China is expected to be the world’s largest data owner by next year, as the country implements a national big data strategy aimed at nurturing a smart society and growing the digital economy. But while the data sector is seeing strong demand for skilled professionals, specialists who can fill the roles are scarce.
One of the most in-demand – and exciting – roles in this fast-growing industry is that of the data scientist. A data scientist is a new breed of data expert who has both the technical skills to solve complex problems, and the curiosity to investigate new ways to solve them.
Big data insights
A data scientist focuses on the large, unwieldy sets of data being generated every day from myriad sources – the internet, social media, cell phones, public transport, and more. This data represents a virtual goldmine of information that can help boost revenue for companies that delve into it searching for business insights that no-one has thought of before.
This is where the data scientist plays a key role. They need to be part mathematician, part computer scientist, and part trend-seeker. They need to be adept with big data software tools like Hadoop and programming languages like Python and Java. And because they have a foot in both the IT world and the business world, they are highly sought-after, and can command some of the highest salaries in the technology sector.
Studying to be a data scientist
Data scientist and data analyst are often considered interchangeable terms, but there are some important differences between the two roles.
Data analysts collect and warehouse data, and then analyse it to form insights based on things they already know about the data set. Data scientists also perform data analysis, but with the aim of making informed predictions about the future. They look at past trends to help them build predictive models which often incorporate machine learning and deep learning algorithms.
The first step to becoming a data scientist is undertaking an appropriate course of study. To help meet industry demand, a number of universities now offer both graduate and postgraduate degrees in data science. However, a major in statistics, computer science, IT or mathematics will also be looked upon favourably by many employers.
Becoming familiar with the most prevalent programming languages in data science, such as Python, Java and R, will give you a good head start. So too will refreshing your knowledge in applied maths and statistics. Massive open online courses (MOOC) and self-guided courses are an economical option that allows you to complete projects in your own time.
Essential skills of a data scientist
While an advanced academic qualification in a technical or scientific field is considered essential for a career in data science, companies will also be wanting to hire candidates with real world skills. Such skills include:
- Problem solving: Can you approach high-level, business-related challenges with a critical eye, while using data-driven techniques and tools to make the best use of time and human resources?
- Communication: Can you explain your methods and discoveries to both technical and non-technical stakeholders in a way that they can understand? This includes effective data visualisations and comprehensive reports.
- Curiosity: Do you enjoy exploring new areas of knowledge and finding creative ways to solve difficult problems?
- Industry knowledge: How well do you understand the way your industry functions? How does it collect, analyse and use data?
A career-oriented data scientist will always be learning and evolving with their industry. As such, you’ll always want to be open to networking opportunities, and pursue educational and professional development through conferences, boot camps, and certifications.
Job and salary prospects
Big data is big business in China, with the country owning about 40% of disclosed big data patents in the world. There is strong demand for data scientists across multiple sectors, including manufacturing, commerce, finance, transportation and medical care.
Because the field is growing so fast, many companies are finding it hard to acquire experienced talent. This creates an opportunity for both school-leavers and mid-career professionals to develop these skills and find a job. According to the Robert Half China 2019 Salary Guide, data professionals with average levels of skill and experience can attract salaries of 650,000 to 800,000 yuan. Candidates with a high level of expertise, which may include a PhD level qualification or specialised industry experience, can command salaries of 1,000,000 yuan or higher.
As big data plays a growing role in society, so too will data scientists and data analysts. If you enjoy solving complex problems expressed through the language of data, data science could be just the right career path for you.