In a world where everything from financial forecasts to our favorite sports teams relies on accurate, real-time data to operate effectively, it’s clear that we’re living in a time where data has become the new “gold”. And the individuals who learn how to extract insights from that data will have a distinct advantage over others who don’t. This trend is nothing short of a global one. In fact, a 2023 report by the World Economic Forum projected that data scientists and analysts would become the number-one emerging role in the world. And unlike many other in-demand fields, if you want to get in on this career path, a degree isn’t required! So whether you’re looking to switch professions or start your very first one, think of this article as your guide to getting your data science career off the ground (without racking up student loans along the way). 

Understanding Data Science

What is Data Science?

Let’s start at the beginning. Data science is a multidisciplinary field that combines mathematical expertise, technical computer programming skills, and business know-how to extract meaningful insights from data. In practice, data scientists process and analyze large datasets to identify patterns, trends, and relationships. This analysis can lead to predictive models that forecast future events and behaviors.

The real-world applications of data science are wide-ranging and growing fast. In healthcare, data science aids in predicting disease outbreaks and personalizing patient care through data from wearable devices. Retail businesses use data science to understand customer behavior, optimize stock levels, and improve their shopping experience. In finance, it’s used for risk management and fraud detection by analyzing transaction patterns. Data science even drives decision-making in urban planning with traffic management and smart city initiatives. 

Zooming out, it’s also important to understand the overlap and interplay of data science with adjacent concepts like machine learning and AI. In short, data science forms the foundation, focusing on extracting insights and knowledge from data. Machine learning, a subset of AI, uses algorithms to enable computers to learn from and make predictions based on this data. AI, the broadest of all three, involves creating systems capable of performing tasks that typically require human intelligence. 

Roles in Data Science

There are several specialized roles in the field of data science, each with its distinct focus and skill set.

Data scientists are comparable to master craftspeople who model and interpret complex data. They bring strong programming skills in languages like Python or R, along with a deep understanding of statistical analysis and machine learning. Data scientists often hold advanced degrees in related fields, but this isn’t a strict requirement. They develop predictive models and algorithms to tap into insights and make data-driven recommendations for strategic decision-making. Their work often involves creating visualizations to communicate findings to stakeholders.

Data analysts, on the other hand, focus more on processing and interpreting data to provide actionable insights. They help translate numbers into plain language, enabling organizations to understand their performance and make better decisions. These roles typically require proficiency in data manipulation and visualization tools like SQL, Tableau, or Excel. Rather than focusing on complex mathematics, a data analyst needs to have a solid grasp of how big data is managed in an organization.

Statisticians design and conduct experiments or surveys to collect data, analyze it, and help interpret the data in a broader context. Statisticians apply their knowledge in a variety of fields, from biology to economics, often using specialized statistical software. Their work is crucial in ensuring the reliability and validity of data analysis, and they focus heavily on the theoretical side of the data, employing probability distributions and inferential statistics to draw conclusions from sample data.

While all different, each role is pivotal to the success of its respective organization – with data scientists leaning towards predictive analysis and model building, data analysts working on descriptive analytics and reporting, and statisticians focusing on the probability and inference behind the data. 

Essential Skills for Data Scientists

Mathematics (Calculus, Linear Algebra):

Understanding concepts from calculus and linear algebra is critical in data science. For example, calculus is used in building and understanding optimization algorithms, which are key in machine learning to minimize error functions and improve the accuracy of models. Linear algebra is foundational as well, with its principles of vectors and matrices enabling the handling of high-dimensional data sets. In practical terms, linear algebra is important for performing operations on datasets and is foundational to algorithms used in machine learning and deep learning.

Statistics and Probability:

Statistical analysis forms the backbone of data-driven decision-making. Statistics are applied to interpret data, make predictions, and validate models. Probability theory, a subset of statistics, enables data scientists to make estimates about future events based on known probabilities. An understanding of concepts such as statistical tests, distributions, and regression analysis is vital for analyzing and modeling data. 

Programming Languages:

Proficiency in programming languages like Python and R is essential for data scientists to efficiently process and analyze large datasets. Python is favored for its readability and rich ecosystem of data science libraries such as Pandas, NumPy, and Scikit-learn. R, meanwhile, is tailored for statistical analysis and visualization. These languages enable the automation of data analysis tasks, the implementation of machine learning algorithms, and the integration of data science into web services and applications. In most cases, when prioritizing one language over the other, new learners should put an emphasis on Python over R for its broad applications and prevalence in job requirements.

