Are you trying to prepare for a data science interview but don’t know where to start? It’s not just you; this task can be overwhelming. A data science interview may involve questions about anything from statistics and mathematics to deep learning and artificial intelligence.
So, it’s best to begin with the basics and gradually move on to more complex topics.
In this article, we focus on foundational concepts at the basis of machine learning problems and data analysis. More specifically, we present a list of 15 probability and statistics interview questions and answers.
Let’s get started!
Top 15 Probability and Statistics Interview Questions for Data Scientists: Table of Contents
- What Is the Difference Between Descriptive and Inferential Statistics?
- What Are the Main Measures Used to Describe the Central Tendency of Data?
- What Are the Main Measures Used to Describe the Variability of Data?
- What Are Skewness and Kurtosis?
- Describe the Difference Between Correlation and Autocorrelation
- Explain the Difference Between Probability Distribution and Sampling Distribution
- What Is the Normal Distribution and How Is It Characterized?
- What Are the Assumptions of Linear Regression?
- What Is Hypothesis Testing?
- What Are the Most Common Statistical Tests Used?
- What Is the P-Value and How Can We Interpret It?
- What Is the Confidence Interval?
- What Are the Main Ideas of the Law of Large Numbers?
- What Is the Central Limit Theorem?
- Explain the Difference Between Probability and Likelihood
- Probability and Statistics Interview Questions for Data Scientists: Next Steps
1. What Is the Difference Between Descriptive and Inferential Statistics?
Descriptive and inferential statistics are two different branches of the field. The former summarizes the characteristics and distribution of a dataset, such as mean, median, variance, etc. You can present those using tables and data visualization methods, like box plots and histograms.
In contrast, inferential statistics allows you to formulate and test hypotheses for a sample and generalize the results to a wider population. Using confidence intervals, you can estimate the population parameters.
You must be able to explain the mechanisms behind these concepts, as entry-level statistics questions for a data analyst interview often revolve around sampling, the generalizability of results, etc.
2. What Are the Main Measures Used to Describe the Central Tendency of Data?
Centrality measures are essential for exploratory data analysis. They all indicate the center of the data distribution but yield different results. You must understand the difference between the main types to interpret and use them in analyses.
During a statistics job interview, you might need to explain the meaning of each measure of centrality – mean, median, and mode:
- Mean, also called average, is the sum of all observations divided by the total number of participants or cases (n).
- Median is the mid-point in a dataset ordered from the smallest to the largest when n is odd. With an even number of data points, it’s the average of the values in position n/2 and (n+1)/2 (i.e., the two values in the middle).
- Mode is the most frequently appearing data point. It is a useful measure when working with categorical variables.
3. What Are the Main Measures of Variability?
Variability measures are also crucial in describing data distribution. They show how spread-out data points are and how far away they are from the mean.
Some of the basic questions during a statistics interview might require you to explain the meaning and usage of variability measures. Here’s your cheat sheet:
- Variance measures the average squared distance of data points from the mean. A small variance corresponds to a narrow spread of the values, while a big variance implies that data points are far from the mean.
- Standard deviation is the square root of the variance. It shows the amount of variation of values in a dataset.
- Range is the difference between the maximum and minimum data value. It is a good indicator of variability when there are no outliers in a dataset, but when there are, it can be misleading.
- Interquartile range (IQR) measures the spread of the middle part of a dataset. It’s essentially the difference between the third and the first quartile.
4. What Are Skewness and Kurtosis?
Next on our list of statistics questions for a data science interview are the measures of the shape of data distribution – skewness and kurtosis.
Let’s start with the former.
Skewness is a great way to measure the symmetry of distribution and the likelihood of a given value falling in the tails. With symmetrical distribution, the mean and the median coincide. If the data distribution isn’t symmetrical, it is skewed.
There are two types of skewness:
- Positive is when the right tail is longer, most values are clustered around the left tail, and the median is smaller than the mean.
