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How to break into data science: advice from a Chief Economist

Data science is a competitive and broad-ranging field. If you’re interested in how to break into data science, check out the advice of Erik Stettler, a data scientist, venture capitalist, and Chief Economist at Toptal. Toptal is a global network of top talent in business, design, and technology that enables companies to scale their teams on demand.

Johana Molina and Paul Lynskey sit down with Erik in this episode of The Intern Group’s podcast How to be the difference.

Johana, Paul, and Erik talk about what it takes to thrive in the field of data science. Erik also does a deep dive into the opportunities as well as dangers of the conclusions that can be drawn from data.

Information is the most valuable commodity in the world, Erik says. Your job as a data scientist is therefore to turn data into information.

Erik explains that, contrary to popular belief, there is no single profile for those who break into data science. You don’t have to be a numbers person. Above all, you need to be someone who loves creative problem-solving. The math isn’t the hard part, Erik says.


How can you break into data science?

Erik advises professionals who want to break into data science to start developing key skills early. Particularly, learn the coding languages you’d need – Python and R. Don’t be intimidated by them! Learning a new skill is always challenging in the beginning. But Erik says just get started, and you’ll be surprised how fast you learn. He recommends utilizing free or low-cost online resources and spending a few minutes each day.

“Think of it as going to the gym, but for your mind,” he says.

It’s also a good idea to start reading. There are great books and online resources about how to implement data science, and about the pitfalls of data science.  Check out resources that discuss the foundational assumptions and approaches to key models, and approach learning as something fun and engaging.


A person types up data on a laptop


How to thrive in the data science field:

According to Erik, data science is a field that is always changing. There will always be new information, and new ways to approach it. It’s essential to be creative and curious in order to succeed in the field. Erik also says there are a few key requirements for being successful in the data science field, and in the 21st-century workplace.

You have to love learning:  Top professionals in every field all have something in common – they are always trying to learn and grow. Erik reminds professionals that they’re never done learning, and in a field like data science, you need to love developing new skills, and learning new things.

You have to embrace challenges: There’s no denying that data science is a challenging field. But more than that, data science is about using information to solve problems. So, if you’re not up for a challenge (or many!) it might not be the right fit.

Stay humble: As a data scientist, you’re still a scientist, even if you don’t wear a lab coat. And, the core of the scientific method is “don’t assume you know the truth,” Erik says. Knowing that your assumptions are probably wrong is key for success, he says. Prove yourself wrong, and whittle away at your ignorance.

Don’t go it alone: One of Erik’s top reminders for young professionals is to find a community. You don’t have to do it alone! Find like-minded people who are learning alongside you or facing the same challenges. It’ll make the career more rewarding.

Pick battles you care about: Erik’s last tip is one of his most important. Don’t just take a data science job. Find something you truly care about. Your passion will motivate you through the difficult aspect of the career, which isn’t an easy one. “You need to make sure you do it for the right reasons.”


Listen to The Intern Group’s podcast here.



Google Analytics overview report, by Myriam Jessier on Unsplash.

Untitled, by Campaign Creators on Unsplash.

Blog by Maeve Allsup

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The International Internships Blog is a collaboration by The Intern Group staff, alumni and current participants to give you career advice & tips, program information, & so much more!

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