Data Scientist Role Is Clear, Even If Job Description Isn't

The data scientist job, as well as the job title, is a mashup of existing expertise that is generally a few steps removed from the everyday realities of the businesses that employ them. Like most mashups, though, this is leading to something equally new and innovative.

By Allen Bernard
Wed, October 17, 2012

CIO — "What exactly is a data scientist?" This question is increasingly on the minds of many in the tech world today. The mix of skills needed to be called a "data scientist" is still very much a work in progress—however, the role may not be as new as you think.

A recent Harvard Business Review article made more than a few headlines with its own headline: Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century. It would have been hard to image the words "data," "scientist" and "sexy" in the same sentence, let alone a headline, even a few short years ago (namely because the title hadn't been coined yet, according the article). Now it's making it into it one of the country's top business magazines. That should speak volumes about the big data ride that businesses big and small are about to take.

Data Science and Today's College Classrooms

Sensing an opportunity, universities have taken notice. Programs are underway at schools across the country to address what has quickly become a booming demand for people that understand advanced analytics and statistics, have solid programming skills and "get it" when it comes to the day-to-day realities of the businesses they find themselves in.

Tips: How Big Data Brings BI, Predictive Analytics Together

Columbia University has put together its first course with "data science" in the title. In July, the school launched the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, according to instructor and course creator Rachel Schutt, a senior statistician at Google and an adjunct assistant professor in the Statistics Department.

"I kept hearing from data scientists in industry that you can't teach data science in a classroom or university setting—and I took that on as a challenge," Schutt says in a blog post she wrote in response to questions for this article. "This course creates an opportunity to develop the theory of data science and to formalize it as a legitimate science."

In addition, Cloudera Chief Scientist Jeff Hammerbacher, formerly head of Facebook's data team, and University of California at Berkeley computer science professor Mike Franklin taught an Introduction to Data Science course this past spring.

A quick Google search uncovered a couple listing for schools ranging from Stanford and Stevens to Harvard (fall 2013) and the University of Cincinnati that offered "data scientist" courses. Few, though, use the term data scientist. Most are billed as advanced analytics degrees. This is appropriate; the focus of the job, from a business standpoint, is gleaning actionable insights from data that the business can use to turn a profit, not just play with.

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