- Negative is when the left tail is longer, most values are clustered around the right tail, and the median is greater than the mean.
Kurtosis, on the other hand, reveals how heavy or light-tailed data is compared to the normal distribution. There are three types of kurtoses:
- Mesokurtic distributions approximate a normal distribution.
- Leptokurtic distributions have a pointy shape and heavy tails, indicating a high probability of extreme events occurring.
- Platykurtic distributions have a flat shape and light tails. They reveal a low probability of the occurrence of extreme events.
For an entry-level job, it may be enough to know the meaning and calculations of these measures. However, statistics interview questions for advanced data science positions may revolve around the usage of these concepts in practice.
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5. Describe the Difference Between Correlation and Autocorrelation
These two concepts tend to be confused, which makes it a good trick question for a statistics interview. To avoid surprises, we’ll explain the difference.
A correlation measures the linear relationship between two or more variables. It ranges between -1 and 1. It’s positive if the variables increase or decrease together. If it’s negative, one variable decreases while the other increases. When the value is 0, the variables aren’t related.
Here’s a scatterplot illustrating the different types of correlation:
In contrast, autocorrelation measures the linear relationship between two values of the same variable. Typically, we use it when we deal with a time series, i.e., different observations of the same construct. Just like correlation, it can be positive or negative.
6. Explain the Difference Between Probability Distribution and Sampling Distribution
As we mentioned, you may be asked various statistics interview questions regarding sampling and the generalizability of results. The difference between probability and sampling distribution is just one example.
A probability distribution is a function used to calculate the probability of a random variable X taking different values. There are two main types depending on the variable – discrete and continuous. Examples of the former are the binomial and Poisson distributions, and of the latter – normal and uniform distributions.
A sampling distribution is the probability distribution of a statistic based on a range of random samples from a population. The definition sounds confusing but it’s encountered very often in practice.
For example, imagine you’re a clinical data analyst working on the development of a new treatment for patients with Alzheimer’s. You’ll likely be working with samples from the entire population of individuals with the disease. Hence, you’ll use the sampling distribution during the data analysis.
7. What Is the Normal Distribution?
Normal distribution is a central concept in mathematics and data analysis. As such, it often appears in statistics interview questions.
The normal, also known as Gaussian, distribution is the most important probability distribution in statistics. It’s often called а “bell curve” because of its shape – tall in the middle, flat toward the ends.
A key characteristic of the normal distribution is that the mean and the median coincide. The mean is equal to 0 and the standard deviation is 1. With this information, we can calculate that:
- 27% of the data falls within +/-1 standard deviation of the mean.
- 45% of the data falls within +/-2 standard deviations of the mean.
- 7% of the data falls within +/-3 standard deviations of the mean.
This is known as the empirical rule.
But what is so special about it?
It is considered that naturally occurring phenomena tend to have a normal distribution. As such, we often use it in data analysis to determine the probability of a data point being above or below a given value or for a sample mean being above or below the population mean.
8. What Are the Assumptions of Linear Regression?
Next, we move on from basic to intermediate probability and statistics interview questions. To further advance your knowledge on these topics, check out 365's Statistics course for data scientists.
But for now, let's continue with linear regression, which is at the basis of predictive analysis.
It investigates the relationship between one or more independent variables (predictors) and a dependent variable (outcome). More concretely, it examines whether and to what extent the independent variables are good predictors of the outcome.
The residual (or error term) is equal to the predictor variable minus the actual observed value. Linear regression models aim to find the ”line of best fit” where the error is minimal.
The typical statistics interview questions for a data analyst job might involve these definitions or the four main assumptions that must be met to conduct linear regression analysis.
These are the following:
- Linear relationship: There is a linear relationship between the predictors and the dependent variable.
- Normality: The dependent variable has a normal distribution for any fixed value of the predictor.
- Homoscedasticity: The variance of the error term is constant for every value of the independent variable.