Machine Learning:

Machine learning (ML) is a pivotal aspect of data science involving the development of algorithms that enable computers to learn from and make predictions on data. Understanding ML fundamentals – such as supervised and unsupervised learning, neural networks, and reinforcement learning – is crucial for creating predictive models. For example, recommendation systems used by streaming services use machine learning to personalize content for users based on their viewing history.

Other Relevant Skills:

  • Data Visualization: The ability to transform complex data findings into understandable visual representations is key. Tools like Matplotlib, Seaborn, and D3.js help in creating graphs and charts that make the results accessible to non-technical stakeholders.
  • Communication Skills: A data scientist must effectively communicate technical data insights to non-technical audiences, justifying decisions and strategies with evidence-backed explanations.
  • Domain Knowledge: Data scientists need a deep understanding of the industry they’re working in, and stay up-to-date with new findings and trends, to make accurate interpretations and recommendations.

Learning Data Science Without a Degree


Embarking on the path of self-teaching in data science demands dedication, curiosity, and strategic planning. In a field that’s constantly evolving, lifelong learning is key, and it all starts with mastering the fundamentals – whether you’re planning to pursue data scientist, data analyst, or statistician roles. Below are steps to guide you through teaching yourself data science.

Learn Data Science Programming Languages

As we’ve mentioned, Python and R are cornerstone programming languages in the field of data science. To start learning them, platforms like edX offer Python and R courses designed specifically for data science. These courses usually provide a mix of video tutorials, coding exercises, and interactive projects. For a more immersive learning experience, our Data Analyst Nanodegree program teaches Python and SQL, another critical language for handling databases. It includes real-world projects that can go directly into your portfolio, showcasing your ability to apply your programming skills to data analysis. 

Once you learn Python and have a solid understanding of SQL, you might very well be able to stop at this step and land a job in data analysis if you’d like to. If not, you should turn your attention to picking up other skills like Python for AI (Pandas, etc.), machine learning, statistics, linear algebra, advanced machine learning, and AI.

Study Data Science Fundamentals

Your first step is to build a strong foundation in the principles of data science and programming. Online learning platforms offer a variety of courses covering topics such as statistics, probability, data analysis, and machine learning. Start with introductory courses on platforms like Khan Academy to develop a solid programming skill set, and then move on to more specialized subjects like statistics.

For a structured and comprehensive curriculum, consider subscribing to Udacity and enrolling in a Nanodegree program. Our Data Scientist program, for example, provides a blend of theory and practice, with real-world projects that prepare you for the challenges you’ll face in the field, along with 24/7 on-demand support from mentors.

Practice Programming for Data Science

Data science is as much about programming as it is about numbers. Platforms like Codecademy and freeCodeCamp offer interactive coding lessons that allow you to write code in a browser-based environment. These platforms cover the basics of programming and provide an excellent way to practice regularly. Additionally, tackling projects and challenges on GitHub can give you a taste of collaborative development and version control, essential skills for any data scientist.

Data Science Bootcamps

Data science bootcamps offer intensive, short-term training programs designed to equip students with essential data science skills. They focus on practical, job-ready skills, often featuring project-based learning and hands-on exercises. These bootcamps can range from a few weeks to several months and are available both online and in person. Popular bootcamps like General Assembly and Flatiron School vary in terms of curriculum, duration, and cost. When comparing your options, consider factors such as job placement rates, alumni reviews, cost, and whether they offer a job guarantee or defer payment until employment is secured.

Gaining Practical Experience

Building a Portfolio

A well-crafted portfolio is crucial in showcasing your level of competence in data science – no matter if you’re aiming at a role as an analyst, statistician, or data scientist. It should include a variety of projects that demonstrate your proficiency in data analysis, machine learning, and data visualization. You can use GitHub to host your code along with a personal website or LinkedIn to showcase your finished projects. Your portfolio should be highly focused with clear explanations of your methodology, findings, and the value of the work. Include a mix of personal projects, contributions to open-source projects, and work from competitions to show both the depth and breadth of your skills. This is a great place to leverage your Udacity Nanodegree certification if you decide to go that route.

Acquiring Certifications

In the absence of a formal degree, obtaining certifications is a huge step in establishing your credibility in data science and landing job interviews. Certifications from reputable organizations or platforms validate your skills and knowledge in industry-relevant areas. They provide structured learning paths that cover a range of topics from data analysis and machine learning to deep learning and AI. These certifications not only bolster your resume but also signal to potential employers your commitment to professional development and staying on top of industry trends.

