In an October 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review, the role of a Data Scientist was called the 'sexiest job of the 21st Century'. The article discusses the rise of the data expert, with more and more companies turning to people with the ability to manipulate large data sets. Recruiters attached a real value attachment to IT professionals able to work with curiosity and intellectual freedom, bringing key skills to an increasingly data-focused economy.

However, despite increasing hire rates across tech and non-tech businesses, the data scientist remains something of an unknown to the wider world. This article takes a look at what makes a data scientist, the skills and training necessary to become one, and why businesses are continuing to focus recruiting efforts towards sourcing data scientists for their enterprises.

So you want to be a Data Scientist?

The traits inherent to the ideal data scientist personality are varied. Crucially the right individuals are usually intellectually curious, enjoy investigating problems of a complex nature, and possess the ability to apply thinking patterns to solving issues at a business level, whether that is in devising algorithms or integrating data sets across a variety of system platforms.

It isn't a perquisite to necessarily study a computer-related degree. However, venerated institutions in the USA, such as Columbia University and John Hopkins now offer specialised MSc level degree programmes devoted to the field. In the UK, universities are offering a wide range of MScs and some undergraduate programmes to help train the next generation of data hotshots. Indeed, quality in terms of educational background is important for people considering data science as a career. A review in 2013 in the USA revealed that some 46% of data scientists boast a PhD, with 42% holding Master's qualifications.

Where do Data Scientist come from?

An EMC study into the background of data science professionals revealed the core sources where companies find the people they need for a data scientist role. Some 34% will come from a study background involving computer science (admittedly a broad field), whilst 24% come from study areas that aren't computer science related. Professionals working outside IT or computer science accounted for around 27% of data science talent, 12% were found working in business intelligence, and 3% came from miscellaneous backgrounds.

The professional life of a Data Scientist

Data scientists can find opportunities for work across a variety of sectors, notably in finance, healthcare and obviously throughout the tech world. A data scientist will traditionally work using computer sciences skills, coupled with modelling and analytics. The business environment encourages data science professionals to combine these skills with strong communication and leadership skills that can help derive true value from solving big data problems posed to companies.

A data science professional will be exposed to a wide range of tech tools as they continue throughout their career journey. Learning how to use big data manipulation tools such as Hadoop or Python, working with analysis systems like SAS or SPSS, and reporting tools like SQL or Cognos are just some examples of the technical exposure data scientists can expect to achieve.

A typical data scientist salary - at the more experienced level rather than entry standard - will vary (in the USA) from between $85,000 - $170,000 per annum. In the UK, average salary information is somewhat scarce, although certain sources quote a figure of around £52,000 per annum.

Additionally, data scientists can expect their salaries to jump significantly as they accrue more skills and experience. From years one to seven, salaries can rise by 15%, and if an employee remains with a company for up to nine years, salaries can rocket by up to 38%.

Who is recruiting Data Scientists?

In the USA alone upwards of 190,000 dedicated data scientists, and 1.5 million managers and analysts, will be needed across business and public sectors by 2018. E-commerce companies, mobile start-ups, established internet giants like Google and Facebook, health technology wearable firms and innovation businesses: all are likely destinations for data scientists.

By 2015, it is estimated that 20% of Global 1000 organisations will be focusing recruitment efforts around information infrastructure and big data projects. By the end of the same year, big data could account for nearly 4.4 million jobs worldwide, and data scientists will be a key recruitment target for many businesses and the wider public sector.

The unique demands of increasingly big data focused business needs unique solutions. The skill sets found within the data science community are thus pushed right to the forefront of recruiting strategies. Companies value the analytical abilities and technical know-how of graduates emerging with data science-centric educations, but as we have seen various backgrounds are considered suitably malleable and applicable to a career in data science. The projections in terms of job growth indicate that the need for data scientists could well come to define the next few years of IT recruitment throughout the developed economies.