Making a Career out of Data Science – or Not


Iíve been involved in analytics since 1977, and, until recently, had never heard of this creature we call a "data scientist." Yet, the hybridized skillsets associated with the data scientist job title aren't new -- it's just that they've traditionally linked to a specific profession or industry.

For example, we've long had natural, social, and behavioral scientists who possess skills in statistics, survey design, and research methods. We've long had epidemiologists, biostatisticians, and demographers. We've long worked with data abstractors, medical and surgical claim coders, and fraud and abuse detection programmers. And computer whiz kids, quants, geeks, dorks, dweebs, and nerds have long lived among us.

So, quantitative skills, data-processing skills, visualization, and reporting skills are nothing new. What is new is that cheaper access to huge stores of structured and unstructured data (affectionately known as big-data) is creating a demand for data generalists in the labor market. The advent of big-data is creating a need for people who can engage a big glob of data, methodically and systematically explore and distill the contents, and find something that will give an organization a competitive advantage -- and justify the investment made in creating a big-data shop.

You're probably ready to jump on the data scientist bandwagon! But before you make the leap, first consider this question: What's the likelihood that the labor market demand for this job will be sustainable for the next 10 to 20 years?

It's a really important question for today, what with so many analytic professionals making important decisions concerning post-baccalaureate professional development.

The lack of a reliable crystal ball notwithstanding, letís consider two basic labor market elements -- supply and demand -- and how they relate to the outlook for data scientists.

First, the long-term supply of data scientists will be based on the prevailing hours and wage levels. In general, a career choice is based on the assumption that the average weekly hours of employment, and the average hourly earnings, are enough to live on comfortably -- at the least. Someone performing data scientist tasks, as a part of a broader job responsibility, should be fine at the moment, especially employable as a consultant for a competitive salary.

However, it's too soon to tell if the hours and earnings are promising enough to encourage more people to follow this path. It's too early to establish wage projections for full-time data scientists.

Second, to the extent that big-data analytics creates widespread revenue growth and profitability for firms and industries, demand for data scientists will continue. Even though training and software vendors are promoting the need for data scientists, and some companies are early entrants in the market, any long-term hopes have to be grounded in what happens in private industry.

For example, as much as we criticize lawyers, we need them because people living in community will always have contractual and non-contractual disputes. In like manner, constant big-data analyses will have to become an indispensable component of doing business for the extension of the data scientist profession.

In short, the data scientist buzz is great for analytics; many are excited over this new area of analytic skill deployment. If you can expand your current duties into a data scientist role, then that's ideal. However, before committing to making this your long-term career path commitment, I encourage the curious to pay close attention to the foundational dynamics of labor markets.

The laws of supply and demand preceded big-data, and will be here long after the next big thing replaces it.

Bryan Beverly, Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bryan K. Beverly is from Baltimore. He has a BA in sociology from Morgan State University and an MAS degree in IT management from Johns Hopkins University. His continuing education consists of project management training through the ESI International/George Washington University programs. He began his career in 1984, the same year he was introduced to SAS software. Over the course of nearly 30 years, he has used SAS for data processing, analytics, report generation, and application development on mainframes, mini-computers, and PCs. Bryan has worked in the private sector, public sector, and academia in the Baltimore/Washington region. His work initially focused on programming, but over the years has expanded into project management and business development. Bryan has participated in in-house SAS user groups and SAS user group conferences, and has published in SAS newsletters, as well as company-based newsletters. Over time, his publications have expanded from providing SAS technical tips to examining the sociological, philosophical, financial, and political contexts in which IT is deployed. He believes that the key to a successful IT career is to maintain your skills and think like the person who signs your paycheck.

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Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/6/2012 9:24:59 AM
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@Broadway Well, maybe we can have an update of Cluny Brown in which Cluny does get to pursue her passion for plumbing and supports her writer husband instead of the other way around. 

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/5/2012 9:32:08 PM
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@Ariella, once they start having action and romance packed hour-long TV shows about plumbers -- just like they do for cops, lawyers and doctors, over and over and over again -- then perhaps plumbers will get some respect.

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/5/2012 8:39:37 AM
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@Broadway, sure. And to return to mechanics, the one I usually go to owns the garage, has several people working for him, and always has customers streaming in. If I recall correctly, he may even own his own plane. Now, it's possible that he didi go to college, but the skills needed with respect to diagnosing cars and then to run a business are more a matter of what one picks up outside academic walls. There are countless other examples of people who have succeeded very well in business without college degrees, but young people pick up on the social cues that regard doctors with more respect than plumbers, even though plumbers are not subject to contract amounts stipulated by medical insurance companies. 

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/4/2012 8:42:56 PM
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@Ariella, I once worked for a landscaper who was an angry angry man. He never went to college and I think he wanted to run me over with one of his mowers because I did. Anyway, he loved the fact that as an "uneducated" man, he owned his own business and did very very well for himself working with his hands.

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/3/2012 8:25:04 PM
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I agree that all jobs are temporary. They might be temporary for 50 years, but they are still temporary. 

I remember back in the 1990's after the recession, I was very worried that my resume had just one or two years there and there because so many companies I worked for went under.  But then times changed and now that is normal.  

My question is, What can a person do to once they've already graduated to acquire the skills to be a data scientist?"  Online or in person classes are one option, but are there others? 

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/3/2012 2:04:04 PM
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I never gave a thought to annual income when I was preparing for a career. But I have to admit: I wish now that I had!

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/3/2012 12:44:04 PM
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Well said Bryan. Life does have a funny way of interfering with or forcing a revision of career goals -- although I'd like to think that as those changes happen individual's still put professionalism, ethics, excellence, etc. at the forefront of how they approach each job.

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/3/2012 12:41:06 PM
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Hi Hospice -- I didn't say it was the right thing to do, only that lots do it! And, in so doing, are being shortsighted. I'm not sure I'd agree, though, at least on a personal level, that I was taught that a job should first be a social duty. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/3/2012 8:46:52 AM
NO RATINGS

@Hospice " but "weren't we" taught at school that a job should first of all be viewed as a "social duty"? :D" Were you? When I taught college, the students main interest was to do what they wanted. Considerations of money and status were clearly a factor. For example, I had a student who worked as a car mechanic. But he was in college to qualify for white collar work. Even though car mechanics can earn a lot more than many white collar workers, he wanted the status that American society conveys on those who don't have to get their hand dirty at work. 

Re: all jobs are temporary
  • 12/2/2012 8:48:56 PM
NO RATINGS

@Hospice, I wrote that comment after listening to a Wall St. exec give a talk, and he was all about saying every employer he's worked for, he went into it believing he'd last there forever. Things didn;t work out at his old employers ... he now is boss of his own firm. He also believed climbing the ladder was a matter of mind over matter. So not sure how much stock I should have put into his wisdom.

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