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Data science is a well-defined, serious field of study and work. But the term ‘data science’ has become a bit of a buzzword. Yes, ‘data scientists’ have become increasingly important to many different types of organizations, but it has also become a trend term in tech recruitment. The fact that these words are thrown around so casually has led to a lot of confusion about what data science and data scientists actually is and are. I would formerly include myself in this group. When I first heard the word data scientist, I assumed that data science was actually just statistics in a fancy hat. Turns out I was quite wrong. So here are the top 5 misconceptions about data science.

Data science is statistics and vice versa

I fell prey to this particular misconception myself. What I have come to find out is that statistical methods are used in data science, but conflating the two is really inaccurate. This would be somewhat like saying psychology is statistics because research psychologists use statistical tools in studies and experiments. So what’s the difference? I am of the mind that the primary difference lies in the level of understanding of computing required to succeed in each discipline. While many statisticians have an excellent understanding of things like database design, one could be a statistician and actually know nothing about database design. To succeed as a statistician, all the way up to the doctoral level, you really only need to master basic modeling tools like R, Python, and MatLab. A data scientist needs to be able to mine data from the Internet, create machine learning algorithms, design, build and query databases and so on.

Data science is really computer science

This is the other half of the first misconception. While it is tempting to lump data science in with computer science, the two are quite different. For one thing, computer science is technically a field of mathematics focused on algorithms and optimization, and data science is definitely not that. Data science requires many skills that overlap with those of computer scientists, but data scientists aren’t going to need to know anything about computer hardware, kernels, and the like. A data scientist ought to have some understanding of network protocols, but even here, the level of understanding required for data science is nothing like the understanding held by the average computer scientist.

Data scientists are here to replace statisticians

In this case, nothing could be further from the truth. One way to keep this straight is that statisticians are in the business of researching existing statistical tools as well as trying to develop new statistical tools. These tools are then turned around and used by data scientists and many others. Data scientists are usually more focused on applied solutions to real problems and less interested in what many might regard as pure research.

Data science is primarily focused on big data

This is an understandable misconception. Just so we’re clear, Wikipedia defines big data as “a term for data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing application software is inadequate to deal with them.” Then big data is really just the study of how to deal with, well, big datasets. Data science absolutely has a lot to contribute in this area. Data scientists usually have skills that work really well when it comes to analyzing big data. Skills related to databases, machine learning, and how data is transferred around a local network or the internet, are skills most data scientists have, and are very helpful when dealing with big data. But data science is actually very broad in scope. big data is a hot topic right now and receiving a lot of attention. Research into the field is receiving a lot private and public funding. In any situation like this, many different types of people working in a diverse range of areas are going to try to get in on the action. As a result, talking up data science’s connection to big data makes sense if you’re a data scientist – it’s really about effective marketing. So, you might work with big data if you’re a data scientist – but data science is also much, much more than just big data.

Data scientists can easily find a job

I thought I would include this one to add a different perspective. While there are many more misconceptions about what data science is or what data scientists do, I think this is actually a really damaging misconception and should be discussed. I hear a lot of complaints these days from people with some skill set that is sought after not being able to find gainful employment. Data science is like any other field, and there is always going to be a whole bunch of people that are better at it than you. Don’t become a data scientist because you’re sure to get a job – you’re not. The industries related to data science are absolutely growing right now, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean people who can call themselves data scientists just automatically get jobs. You have to have the talent, but you also need to network and do all the same things you need to do to get on in any other industry. The point is, it’s not easy to get a job no matter what your field is; study and practice data science because it’s awesome, don’t do it because you heard it’s a sure way to get a job.

Misconceptions abound, but data science is a wonderful field of research, study, and practice. If you are interested in pursuing a career or degree related to data science, I encourage you to do so, however, make sure you have the right idea about what you’re getting yourself into.

Erik Kappelman wears many hats including blogger, developer, data consultant, economist, and transportation planner. He lives in Helena, Montana and works for theDepartment of Transportation as a transportation demand modeler.

Erik Kappelman wears many hats including blogger, developer, data consultant, economist, and transportation planner. He lives in Helena, Montana and works for the Department of Transportation as a transportation demand modeler.


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