Data Scientist

What Do Data Scientists Do?

Data science is among the nation's hottest and most lucrative careers. Many companies use data — and the buzzy concept Big Data — to inform their real-world decisions. As a result, the profession continues to grow rapidly, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of database administrator and statistician jobs to grow at rates that far eclipse the national average over the next decade.

Data scientists help companies make data-driven decisions by creating mathematical models to address real-world problems. They provide companies with a basis for more sound, data-based decision-making, as opposed to relying on gut feelings or the whims of executives.

Data science finds itself in the midst of a boom, and online data science master's degree programs grow more accessible every year. Read on for a comprehensive guide to the profession, its salary potential, the skills required, and some resources to help you decide whether you want to pursue a data science master's degree.

Key Skills for Data Scientists

  • Big Data Analytics: Big data analytics involves the use and analysis of large data sets to help companies use information about consumer trends and market patterns. The term “Big Data” is a reference to data so complex that normal data processing software cannot work with these data sets.
  • Java: Java is a programming language that programmers use for a wide variety of purposes. One of the simplest computer languages, Java is likely one of the most common programming languages and is essential knowledge for any computer science-related profession, including data science.
  • Machine Learning: People who study machine learning examine the models, algorithms, and mathematics that computers implement in order to improve performance. Machine-learning algorithms that use data fall under the umbrella of data science.
  • Hadoop: Created by the Apache Software Foundation, Hadoop is a group of open-source software tools data scientists use to work with Big Data. Mastery of the Hadoop suite of tools can help data scientists differentiate themselves as more skilled than their peers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of database administrator and statistician jobs to grow at rates that far eclipse the national average over the next decade.

Additional Key Skills for Data Scientists

  • Python: Python is a general-use programming language created in 1991. Many programmers consider mastery of Python as basic, high-level knowledge necessary for any computer science professional. Python includes interpreters that allow it to work with a variety of operating systems.
  • Data Mining/Data Warehouse: Data mining is the process of looking within a large set of data for previously unrecognized patterns or insights. A data warehouse is a database system created specifically for data analytics work. Data scientists should boast proficiency in both data mining and data warehouse creation.
  • SAS: SAS is a suite of software products created specifically for data management and analysis for business insights. Use and mastery of SAS is one of the absolute foundational skills for data science professionals, helping them create value for their employers by addressing real-world problems.
  • SQL: Short for Structured Query Language, SQL is a programming language created specifically for database management. As such, all data scientists who want to work as database administrators — a specific type of data scientist — should maintain a firm grasp on the latest trends and advances in SQL.
  • R: R is a programming language created specifically for statistics and graphics. Many computer science professionals consider R foundational knowledge for all computer scientists. Given its importance in statistics, R holds particular importance for data scientists.

How Much Do Data Scientists Make?

Although data science generally earns a spot among the highest-paying careers in technology, several factors can affect how much professionals in the field actually make. As with all careers, job function and level can greatly affect salary potential in data science. While entry-level data scientists make more money than late-career professionals in some other fields, they still make less than more experienced data scientists.

Additionally, as in other fields, data scientists with more experience and advanced degrees generally make more money than data scientists with less experience and bachelor's degrees. Finally, location makes a world of difference in the field, as the main locations for data scientists — New York City, Washington D.C., and Dallas — generally pay higher salaries to account for higher cost of living.

Average Salary of Data Scientists (IT) by Job Level

Entry-Level (0-5 Years) $89,000
Mid-Career (5-10 Years) $107,000
Experienced (10-20 Years) $120,000
Late-Career (20+ Years) $149,000
Source: PayScale

How Do I Become a Data Scientist?

Earn Your Degree

In most cases, a bachelor's degree in data science suffices as the minimum qualification for most entry-level data science positions. Additionally, data science companies often accept a degree in a relevant field (e.g., computer science, computer programming) as sufficient. Beyond a nominal degree, employers also look for mastery of key programming languages in data science (e.g. SAS, SQL, R, Python).

Nevertheless, an online data science master's can help you stand out among a pool of candidates who meet the minimum qualifications. An advanced degree demonstrates increased mastery of programming languages and core competencies in data science compared to individuals who only hold a bachelor's. Furthermore, an advanced degree in the field can also help you earn promotions more quickly. Data scientists interested in earning a master's through distance learning are in luck, as numerous schools offer data science degrees online.

Gain Experience

A data scientist's body of work or previous experience often matters as much as their degree when they search for jobs beyond entry-level positions. Data scientists often present previous projects or experience through industry-specific websites such as GitHub, which houses computer science-related portfolios and shows which languages programmers can use.

