the Harvard Business Review has dubbed data scientist “the sexiest job of the 21st Century.”
Why all this fuss about a job title that didn’t even exist until a few years ago? Simply put, today’s connected world has created an explosion of data that’s opening new and exciting ways of solving problems in fields as diverse as medicine, astrophysics, finance, politics, and marketing, among others. As a result, the demand for professionals who have the skills and knowledge needed to manage and crunch huge sets of information has never been higher.
A report by McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the U.S. alone will need up to 190,000 additional professionals with these skills in the next few years in order to manage the growth of big data. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for statisticians will grow by 34% by 2024, much faster than the average growth of 7% predicted for all jobs.
These will be lucrative jobs, also. According to Glassdoor.com, the median salary for data scientists is currently about $113,000. Another study found that the median salary for data scientists with less than three years of experience was $80,000, while the median salary for those with nine or more years of experience topped $150,000.
Two college majors are particularly well suited for students who are interested in breaking into this exciting and well-paying field: statistics and data science. Although there is some overlap between the two majors, and both can lead to similar types of jobs, they differ in some important respects, so understanding their differences is key to deciding which major might best suit an individual student.
Statistics is the science and art of using data to make predictions and formulate explanations. Statistics has its foundation in mathematics and emphasizes developing critical thinking and problem solving skills in data analysis. Typically, statistics majors will take several semesters of mathematics, including calculus and linear algebra, as well as courses in statistical theory, applied statistics and computational statistics. Coursework also includes learning how to use computers as tools for conducting statistical analysis. A growing number of statistics departments also offer courses in data science that include deeper work on topics such as computer programming and machine learning.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, statistics is one of the fastest growing undergraduate majors. The number of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in statistics has grown more than 300% since the 1990s, and grew 17% between 2013 and 2014 alone. In the U.S., 129 universities and colleges currently offer undergraduate degrees in statistics. At many colleges, the statistics program is part of the Mathematics Department, although a number of Universities have separate Statistics Departments.
Data Science is a relatively new undergraduate major. It’s typically an interdisciplinary major that combines coursework in computer science, statistics, and mathematics. Like statistics majors, data science majors learn how to apply statistics and mathematics to analyze and manipulate complex data in order to make predictions and provide solutions. However, data science also expands on statistics to encompass the entire life cycle of data, from its gathering and cleaning through its storage and manipulation. Data science majors typically take more computer science courses, including programming and machine learning, than statistics majors. The focus is not just on developing skills to analyze and use data, but also on how to manage, store, and navigate it.
There are currently over 40 universities and colleges that offer undergraduate degrees in Data Science, but that number is expected to grow. Because data science is an interdisciplinary major, it can be offered under the umbrella of Computer Science, Statistics, and even Business departments. In addition to the schools offering bachelors in data science, many universities offer courses, certificates or master’s degrees in data science.
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