Data Analyst vs. Data Scientist: Industry Perspectives

Mikhail Popov got his start with R and statistics at California State University, Fullerton, where he did undergraduate research in the application of statistics to neuroscience. He continued working with brain data as part of the master’s of statistical practice program at Carnegie Mellon University, followed by his employment at the Neuropsychology Research Program with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. These days, Popov is a data analyist for the Wikimedia Foundation, where his work focuses on supporting teams that improve the Wikipedia reading experience. He loves brewing coffee, cooking, baking, hiking, and sharing his knowledge with others.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Popov’s blog in May.

Both “data analyst” (DA) and “data scientist” (DS) are titles that vary greatly between industries, and even among individual organizations within industries. As the roles behind titles change over time, it is natural for some teams to ask themselves the following questions: Should we have distinct roles or just stick to one? How would we differentiate the roles in a way that fulfills our organization’s needs and is generally consistent with similar organizations? Do we want to consider a DS to be equivalent to a senior DA, the only difference being the title? Answering these questions not only establishes clear responsibilities and expectations, but enables hiring managers and recruiters to communicate clearly with potential applicants in the future (e.g., in job postings).

Search the internet for “data scientist vs data analyst” and you will find plenty of people who don’t know what the difference is (nor if there even is one anymore), and you will find plenty of people who think they know the definitions and differences. You will find an abundance of opinions, but very little consistency!

When I asked my followers on social media what they personally think the differences are, not everyone shared the same opinion, but some interesting camps of thought emerged. This is my effort to summarize the many replies I received, so here are certain important points, recurring themes, and somewhat overlapping camps of thought:

Single/Primary Distinction: DS is a DA who can code

  • In summary, the kind of questions a DA can answer and the kind of tasks a DA can work on are a subset of a DS’s because GUI [graphical user interface] tools limit what can be done, but a DS—by knowing programming—can answer way more kinds of questions and work on way more kinds of tasks.
  • Leads to reproducibility, scalability
  • See discussion with Hadley Wickham

Single/Primary Distinction: Statistical and machine learning (ML) modeling

No DAs, just two types of DSs: “Type A” (Analysis) vs “Type B” (Building) (see Doing Data Science at Twitter)

Emily Robinson brought up that “data scientist” is now also used as an umbrella term and specialties are specified in the title as needed.

Some big tech companies like Facebook, Spotify, and some departments within Apple are moving away from having DAs to just having DSs.

Practical considerations for New York/San Francisco/Austin tech scene:

  • DS title will need a higher salary.
  • You will lose talent because of the DA title. It is seen as less prestigious.
  • You may have to work harder for diverse pool of applicants w/DS title.
  • That latter comes from one company I know who’s had a harder time getting female applicants for DS positions vs DA

Lucas Meyer voiced support for a classic (refer to Drew Conway’s diagram)

A co-worker shared that his organization identified three data scientist personas/profiles at one of his previous employments:

  • DS, Operations provides data and insights for resourcing decisions through ad-hoc analyses, dashboards, defining KPIs, and A/B testing.
    • This is the role of a Data Scientist in Product, who creates reports and dashboards for management and executives.
  • DS, Product delivers data science as product (not to be confused with data scientists in product). These folks build predictive models, AIs, matchmaking systems.
    • In some organizations, this might be an ML Engineer or an AI Engineer or just a Data Scientist? – MP
  • DS, Research experiments and innovates. Not everything they work on ends up in production or utilized, but they are free to be creative and take chances.
    • In some organizations, this might be the Research Scientist? – MP

Thinking of it this way, you might envision a scenario/pipeline wherein a research DS prototypes a new recommender system (RS) algorithm, then an operations DS helps determine (through A/B testing and qualitative user research together with a design/UX researcher) whether it’s worth the costs to produce (perhaps with the input of a business/financial analyst), and then a product DS scales the RS (possibly in collaboration with a data engineer) and deploys it to production. – MP

Closing Thoughts

I hope for some this is an eye-opening moment and they now realize there’s no single distinction everyone agrees on. All are coming into it with their own backgrounds, experiences, thought processes, and ideas. None of these is wrong! If you’re in a hiring position, please remember to be specific when writing a job description. You can’t just write “data analyst” or “data scientist” at the top and expect everyone else to share your assumptions; it’s a recipe for misunderstanding and failure.

I would also like to point out that this is not representative of how data professionals perceive these roles globally. All responses were from English-literate people, most (if not all) from people living and working in the United States. And many are people who follow me on Twitter. I know for a fact there are so many more data professionals (data engineers have opinions on this, too!) who aren’t in any of those groups. These are professionals who have their own perceptions, who operate in different cultures and under different expectations across the world. Someone out there is probably writing a similar post within their own community