Would-be data scientists should work with data up close rather than book learning, says TheFiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. Although a stats course won’t hurt.

Nate Silver
photo: Barb Darrow

Nate Silver, the poster boy of data scientists, says the key to success in that field isn’t fancy degrees or tons of book learning — it’s finding data you’re interested in and really digging in, according to a recent Harvard Business Review blog.

Silver came to fame with his FiveThirtyEight Blog, which is moving from The New York TImes to ESPN. With the big data era upon us, there’s been a ton of discussion about what sort of degrees and credentials are needed to get a lucrative data scientist position. Some universities — backed by vendors in need of data scientists — now offer advanced degrees in the subject.

So Silver’s contention that education is no substitute for experience is somewhat contrarian. But he stuck to it. “… Getting your hands dirty with the data set is, I think, far and away better than spending too much time doing reading and so forth,” Silver said in a Q&A with HBR’s Walter Frick.

And, in case the point wasn’t clear, he added: “I think the applied experience is a lot more important than the academic experience. It probably can’t hurt to take a stats class in college.”

It’s a a little ironic that this endorsement of self-taught skills appeared in a Harvard Business School blog, but what’re you going to do?

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  1. Sensible advice, imo – particularly given the cost of some of these premium data science courses – there is an upper limit on borrowing – like the US govt is painfully realizing now.


  2. Daniel Donovan Tuesday, October 1, 2013

    I think at a bare minimum you need a few stats, math and computer science courses, and maybe a class that goes into a brief introduction of graph theory.

    There are also some really good courses on coursera, udacity, edx ect…

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