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Big Data Republic: Securing a Data Science Career

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November 5, 2013-

By Saul Sherry

It’s well discussed at Big Data Republic that the best data scientists are well rounded individuals. They match coding and stats savvy with empathy and communication skills. The key for a lot of students is to add those soft skills themselves.

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“The number one thing is to go get an internship, as it shows you how to interact in a business,” said Neil Biehn, a veteran data scientist and vice president of pricing science and research at PROS Inc. This was said in the middle of a telephone conversation I was having with him around the bright future the media seems to have mapped out for anyone stepping into the data science world. The picture he painted for me is one where a student needs to create some extra dimensions to their personal offering. “Groups at university where students have to present to each other are ideal,” he continued.

Is it a case of universities no longer producing the well rounded individuals we expect to see coming out of higher education?

“I think that’s a fair statement, especially with data science, as it is so specific,” Neil told me. “The onus comes down to the student. They need to make a point to be social, whether it’s a data science club that meets at 7:00 p.m. or a gamers club once a week.” Essentially, where courses need to be so specific and deep (and data science is a prime example), we’re at risk of losing that liberal arts education. That’s ironic, since it seems to form such an integral part of what we think of as a data scientist.

What do you do to get a big data internship?

Neil explains:

When we go to career fairs, most resumes we get are for internships. We do have to be picky. We look for people who have a science background. You have to be able to code — something in Java or C++ or MatLab or Python. It shows you have some experience, and you aren’t going to spend your whole internship learning the basics.

One key recommendation from Neil: showcasing experience in taking real data or web-scraped data, coding on it, making inferences, and showing a simple concept could be a really big win for you. It creates a great space for potential interns to show they are knowledgeable about the subtleties around model selection, prediction and forecasts.

Is there value in data science degrees?

“The confusion around data science is you have to have good knowledge of stats and the tech landscape, as well as the soft skill space,” said Neil. That means it becomes difficult to navigate how to design a course curriculum to cover all three. PROS Inc. prides itself on doing a lot of on-the-job training to get people up to speed. (The fact that they hire people who have completed master’s degrees means they are getting a work force who turn up ready to learn.) “What’s more exciting about some of these emerging data science programs is that some of that training will have been done, which means they will create people you can pluck and implement straight away.”

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