Is a statistics degree useful to become a data scientist?
Short answer: Yes, but it’s nowhere near enough
Why your degree is so useful
A strong mathematical background is incredibly important if you want to make data science your career. More data science than most professionals would be willing to openly admit is just applied linear algebra, and modern statistics (and therefore its applications in data science) is absolutely reliant on results from measure theory. Both of these are modules at Warwick and both modules, along with their prerequisites, will give you a strong baseline to understand exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it.
Understanding the “why” behind your actions is the key to going from an average data scientist to one that brings genuine insight and value to a company or research team. Most importantly, it can save you a lot of time trying things that would never work and you can often very quickly diagnose modelling problems by applying your theoretical knowledge.
Another thing having theory is useful for is developing your own tools. If you come across a problem for which you don’t have a clue how to tackle. Proper mathematical modelling and formalisation can be the difference between having a starting point and not. If nothing else, you will have some sort of idea of what to google…
Why your degree is not enough
Someone who jumps through the hoops and gets a 2:1 without putting in much serious effort during their degree is not the kind of person who really wants to become a data scientist. Part of data science, like any science, is having a curious mind. You want to know why the world works the way it does so you go out there and find out for yourself.
My argument is that doing a statistics degree helps you to do work outside of the curriculum and the work you do outside of the curriculum will help reinforce the ideas you learnt during your degree. This, I would say, is especially applicable to a statistics degree, more so than, say, pure mathematics, because data science is a new and evolving science. Every few years there is a new cool tool to use and if universities are still teaching you the old methods then they will be useless degrees. The two solutions to this are either to constantly update your curriculum to teach the new hottest tools, or to give a student the theory and let them learn the tools they want to in their own time. Warwick is firmly in the latter category of universities. Currently, there are only 2 core modules in the entire degree where you have to touch a programming language, and only 1 of these is a language used in data science (and even then it’s not particularly used outside of academia and biostatistics). Of course, this is different for students studying BSc/MSc Data Science, who also learn Python, but the degree still does not teach you about exactly which tools to use and how unless you specifically go looking for them. You can do well in a statistics degree without ever touching a programming language beyond what little you will learn in class.
What you can do about it
In the companion piece of this blog I go through the steps you can take in order to go from graduate to data unicorn.