For most entry-level jobs, a bachelor's degree in data science or a relevant field is sufficient. Nevertheless, completed projects from college courses or relevant internship experience can help distinguish stronger entry-level candidates. Moreover, entry-level applicants who hold an MS in data science (online or otherwise) also often stand out from the pack given they likely boast more project and internship experience.

Earn Credentials

Beyond earning an online data science master's, data scientists can demonstrate their skills through credentials. The most important skills data scientists can demonstrate are masteries of different programming languages (e.g. R, SQL, SAS, Python), which data scientists often list on their resumes. Most employers look for strength in multiple programming languages when evaluating the suitability of candidates for a given position. Moreover, candidates who master more languages may gain quicker access to promotions and opportunities within their companies.

In most cases, data scientists can earn certifications or credentials in these different languages that demonstrate their competency. The creators of the languages themselves, or a language-focused organization, often provide official certification. For example, the Python Institute offers various certification levels for the Python language, including entry-level, associate, and professional.

Types of Careers in Data Science

In most cases, the careers available to data scientists depend greatly on the degrees they hold. Many of the most lucrative positions require an MS in data science (online or otherwise), although some government positions require a bachelor's degree. Nevertheless, earning an online data science master's can help you advance more quickly within your company even if your initial position only required an undergraduate degree.

The following table features five typical careers for graduates who hold a data science online degree: data scientist, database administrator, computer programmer, statistician, and computer and information research scientist. The table includes a description of each career in addition to the degree and work experience required, and the median annual salary. While a data science online degree can lead to more than five careers, these five provide a general idea of what you can expect from the field.

Data Scientist

A common career for graduates with an online data science master's, data scientists mine data and use it to provide data-driven advice to decision makers in an organization. This position currently finds itself in a boom period, as more and more companies use Big Data in their everyday operations.

Median Annual Salary


Degree Level and Experience Required


Database Administrator

Database administrators oversee data for an entire organization, using their expertise to store, organize, and protect that information. The minimum requirements for these positions include a bachelor's in any computer science field, but an MS in data science online greatly helps your candidacy.

Median Annual Salary


Degree Level and Experience Required


Computer Programmer

Computer programmers develop, write, and test code for applications and software. They can work in a variety of settings for all types of companies, and many programmers freelance. Most programmers need a bachelor's degree, although the main qualifications for these positions often focus on mastery of one or more programming languages.

Median Annual Salary


Degree Level and Experience Required



Working in applied mathematics, statisticians use data to create analytical models that solve real-world problems. They often work in the private sector or for government agencies. These positions almost always require a master's degree, with an online data science master's providing an especially relevant qualification.

Median Annual Salary


Degree Level and Experience Required


Computer and Information Research Scientist

Computer and information research scientists are inventors, innovating ways to use existing computing technology. Like statisticians, they solve real-world problems for a variety of companies. Almost all nongovernmental computer and information research scientist positions require an advanced degree, so enrolling in online data science programs provides a good start.

Median Annual Salary


Degree Level and Experience Required


Earning an online data science master's can help you advance more quickly within your company.

Where Can I Work as a Data Scientist?

Data scientists benefit from a variety of options in terms of where they want to work. In most cases, urban hubs and large cities offer the most job opportunities for data scientists. However, data scientists should also ask themselves if they want to freelance, or if they prefer a certain size of company. This decision can make a large difference in your career and where you live.


The state or city that professionals live in can greatly affect their career expectations. Data scientists are no exception. Elements such as licensing, population, salary potential, cost of living, and quality of life can make a huge difference in choosing where to pursue your data science career. In most cases, urban areas provide the most job opportunities for data scientists, although they also generally have higher cost of living than suburban and rural areas.

The following table features data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about employment and salary potential for database administrators, a type of data scientist.

Metropolitan Areas with the Highest Employment Level of Database Administrators

Location Employment Median Salary
New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ Metropolitan Division 6,320 $102,850
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Division 4,520 $105,070
Dallas-Plano-Irving, TX Metropolitan Division 3,580 $95,050
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 3,440 $92,440
Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, IL Metropolitan Division 3,100 $93,130
Source: BLS

Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Database Administrators

Location Employment Median Salary
Trenton, NJ 350 $110,200
San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division 1,640 $106,680
Newark, NJ-PA Metropolitan Division 1,330 $105,860
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Division 4,520 $105,070
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT 370 $104,790
Source: BLS


Although the duties that data scientists perform hold relatively constant from job to job and company to company, they can still work in a variety of different settings. Each setting may include different employment requirements. For example, some government data science positions require a bachelor's degree, while most private sector positions require at least a master's degree.

