What Are the Skills You Need to Become a Data Scientist?

Join over 2 million students who advanced their careers with 365 Data Science. Learn from instructors who have worked at Meta, Spotify, Google, IKEA, Netflix, and Coca-Cola and master Python, SQL, Excel, machine learning, data analysis, AI fundamentals, and more.

Start for Free
Iliya Valchanov 11 Apr 2024 5 min read

Author’s Note: This article was originally published in 2020 and offers valuable insights and perspectives based on the available knowledge at the time of its publication. You can find the most up-to-date information in our new research, The Data Scientist Job Outlook in 2023.


So, what competencies are required to be a data scientist in 2020?

‘Data Scientist’ has been one of the fastest-growing jobs in recent years. It’s an exciting and highly paid career, that presents you with tons of opportunities for development. What’s more, there’s still an abundance of positions as the supply of qualified data scientists is yet to catch up to the huge business demand.

We’ve been doing this research for 3 years now. And in this article, we’ll share the top data science skills that will make you successful in this super-competitive field.

We’ve also created a very cool and interactive PowerBI dashboard, so if you prefer to analyze the data yourself, follow this link. And we’ve got another article where we make a comparison between the last 3 years. Here, we focus on the year 2020.

In 2020, our study portrays a data scientist’s collective image as a male (71%), who is bilingual, has been in the workforce for 8.5 years (3.5 years of which has worked as a data scientist). He or she works with Python and/or R and has a Master’s degree.

data scientist profile 2020

Now, let’s focus on what you came here for – the data scientist skillset.

You can’t become a data scientist without a strong programming skillset. And in 2020, general-purpose languages are used more extensively by data scientists than ever before.

According to our own annual research, 74% of current data scientists are proficient in Python, 56% use R, and 51% - SQL.

To say that Python’s popularity is rising, would be an understatement. Python is hands-down the preferred language for statistical modeling by data scientists. No wonder IEEE – the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology deemed Python “the big Kahuna” of programming languages!

What are the skills you need to become a data scientist... Or, in other words, what do companies want?

Well, Python is more than just a fan favorite. In fact, it seems to be very close to dominance in terms of what employers are searching for, as it is the language associated with the highest salaries worldwide. The demand for Python as a preferred skill by employers is soaring sky-high. Numbers don’t lie - 70% of F500 data scientists employ Python. Both Python and R have increased in popularity over the years and F500 companies are reflecting that in their organizations. Moreover, Python is the number 1 programming language in numerous industries that use advanced analytics for their business and product development.

industries that use python  

What about SQL?

SQL’s popularity is growing fast and it almost catches up to the runner-up R.

Today’s businesses create quintillion bytes of data on a daily basis. That makes SQL a super-important tool in a data scientist’s toolbox since it is critical in accessing, updating, inserting, manipulating, and modifying large volumes of data. It also integrates smoothly with other scripting languages like R and Python. Besides, BI tools such as Tableau and Power BI are heavily dependent on it, thus increasing its adoption.

sql integrations

So, if you’re looking for great data science career opportunities across numerous industries, you literally can’t go wrong with Python, R, and SQL. And if you’re a beginner eager to make the first steps in your data scientist career, the only thing left to do is start learning! We recommend starting with the basics such as Introduction to Python, before you tackle more complex topics like Machine Learning in Python

python, r, sql

Another interesting finding in 2020 is that fewer data scientists are in their first year on the job (13%) compared to previous periods (25% in 2018 and 2019).

A few years ago, as data science had just emerged, companies were recruiting professionals with different backgrounds and training them in-house. As a result, in some cases, relatively junior candidates were hired for senior data scientist roles. Our numbers show that as more people gain experience in the field, first-year data scientists account for a smaller portion of the total.

The idea that experience plays a bigger role in recruiting is reinforced by the finding that the average data scientist professional in 2020 has been in the workforce for 8.5 years.

Therefore, in today’s job market one needs to accumulate the necessary working experience in an analytical position before they are ready for a data scientist job title.

Maybe a data analyst position works best. But what does the data show?

Our study examined data scientists’ previous job occupation and title 1 and 2 jobs ago. Two positions prior to their current role, the average data scientist in our sample was either already a Data Scientist (29%); an Analyst (17%); or worked in Academia (12%). The figures change when we look at the positions our cohort occupied immediately before entering their current role: data scientist (52%); analyst (11%); a researcher in academia (8%).

job occupation 2 positions prior to data scientist  

What are the skills you need to become a data scientist: Education

The large majority (95%) of current data scientists have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Out of those, 53% hold a Master’s degree, and 26% - a Ph.D. We can say that a person needs to aim at a second-cycle academic degree. However, it is also true that a Bachelor’s can get you the job as long as you have the technical skills and preparation required.

In general, 19 out of 20 data scientists have a university degree.

How about the area of studies data scientists pursued? Which degrees improve a candidate’s chances of becoming a data scientist?

Considering our study, 55% of the data scientists in the cohort come from one of three university backgrounds. These are Data Science and Analysis (21%); Computer Science (18%); and Statistics and Mathematics (16%). There are fewer representatives of Economics and Social Sciences (12%), Engineering (11%), and Natural Sciences (11%). All of these are technical courses that prepare graduates for the quantitative and analytical aspects of the job.

data scientist education, data scientist area of studies

In Conclusion

Let’s summarize the most important skills you need to become a data scientist and the typical data scientist career path in 2020:

  • Python is undoubtedly the most popular coding language in the field;
  • SQL is gaining ground closing in on R;
  • Frequently the previous job data scientists had was an analyst position;
  • 95% of data scientists have a Bachelor’s degree or higher
  • A Data Science, Computer Science, or a Statistics and Mathematics degree gives the best chance for a data scientist career.

skills you need to become a data scientist, data scientist programming skills, data scientist education, data scientist experience

They say that ‘if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there’. In this case, things are a bit different. If you know that you want to become a data scientist,it will be beneficial to study the career path of others who have taken the data scientist career path... And learn from their experience. We hope that this article was useful and will guide you in the right direction if you decide to pursue a data scientist career path!

Ready to take the next step towards a data science career?

Check out the complete Data Science Program today. Start with the fundamentals with our Statistics, Maths, and Excel courses. Build up a step-by-step experience with SQL, Python, R, Power BI, and Tableau. And upgrade your skillset with Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Credit Risk Modeling, Time Series Analysis, and Customer Analytics in Python. Still not sure you want to turn your interest in data science into a career? You can explore the curriculum or sign up 12 hours of beginner to advanced video content for free by clicking on the button below.

Iliya Valchanov

Co-founder of 365 Data Science

Iliya is a finance graduate with a strong quantitative background who chose the exciting path of a startup entrepreneur. He demonstrated a formidable affinity for numbers during his childhood, winning more than 90 national and international awards and competitions through the years. Iliya started teaching at university, helping other students learn statistics and econometrics. Inspired by his first happy students, he co-founded 365 Data Science to continue spreading knowledge. He authored several of the program’s online courses in mathematics, statistics, machine learning, and deep learning.