Is it still worth becoming a data scientist?

With salaries flattening and competition rising, there are signs the prospects for data scientists may be less stellar than once thought.

Is it still worth becoming a data scientist? With salaries flattening and competition rising, there are signs the prospects for data scientists may be less stellar than once thought.

For several years data scientist has been ranked as one of the top jobs in the US, in terms of pay, job demand, and satisfaction.

But there are signs the coveted role may be losing some of its sheen, as salaries for data scientists begin to plateau.

Figures produced by Glassdoor Economic Research show a year-on-year fall in US data scientist wages in February and March of this year.

"On Glassdoor, we've seen pay for data scientists actually shrink 1.2 percent in March 2019," said Glassdoor senior economist Daniel Zhao.

"This is a continuation of a longer running trend—data scientist wage growth has been well below the national average for the last year."

Glassdoor is not alone in noticing the trend, with a similar tailing off of salaries evident in data collected by Stack Overflow over the past year.

"Data scientist salaries are moving closer to the mainstream of software developer salaries in general," said Stack Overflow data scientist Julia Silge, adding there was "much less of a difference" between the pay of the two groups when controlling for education level.

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As for the reason for the salary squeeze, for Glassdoor's Zhao, it's clear that there are now more candidates for data scientist roles than there are jobs available.

"As data science has risen in prominence, enrolments in data science programs and bootcamps have exploded. This huge increase in workers for limited entry-level jobs is holding down wages," he said.

While analyst reports often discuss the sharp uptick in demand for data science skills, anecdotal evidence from those in the industry suggests that demand may be being outstripped by the large numbers of new entrants to the field, thanks to the explosion in the number of data science courses offered by online learning hubs like Fast.ai and Coursera.

Vicky Boykis, senior manager for data science and engineering at CapTech Ventures, wrote that she and others she knows in the industry have seen more than a fivefold increase in the numbers applying for junior data science roles.

"It can be very hard for someone with a new degree in data science to find a data science position, given how many new people they're competing with in the market," she wrote.

But how can suggestions of there being an oversupply of data scientists be reconciled with frequent reports of a data science skills shortage? Zhao says it's important to understand that while businesses may be struggling to find the skills they need, that doesn't mean there's not enough entry-level talent.

"There might be a skills shortage, but not an applicant shortage. It's not unusual for entry-level or internship openings in data science to receive hundreds of applicants. When employers talk about shortages, they're generally talking about a lack of experienced professionals," he said, adding this largely stemmed from the newness of data science as a mainstream field.

One confounding factor to bear in mind, however, is that comparing salary figures for data scientists over time is made difficult by how poorly defined the data scientist role is.

"Companies are increasingly using the data scientist title for other similar roles such as data analyst or statistician," said Zhao.

"This muddling of job titles is changing the composition of the data scientist workforce and holding down wages as a result."

Should you think twice before training as a data scientist?

With slowing salary growth among data scientists and signs there may be a glut of junior talent, should aspiring data scientists pause for thought?

Boykis' advice is to consider getting into the field by the "back door", by starting out in a tangentially related field like a junior developer or data analyst and working your way towards becoming a data scientist, rather than aiming straight for data scientist as a career.

Stack Overflow's Silge has a slightly different interpretation of why salaries are levelling out and believes people shouldn't necessarily be deterred from entering the industry.

"I think that what we're seeing is a little bit of the standardization and the professionalization of data science," she said.

"The past ten years have been a bit of the Wild West when it comes to data science. 'How do you become a data scientist?', it's been a really open question.

"I see the industry moving towards some consensus around 'What does it mean to be a data engineer? and 'What does it mean to be a data scientist?'.

"When you get to that stage it becomes easier to hire for those roles, and when these roles are easier to hire for you don't have the crazy salary situation we had before."

Glassdoor's Zhao is also quick to point out there are still many aspects of being a data scientist that make it an attractive role — not least the fact that US data scientists are still taking home $95,459 in median annual pay.

"One thing to keep in mind is that this isn't necessarily bad news for aspiring data scientists," he said.

"Data scientists still have one of the highest-paying and highest-job-satisfaction jobs in the United States."

However, he cautions new entrants to the field to go into it with their eyes open.

"But it does mean that competition amongst applicants is and will continue to be fierce in the coming years."

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