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Data Scientists Flooding Field, Salaries Leveling Off, Report Says

It had to happen eventually. The long-lasting hunt for elusive data science skills has brought new recruits flooding into the field, according to new research, resulting in salaries finally beginning to level off for what has been termed the "sexiest job" of the century and "best job" in America.

The research comes from executive recruiting firm Burtch Works LLC, which just published the third consecutive Burtch Works Study: Salaries of Data Scientists April 2016 (registration required), polling 374 data scientists with whom it's in contact.

Those sought-after data scientists (termed the "elusive kingpins of the Big Data movement" by Burtch) are holding down what the Harvard Business Review called "the sexiest job of the 21st century," and what careers site Glassdoor called the "best job in America" for 2016.

While the high demand has seen a concomitant hike in salaries, that trends seems to be finally leveling off in many aspects.

"With all of the attention that data science has received, students have been flooding into the field," the report stated. That flood comes from students who are getting into the lucrative field sooner as educational efforts have ramped up to meet demand. Also, existing data pros are migrating to the title from other positions.

Comparison of Data Scientists' Median Base Salaries by Job Category
[Click on image for larger view.] Comparison of Data Scientists' Median Base Salaries by Job Category (source: Burtch Works)

"This year's data suggests that data science salaries appear to be leveling off: every job category except one (level 1 individual contributors) experienced a marginal single-digit shift in median base salary over the past year," the report said.

Those level 1 individual contributors saw a median base salary increase of 7 percent, just half of the percentage increase reported in last year's survey.

Some positions have even seen a decrease in salaries. "Managers at level 3 showed a 4 percent decrease in median base salary, from $250,000 last year to $240,000 this year," the report said. "The 25th percentile, however, increased by 12 percent, from $202,500 last year to $226,250 this year, suggesting an overall positive trend in executive-level salaries."

With the rush to enter the fray, students are going into the field with less education that previously, as many don't wait to earn Ph.D.'s and enter the workforce with master's degrees. "Degree and enrollment trends show increases in statistics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering graduates -- all top educational backgrounds for data scientists -- and students can't wait to get to work, as evidenced by the increase in the percentage of professionals with master's degrees (as opposed to Ph.D.'s) at the entry-level."

Most level 1 individual contributors (59 percent) have master's degrees, compared with last year's figure of 48 percent. Conversely, only 28 percent of those same workers sport Ph.D.'s, compared to 43 percent reported in last year's survey.

Change in Base Salaries of Data Science Individual Contributors by Job Level
[Click on image for larger view.] Change in Base Salaries of Data Science Individual Contributors by Job Level (source: Burtch Works)

"These data seem to suggest that those interested in data science careers are seeking a faster route to the workplace, and are able to find such a path, as data science-oriented master's programs continue to multiply across the country," the report said. "Not only are students opting for the terminal master's route over a traditional Ph.D., we predict that non-traditional educational paths will also begin to surge, as new data science and analytics MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] and bootcamps continue to develop."

Even with many data scientist salaries leveling off, the job is still paying quite well, however. "Data scientists continue to out-earn other predictive analytics professionals," the report said. "Comparing this report's data to our September 2015 report for the predictive analytics market, data scientists earn base salaries up to 39 percent higher than other predictive analytics professionals depending on job category."

For individual contributors (69 percent of respondents), median base salaries range from level 1 salaries of $97,000 to level 3 salaries of $152,000, with nearly three quarters of all individual contributors earning median bonuses of $10,000 to $21,000.

On the management side, median base salaries start at $140,000 at level 1 and climb to $240,000 at level 3, with some 80 percent eligible for bonuses that range from $15,000 to $80,000.

The employment picture for data scientists promises to remain rosy, Burtch said, as increasing supply still isn't keeping up with increasing demand.

"As one might imagine, all of these factors combined will lead to a lot of changes over the next few years," the report concluded. "The use of data science will become more ubiquitous, the talent supply will improve, and there will be even more use cases for these techniques, reaching far beyond the few examples of current uses that we've briefly mentioned."

About the Author

David Ramel is the editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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