The following table gives you an idea of the types of settings in which data scientists typically work. To that end, it contains data reflecting the percentage of data scientists who work in the most common settings in the profession.

The Five Largest Employers of Database Administrators

Setting Percent Employed Median Annual Salary
Computer Systems Design and Related Services 16 $95,570
Educational Services; State, Local, and Private 10 $72,230
Management of Companies and Enterprises 7 $93,080
Insurance Carriers and Related Activities 7 $93,380
Data Processing, Hosting, and Related Services 4 $93,640
Source: BLS

Working as a Freelancer

Working as a freelancer provides both perks and drawbacks and fits a certain personality type. Fortunately, many data scientists often demonstrate certain elements of that personality type. Freelancers benefit from increased control of their schedule and their workflow. They can choose to work only on projects that interest them. They also benefit from a great deal of independence, as they can generally work remotely, set their own hours, and increase or decrease their workload as they wish.

Of course, freelancing also involves certain drawbacks. Freelancing generally offers less stability than typical 9-to-5 jobs, and freelancers may need to take care of their own benefits (e.g. retirement plan, health insurance). Freelancing salaries also vary widely. Nevertheless, data scientists interested in a great deal of freedom in their work should explore freelancing.

Continuing Education for Data Scientists

Continuing education for data scientists generally takes the form of certificates or credentials that demonstrate your mastery of different programming languages. As such, data scientists can develop professionally by ensuring that they stay on top of the latest trends in SQL, R, and SAS. In most cases, data scientists can complete online courses or examinations to earn certificates that demonstrate their competency in these areas. They can also enroll in massive open online courses or other classes to demonstrate mastery of broader areas such as data mining and warehousing or Big Data Analytics.

Data scientists can complete online courses or examinations to earn certificates that demonstrate their competency in these areas.

How Do I Find a Job in Data Science?

The first steps to finding a job as a new graduate in data science mirror other fields in some ways and differ greatly in others. Similarities include the power of internships, job fairs, recruiting events, and networking conferences such as the Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (KDD) series and the Data Science Salon.

Data science differs from other fields in that mastery of different programming languages and the relevant projects you completed in college can also make a big difference. An active and robust GitHub profile to link to in job applications can go a long way toward landing a first position in the field.

Professional Resources for Data Scientists

Professional Organizations

  • Data Science Association Data Science Association is a nonprofit organization focused on advancing the profession and promoting ethical behavior and diversity in the profession worldwide. It offers annual conferences and access to a library of materials.
  • SIGKDD SIGKDD aims to advance the science behind data mining and analytics. To that end, the organization offers continuing education, awards that recognize outstanding achievement in the field, and access to publications.
  • Advanced Analytics Institute AAi provides access to research that uses Big Data to answer pressing real-world problems. Students can enroll in various courses and participate in research, which help them make connections to other professionals in the data science field.
  • INFORMS Data Mining Section The data mining section of INFORMS promotes and spreads research in the data mining field. The section offers workshops, awards, conferences, and other networking opportunities.

Professional Development

  • Metis Metis focuses on professional development for data scientists, offering both bootcamps and introductory-level one-off courses in areas such as Python.
  • Microsoft Professional Program for Data Scientists This program consists of 11 courses lasting 12-48 hours each, with each course representing a different key skill for data scientists. It is likely the most comprehensive professional development program in the field.
  • IBM Data Science Professional Certificate IBM offers its data science professional certification through Coursera, a site that offers massive open online courses in numerous fields. The program takes approximately two months to complete.
  • Stanford Foundations for Data Science Certificate Stanford's data science certificate provides a thorough background in R and Python, demonstrating mastery to employers in these two programming languages.

Finding a Job

  • Kaggle Jobs Board Kaggle offers professional development opportunities for data scientists, including data analysis challenges and data sets. The site also maintains an active jobs board.
  • icrunchdata Jobs Board icrunchdata focuses almost exclusively on its jobs board, allowing employers to create accounts to post jobs in the field. Job seekers can also create accounts with resumes to save time applying for jobs.
  • Data Elixir Jobs Board Data Elixir is a jobs board website that exclusively focuses on data science postings. Both employers and job seekers can create accounts.
  • Data Science Central Jobs Board Data Science Central offers plenty of resources to data scientists, including webinars, forums, Hadoop and Big Data tutorials, and an active jobs board.