From a cursory glance at an engine that searches for university degrees, there is a substantial number of courses with a data and analytics specialism on offer in the UK. A Studyportals.com search returned over 375 MSc courses with a data and analytics component. It may be that universities are responding to demand from students wanting the skills to equip them to enter a lucrative sector.
This is a boon for data-driven companies which hopefully soon will have a greater choice of prospective candidates. Without trying to pit one against the other, is there a difference between MSc-qualified data professionals and those who stay in academia a few more years and leave with a PhD?
Richard Eden, head of data at online medical service Zava, formerly known as DrEd, thinks there is. In his team he now has a data scientist with a master’s degree in data science who is “fresh out of university.” However, having worked as a data analyst and data scientist for over a decade, Eden has experience of working with data professionals of various academic backgrounds. He said that, sometimes, those with PhDs can be very academic in their approach with less of a focus on the commercial side of things.
The former global lead of customer intelligence and data at a leading retailer said that he would “80% agree” with Eden. A data professional with 20 years’ experience, he has an analogy for differentiating between data professionals with doctorates and those without - he compares them to surgeons and general practitioners in the field of medicine. “If you hire the PhD guys, you’re hiring someone who wants to be a surgeon. When you’ve got them on the job, if they get a bunch of stuff that is basically GP work to do, it cheeses them off,” he said.
He added that the data professionals with PhDs he’s worked with often prefer not to do the softer, less technical, more business-oriented tasks as they want to be sitting in the corner, building something brilliant for three months. “They don’t really want the marketing director wandering up to their desk and asking, ‘how many people have we got in that segment?’ It just bores them, which is fair enough,” he said.
"I hire people with the four Cs of curiosity, communication, creativity and common sense."
Data professionals with doctorates have spent years developing a particular skill and exploring a specialism and so if their role ends up being too broad, “it can frustrate the hell out of them,” explained the former global lead. He followed this by saying that he has hired some “great” and “brilliant” PhDs in the past. Regardless of their level of education, for him it is important to hire people with the four Cs of “curiosity, communication, creativity and common sense."
The difference that both data professionals have noticed is probably down to the vastly different nature of the courses of study. Sanjeevan Bala, head of data science at Channel 4, said that up to 75% of his data team have come through an academic partnership with University College London. “For the last six years, we have put people through the Masters and PhD programmes and we fully fund the whole thing,” he said.
He then explained the distinctions between the two.“The MRes is couched in the pragmatic, practical, commercial application of research that births ideas that can easily be joined up to an application in the business. On the other hand, the PhD programme tends to be about longer-term research and development that is looking to further a body of knowledge,” he said.
Bala, a member of the DataIQ 100, has found that, in general, there are two types of data scientist, irrespective of the number of years of study they have under their belt. He said that some tend to be very strong on technical programming and the design and technology aspects. In contrast, others tend to lean more towards the business side of things, are very articulate and capable of explaining complex ideas in simple, visual ways.
He added that he hires across this spectrum and during the early team projects he can discern which camp his new hires fall into as they naturally start to incline towards one direction or the other. “We don’t prescriptively look for one or the other. We take in across the entire spectrum and, as they start with us and begin to work on projects within our teams, we look to understand which of those directions they will naturally lean towards,” he said.
Channel 4 creates multiple pathways for its new data scientists as it caters for a wide mix of skill sets and capabilities, he explained. “We play to the graduates’ strengths and make sure they can go along the pathway that enhances that,” said Bala.
"You get a much deeper level of engagement [when you hire striaght from academia]."
One firm advantage Bala sees of hiring data professionals straight from academia over those with commercial experience is that the former are incredibly adaptable to organisational structures and ways of working. “This is because they have no preconceived ideas of how things should work. That then creates a greater momentum and an opportunity for the candidates genuinely to connect with the product that the brand is within and therefore you get a much deeper level of engagement,” he said.
And so, while there are differences between the styles of working of data professionals with Masters degrees and those with doctorates, both groups have enthusiasm, desire and drive to enter and thrive in the data industry. These traits along with technical and soft skills are paramount to the growth and success of data-driven companies.
(Richard Eden talked to DataIQ at Looker's Join The Tour conference.)