Participating in Competitions

Data science competitions on platforms like Kaggle or DrivenData can significantly enhance your skills and give you practical experience. To start, choose competitions that match your current skill level and interest. Focus on the learning experience rather than just winning. Participating helps you learn new techniques, receive feedback from peers, and gain exposure to real-world data problems. It also can act as a noteworthy achievement in your portfolio.

Volunteering Opportunities

Volunteering your data science expertise can be found through platforms like DataKind or Catchafire, which connect non-profits with data professionals. These opportunities allow you to work on meaningful projects while expanding your network and portfolio. Volunteering can provide you with unique datasets and problems to solve, further enhancing your experience and visibility in the field.

Networking Within the Data Science Community

Networking is key to advancing your career in any field, including data science. Attend industry conferences, meetups, and webinars to connect with professionals. Online forums and communities, such as those on Reddit or Stack Overflow, can also be valuable. Engaging with the community through these platforms can lead to mentorship, collaborations, and job opportunities.

Landing Your First Data Science Job

To land your first data science job without a degree, focus on highlighting your practical experience, relevant skills, and project work. Look first for entry-level positions, and internships, or consider roles like data analyst to get your foot in the door. Use platforms like LinkedIn to network and discover job referrals and openings, and don’t underestimate the value of attending industry events for face-to-face engagement with companies.

You should also be sure that your resume is designed specifically for data science roles. Here are a handful of components it should have, along with tips to keep in mind for each.

Header: Start with your name and contact information. Include links to your LinkedIn and Github profiles, or personal website where employers can view your work.

Summary: Write a concise professional summary that outlines your data science expertise, technical skills, and what you bring to the role. This section should include relevant keywords related to the role to ensure it passes through automated Applicant Tracking Systems. 

Technical Skills: List programming languages (e.g., Python, R), tools (e.g., SQL, TensorFlow), and technologies (e.g., machine learning, big data platforms) you’re proficient in.

Education: In place of a data science degree, include relevant coursework, bootcamps, or Nanodegree certificates.

Professional Experience: Detail previous positions you’ve held with bullet points highlighting quantifiable achievements that could apply to data science. Use action verbs and mention specific projects, the technologies used, and the impact (example: “increased efficiency by 20%”).

Projects: Include personal or academic projects that demonstrate your first-hand experience. Describe the problem, your approach, the tools used, and the results.

Additional Sections: If applicable, add publications, presentations, additional coursework, or volunteer work relevant to data science.

Alternative Data Science Careers

Beyond traditional data scientist roles, there’s a spectrum of data-related careers. Data collectors are responsible for gathering data, requiring attention to detail and understanding of data sourcing. Business analysts bridge the gap between IT and operations, using data to inform strategy and business decisions. These roles demand analytical skills, proficiency in data querying and reporting tools, and a strong grasp of the business domain. 


Can you get a career in data science without a degree?

Absolutely! While a degree can help, it’s not the only path to a career in data science. Employers often look for practical experience, a strong portfolio, and demonstrated skills. Certifications, bootcamps, and self-driven projects can all be alternative routes into the field.

Can I be a self-taught data scientist?

Yes, you can be a self-taught data scientist. Many resources are available online for learning data science, including free courses, tutorials, and communities. Determination, a structured learning plan, and hands-on practice are key to becoming self-taught in this field.

Can you become a data scientist with just a certificate?

A certificate alone may not make you a data scientist, but it can be an important step in your learning journey. Certificates show you’ve gained specific knowledge and can be combined with other evidence of skills, like a portfolio, to demonstrate your expertise to employers. Certificates are also incredibly helpful in landing job interviews, and increasing your depth of knowledge to secure a role once you do.

Can I become a data scientist in 1 year?

It’s possible to enter the field of data science within a year if you’re dedicated to intensive learning and practical application through projects and real-world experience. Success will depend on the time invested and the quality of the educational resources you choose.

Does data science require coding?

Yes, coding is a fundamental skill in data science for analyzing data, building models, and developing algorithms. Proficiency in languages such as Python or R is typically necessary for most data science roles.

The journey to becoming a data scientist without a traditional degree, while challenging, is certainly feasible in today’s marketplace. We’ve explored the essential skills that are needed – from mastering programming languages like Python to sharpening your machine learning chops – and highlighted the wealth of resources available to you. From here, the key to success lies in your commitment to continuous learning, practical application, and networking inside the data science community. Ready to get started? We recommend taking a look through our School of Data Science and considering enrolling in our Data Science Nanodegree program

Dakota Nunley
Dakota Nunley
Content Strategy Manager at Udacity