Best College Degrees for Data Science Careers

Created by Henry Steele

By Henry Steele - December 15, 2017
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Big data plays a vital and growing role in most industries across the world today. It is becoming a major driver of competitive advantage and business growth everywhere. One of the major benefits of being able to process and interpret big data is that doing so can transform data into revenue. This has led to the creation of an information-based world economy that is growing and thriving as companies are using data to make better business decisions, increase profits and efficiency.

The huge potential for big data to increase a company’s profits is fueling a lot of growth in many technology and data-related jobs. Many industry experts think there will soon be a shortage of qualified workers who will meet the burgeoning need for data managers and data analysts.

If you are interested in a career in big data, below is more information to help you make your decision.

Best College Degrees for a Big Data Career

Universities these days understand that there is a growing need for professionals with big data and related skills. That is why there are more bachelor’s and master’s programs in these areas such as business analytics degrees, business intelligence degrees, and big data management degrees. But it also is worth remembering that you can gain relevant skills for big data jobs in more traditional programs in statistics degrees and computer science and programming degrees.

Below are some of the best majors to consider if you want a big data career:

Math and Statistics

Many people who want a data scientist or data analyst job today often have a background in statistics and mathematics. Degrees in these fields are not typically offered with concentrations in big data, but you will find that skills developed in math and statistics programs will help you hone necessary skills in computational theory, probability theory and general statistics.

These tracks often are multi-disciplinary. This means that you will have to take courses outside of statistics and mathematics to get the foundation you want for a big data career. You might also find yourself taking courses in computer programming and even sales and marketing from the university’s business school.

There are more universities offering mathematics and statistics majors with big data skills built in. An initiative at the College of William and Mary a few years ago had the department of mathematics getting a National Science Foundation grant to build a program to assist students in research and study of statistical theory as it applied to the analysis of large datasets.

Students who took that program graduated with a mathematics degree but also had coursework in data analysis, probability and statistics – a great background for many data scientist and analyst jobs today.

Computer Science and Engineering

Computer science and engineering programs are another good choice. You will get a background in number theory and probability theory, which are important in a big data career. You also will develop a good knowledge base in these areas that are important for this career path:

  • Artificial intelligence: This is a new field of study that attempts to mimic how humans learn software and other technology.
  • Machine learning: A subcategory of artificial intelligence that develops computer algorithms that improve the capability of the computer to process complex data.
  • Data theory: Study of the best ways to store, organize and retrieve large data sets.

This educational path will have you explore the technology that allows big data to exist. You can learn vital skills that will drive major innovations in big data in the future.

Note: Many people think that progress in big data is largely by database managers and developers. Actually, software engineers created the tools that database folks use, so a background in computer science and engineering is a great fit.


In a business degree program, you may specialize in management information systems. What is the difference between that and a computer science degree?

The software engineering classes you take will be largely similar. But in the computer science field, you will actually learn how to make a computer run. A management information systems program you are learning how to use a computer to make a profit for the company. Big data in business school is technical, but the focus is more on solving challenges in buying, marketing and product placement.

Business schools offer degrees and courses in business intelligence, data analytics and cloud computing. The technical coursework will not be as demanding as math and science degrees, but you will be sure to get a lot of hands on training with designing databases, data analysis and programming with vital statistics tools, including SAS and Hadoop.

Skills You Need to Land Many Big Data Jobs Today

Having a degree in statistics, data analysis and related subjects is a great start to a big data career. But if you are looking to score a job in big data, here are some sure fire technical skills you will need:

  • Apache Hadoop: This product is now in its second decade, but there is no doubt that it has had a big last few years. Test clusters are being put into production and many software vendors are using this product to target processing architecture and distributed storage. This big data platform is very powerful, but it needs to be carefully managed by skilled data technicians. Professionals who know how to use the Hadoop stack core components, such as HDFS, Flume, Ozie, Hive, Pig and YARN, will find themselves in strong demand.
  • Apache Spark: This platform is rising in popularity and some say has the potential to become more popular than Hadoop eventually. It features an in-memory stack that is being hyped as a faster and simpler option than MapReduce-styled data analytics. Spark requires a high level of expertise to properly run and program, so it will provide plenty of job opportunities.
  • NoSQL: These databases that include products such as MongoDB and Couchbase are now doing jobs that used to be handled by traditional SQL databases such as Oracle. On the Internet and with a a variety of mobile apps, NoSQL databases frequently are the source of the data that is processed in Hadoop.
  • Statistical and Quantitative Analysis: This is what a lot of the big data craze is all about. If you possess a background in mathematics or statistics, you already are well on your way to having big data skills. If you have expertise in common statistical tools such as R, SAS Stata or SPSS, you should be able to find plenty of work. In past decades, people with quantitative reasoning and statistical skills got jobs on Wall St. But with the big data boom, companies in all industries need workers with strong quantitative backgrounds.
  • SQL: This highly data-centric language is more than four decades old, but it still is important in a world of big data. It will no longer be used with every big data challenge these days, but the simple and elegant Structured Query Language makes it a good solution for many of them.
  • Data Visualization: Big data can be a challenge to get your arms around, but in some cases, being able to physically see data with your eyeballs is the way to go. There are times when looking at a data sample with tools such as Tableau can inform you about how the data is shaped. Many people who rise high in big data fields are highly skilled with one of more visualization tools.
  • General Programming Language Skills: Having solid programming skills in languages such as Java, C, Scala and Python can provide you with an edge over other job candidates, especially if those candidates just have analytics skills. There has been an uptick in job postings online for computer programmers who also have a data analytics background. People who are comfortable with both programming and data could have a winning hand.
  • Problem Solving and Creativity: You can have all the analytical tools on your belt and a master’s degree, but you will always need to be able to think through problems effectively in big data jobs.

Decide the Type of Big Data Job You Want

Many of the big data jobs available today can be placed into five different major skillsets. Think about which one or ones appeal to you so that you can determine how to attain the required education needed:

  • Data scientists: These professionals often exist at the top of the job chart in the big data industry. They are highly skilled and educated professionals who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in data management, degrees in artificial intelligence, robotics degree and/or natural language processing. They frequently have deep backgrounds in statistics or mathematics.
  • Data architects: These are computer programmers who have a high level of skill in working with large amounts of undefined data. They have a high degree of comfort working with ambiguity and have the tenacity to find new ways to use data to provide more actionable information for the company. Data architects usually have a background in business intelligence, or traditional computer programming.
  • Data visualizers: Professionals who can translate data into usable information that people in companies can use effectively to make decisions. They are responsible for exploring data to identify what the data means and what the potential impacts may be. They then present this information to non-technical workers and management so that it is understandable. Data visualizers have a high level of skill as business analysts.
  • Data change agents: They utilize data analytics to drive and recommend changes in a company. They may come from a background of process improvement, such as Six Sigma. Find a Six Sigma MBA degree.
  • Data engineers: These are the builders and managers of most big data systems. They frequently have experience in information systems and information technology. Aslo, these are architects behind computer systems and are in charge of ensuring these systems perform properly.

If you want to get a career in big data, it is advised to look carefully at the above factors regarding your education including salary outlooks, technical skills and type of job you want. Then you can make the best decision for your big data career.


Henry Steele
Managing Editor
Henry is Managing Editor of He is a seasoned business professional who regularly consults with local business's throughout Southern California. Henry pursued his undergrad in Business and Economics at the University of San Diego and gained valuable life changing experience through a unique internship upon graduation.

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