The most common request from readers is how to further their careers in analytics, cloud computing, data science, and machine learning. I’ve invited Alyssa Columbus, a Data Scientist at Pacific Life, to share her insights and lessons learned on breaking into the field of data science and launching a career there. The following guest post is authored by her.
Earning a job in data science, especially your first job in data science, isn’t easy, especially given the surplus of analytics job-seekers to analytics jobs.
Many people are looking to break into data science, from undergraduates to career changers, have asked me how I’ve attained my current data science position at Pacific Life. I’ve referred them to many different resources, including discussions I’ve had on the Dataquest.io blog and the Scatter Podcast. In the interest of providing job seekers with a comprehensive view of what I’ve learned that works, I’ve put together the five most valuable lessons learned. I’ve written this article to make your data science job hunt easier and as efficient as possible.
- Continuously build your statistical literacy and programming skills. Currently, there are 24,697 open Data Scientist positions on LinkedIn in the United States alone. Using data mining techniques to analyze all open positions in the U.S., the following list of the top 10 data science skills was created today. As of April 14, the top 3 most common skills requested in LinkedIn data scientist job postings are Python, R, and SQL, closely followed by Jupyter Notebooks, Unix Shell/Awk, AWS, and Tensorflow. The following graphic provides a prioritized list of the most in-demand data science skills mentioned in LinkedIn job postings today. Please click on the graphic to expand for easier viewing.
Hands-on training is the best way to develop and continually improve statistical and programming skills, especially with the languages and technologies LinkedIn’s job postings prioritize. Getting your hands dirty with a dataset is often much better than reading through abstract concepts and not applying what you’ve learned to real problems. Your applied experience is just as important as your academic experience, and taking statistics, and computer science classes help to translate theoretical concepts into practical results. The toughest thing to learn (and also to teach) about statistical analysis is the intuition for what the big questions to ask of your dataset are. Statistical literacy, or “how” to find the answers to your questions, come with education and practice. Strengthening your intellectual curiosity or insight into asking the right questions comes through experience.
- Continually be creating your own, unique portfolio of analytics and machine learning projects. Having a good portfolio is essential to be hired as a data scientist, especially if you don’t come from a quantitative background or have experience in data science before. Think of your portfolio as proof to potential employers that you are capable of excelling in the role of a data scientist with both the passion and skills to do the job. When building your data science portfolio, select and complete projects that qualify you for the data science jobs, you’re the most interested in. Use your portfolio to promote your strengths and innate abilities by sharing projects you’ve completed on your own. Some skills I’d recommend you highlight in your portfolio include:
- Your programming language of choice (e.g., Python, R, Julia, etc.).
- The ability to interact with databases (e.g., your ability to use SQL).
- Visualization of data (static or interactive).
- Storytelling with data. This is a critical skill. In essence, can someone with no background in whatever area your project is in look at your project and gain some new understandings from it?
- Deployment of an application or API. This can be done with small sample projects (e.g., a REST API for an ML model you trained or a nice Tableau or R Shiny dashboard).
- Get (or git!) yourself a website. If you want to stand out, along with a portfolio, create and continually build a strong online presence in the form of a website. Be sure to create and continually add to your GitHub and Kaggle profiles to showcase your passion and proficiency in data science. Making your website with GitHub Pages creates a profile for you at the same time, and best of all it’s free to do. A strong online presence will not only help you in applying for jobs, but organizations may also reach out to you with freelance projects, interviews, and other opportunities.
- Be confident in your skills and apply for any job you’re interested in, starting with opportunities available in your network. If you don’t meet all of a job’s requirements, apply anyway. You don’t have to know every skill (e.g., programming languages) on a job description, especially if there are more than ten listed. If you’re a great fit for the main requirements of the job’s description, you need to apply. A good general rule is that if you have at least half of the skills requested on a job posting, go for it. When you’re hunting for jobs, it may be tempting to look for work on company websites or tech-specific job boards. I’ve found, as have many others, that these are among the least helpful ways to find work. Instead, contact recruiters specializing in data science and build up your network to break into the field. I recommend looking for a data science job via the following sources, with the most time devoted to recruiters and your network:
- Friends, family, and colleagues
- Career fairs and recruiting events
- General job boards
- Company websites
- Tech job boards.
- Bring the same level of intensity to improving your communication skills as you do to your quantitative skills as data scientists need to also excel at storytelling. One of the most important skills for data scientists to have is the ability to communicate results to different audiences and stakeholders so others can understand and act their insights. Since data projects are collaborative across many teams and results are often incorporated into larger projects, the true impact of a data scientist’s work depends on how well others can understand their insights to take further action and make informed decisions.
Alyssa Columbus is a Data Scientist at Pacific Life and member of the Spring 2018 class of NASA Datanauts. Previously, she was a computational statistics and machine learning researcher at the UC Irvine Department of Epidemiology and has built robust predictive models and applications for a diverse set of industries spanning retail to biologics. Alyssa holds a degree in Applied and Computational Mathematics from the University of California, Irvine and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She is a strong proponent of reproducible methods, open source technologies, and diversity in analytics and is the founder of R-Ladies Irvine. You can reach her at her website: alyssacolumbus.com.