- Independence: All observations are independent of each other, meaning there is no autocorrelation between the residuals.
9. What Is Hypothesis Testing?
We already touched on this topic with some of the previous statistics and probability interview questions. But since it is a fundamental part of data analysis, we cover it in more detail.
Hypothesis testing allows us to make an inference about the population based on data from a sample. Here’s how to conduct it:
First, we formulate a null hypothesis or H0. This is an assumption that there is no difference or no relationship between the variables. For each null hypothesis, there is an alternative one assuming the opposite. If H0 is rejected, the alternative hypothesis is supported.
To determine whether the data supports a particular hypothesis, we need to choose an appropriate statistical test. If the probability of the null hypothesis is below a predetermined significance level, we can reject it.
On that note, statistics questions for a data analyst interview may also be regarding different types of statistical tests. To help you prepare, we cover the basic ones.
10. What Are the Most Common Statistical Tests Used?
There are numerous statistical tests, each one serving a different purpose. Here are some of the most common ones:
- The Shapiro-Wilk test is a statistical tool testing if a data distribution is normal.
- A t-test is used to assess whether the difference between two groups is statistically significant.
- Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) tests the statistical difference between more than two variables.
11. What Is the p-Value and How to Interpret It?
A p-value is the probability of obtaining given results if the null hypothesis is correct. To reject it, the p-value must be lower than a predetermined significance level α.
The most commonly used significance level is 0.05. This means that if the p-value is below 0.05, we can reject the null hypothesis and accept the alternative one.
In that case, we say that the results are statistically significant.
This is a fundamental part of data analysis, hence a common statistics interview question.
12. What Is the Confidence Interval?
The confidence interval is the range within which we expect the results to lie if we repeat the experiment. It is the mean of the result plus and minus the expected variation.
The latter is determined by the standard error of the estimate, while the center of the interval coincides with the mean of the estimate. The most common confidence interval is 95%.
13. What Are the Main Ideas of the Law of Large Numbers?
The Law of Large Numbers is a key theorem in probability and statistics with many practical applications in finance, business, etc. It states that if an experiment is repeated independently multiple times, the mean of all results will approximate the expected value.
A classic example is coin flipping. We know that the probability (P) of getting tails is 50%. If the number of tails after 100 trials is X, then the expected value E(X) = n x P(X) = 100 x 0.5 = 50.
Let’s suppose we repeat the experiment multiple times.
The first time, we get X1= 65 tails, the second, X2 = 50 tails, and so on. In the end, we calculate the mean of all trials by adding up the random variables (X1, X2, …, Xn) and dividing the sum by the number of experiments. Following the Law of Large Numbers, the mean of these results will approximate the expected value E(X) = 50.
This is a basic theorem in Statistics with applications in machine learning, so you can expect questions about it during a job interview.
14. What Is the Central Limit Theorem?
The Central Limit Theorem states that the distribution of sample means starts to resemble a normal distribution as the size of the sample increases. Interestingly, this happens even when the underlying population doesn’t have a Gaussian distribution. This is illustrated in the figure below.
On the right, we see that, regardless of the population distribution, the sample means have a symmetrical bell shape distribution as the sample size increases. A sample size equal to or greater than 30 is usually considered large enough for the Central Limit Theorem to apply.
15. Explain the Difference Between Probability and Likelihood
Last but not least, we cover one of the fundamental principles of Bayesian statistics, as data science interview questions may include that subject too.
The difference between probability and likelihood is subtle but key. Probability is the chance of a particular outcome to occur given the obtained values. When calculating it, we assume the parameters are trustworthy.
In contrast, likelihood aims to verify if the parameters in a model are trustworthy given the obtained results. In other words, we calculate the likelihood of a model being correct with the observed measurements.
Probability and Statistics Interview Questions for Data Scientists: Next Steps
That concludes our list of probability and statistics interview questions and answers. We covered fundamental concepts which will help you prepare for an interview and understand more complex data science and analytics topics.
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