Data Scientists: Does Big Data Hype Equal Big Data Salaries?

Posted By Terri Williams on June 28, 2017 at 7:10 am
Data Scientists: Does Big Data Hype Equal Big Data Salaries?

As the author Ethel Watts Mumford once said, “Knowledge is power, if you know it about the right person.” Depending on the organization, “the right person” might be customers, clients, suppliers, employees, students, competitors, or cybercriminals. The definition might vary, but the burning desire to know who, what, where, when, how, and why is ubiquitous and shows no signs of abating anytime soon. That’s where data scientists come in.

Burtch Works tracks trends in data science, and this year’s report reveals both good and bad news. The “big data” hype is driving more students to consider this profession, but not even data science is immune to the law of supply and demand.

For the first time in four years, salaries for Level 1 Individual Contributors (those with 0 to 3 years of experience) have decreased, and salaries are leveling off at other levels. However, these wages are still double, triple, even quadruple the annual salary for the average American worker.

Median base salaries and bonuses for Individual Contributors are as follows and actually exceed an MBA’s return on investment for entry-level, mid-level and even senior-level business grads:

Job Level Median Base Salary Median Bonus
1 $95,000 $10,000
2 $126,000 $15,000
3 $157,000 $29,250


Median base salaries and bonuses for Managers are as follows:

Job Level Median Base Salary Median Bonus
1 $148,750 $26,000
2 $190,000 $42,000
3 $250,000 $84,500


Naomi Keller, Burtch Works’ data science recruiter, tells GoodCall®, “The limited supply of senior data science and analytics leaders to lead these teams is continuing to push their salaries upward.” Keller explains, “Although there has been an increase in the number of early career data scientists with three or less years’ experience, it is still extremely difficult to find experienced data scientists.”

While there may be an increase in the number of entry-level data scientists, Elke A. Rundensteiner, Ph.D., professor of computer science and founding director of the data science lab at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is confident that the supply of talent isn’t close to reaching demand. “Instead, some companies that traditionally had not hired in this analysis field are now also recognizing the need to hire data scientists, and their pockets may not – in general – be as deep to be able to afford the extremely high salaries.”

Advanced degrees continue to be the norm for data scientists:

49% Master’s
41% Ph.D.
10% Bachelor’s


Overall, the number of data scientists with a Ph.D. decreased by 8% compared with last year. However, among Level 1 Individual Contributors, Ph.D.s decreased by 3% compared with last year and almost 18% compared with 2015.

On average, Individual Contributors with a Ph.D. earn $8,000 to $10,000 more than those with a master’s. Managers with a Ph.D. earn $8,000 to $12,000 more.

How important is a Ph.D. to data scientists?

So, why are data scientists skipping the Ph.D. option, and will this hurt them in the long run? Well, it depends on the individual’s career plans. “With the increase in available data science opportunities, there are more positions now where a Ph.D. is not a hard requirement to be a data scientist, so some students are opting for a terminal master’s program instead,” Keller says.

However, she offers some food for thought. “Depending on the industry or role, there are still many positions that require a Ph.D., so although it may not affect career choices in the short term, in the long run, skipping the Ph.D. may close off certain highly technical opportunities.”

What do data scientists study?

27% Mathematics/statistics
19% Engineering
19% Computer science
15% Natural science
7% Economics
5% Business


It seems odd that data scientists wouldn’t major in data science, but Rundensteiner explains, “It is only in the last few years that programs (such as the one at WPI) have been designed to train data scientists at the master of science or Ph.D. level.” In fact, she says that WPI is one of the few schools to offer an interdisciplinary degree in data science at the Ph.D. level.

The bottom line: although there has been an increase in the number of data scientists, it’s still a good career choice. “In fact, it’s one of most attractive and well-paid career for juniors starting out,” says Rundensteiner.

Keller agrees, and adds, “Quantitative teams are growing, and use cases for data science are continuing to crop up in new industries.” Although salary growth has slowed for junior data scientists, she puts this change in perspective. “It has slowed from the breakneck speeds of the past few years, but salaries are still quite high, and there are numerous opportunities farther up the career ladder.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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