Wall Street's hunger for data scientists fed by new Ph.Ds

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(Bloomberg) -- Data scientist.

It may be the hottest job title on Wall Street. It’s also the most ill-defined. The ginned-up name didn’t really exist a decade ago and today almost anyone with some coding or data know-how can claim the “scientist” mantle.

New York University is stepping into the breach by starting a Ph.D. program in data science in September to shape the emerging discipline. It’s one of the first such doctorate programs in the nation and builds on master’s degrees at NYU and other schools. MIT is gearing up a Ph.D. that includes data science and Harvard plans to jump into the field with a master’s program in 2018.

In the near absence of degree programs, investment firms must sort through the wannabes and find skilled data scientists from fields like physics and math.

“The term is a fairly loose term, and it can mean anything from somebody who’s an extreme expert in machine learning all the way down to someone who’s really more of a data analyst, preparing and cleaning data and producing charts, and it can mean everything in between,’’ said Matthew Granade, who oversees Point72 Asset Management’s data science unit, Aperio. “We have a very rigorous interview process to screen out the best talent for the firm.”

Planting Flag In offering a Ph.D., NYU is doing more than just filling the unquenchable demand for data wizards. It’s planting a flag, declaring that it’s a separate discipline, much like chemistry or history. NYU housed its Center for Data Science, which started a master’s program in 2013, in its own location in the Forbes Building in Manhattan, adding to its independence.

In the academic community there are diverging views about whether data science should be its own discipline, said Ronald Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association, a group that includes statisticians in academia and government. While he sees data science emerging as a separate discipline, some academics are less certain and consider it a combined set of skills and ideas drawn from computer science and statistics, he said.

“Whether or not it is its own field, or will be its own field, I think it’s a bit of a question,” said David van Dyk, a statistics professor and incoming head of mathematics at Imperial College London.

NYU professors discussed this question at length and decided that data science is sufficiently distinct from computer science and statistics and deserves its own academic center and shingle, said Vasant Dhar, a professor of data science who helped start the Ph.D. program. The field, which seeks to discover knowledge from data, is very interdisciplinary, incorporating everything from linguistics and psychology to neurology.

Yale’s Data Science “NYU is willing to take chances and be innovative and somewhat unconventional, and it’s also part of the DNA of the university,” said Dhar. “We do expect some schools will adopt Ph.D. programs in this field.”

Yale announced in March the beginning of a major expansion of its statistics department to include data science. Yale’s new Department of Statistics and Data Science will grant degrees including a Ph.D. Columbia, which started its Data Science Institute in 2012, is discussing a Ph.D. Brown University is debuting a master’s in data science this fall, and the University of Washington and Harvard will follow next year, joining similar programs at other schools.

“Every university is struggling to figure out what is data science," said Jeannette Wing, the new director of Columbia’s institute who was hired from Microsoft Corp. and has a Ph.D. in computer science. “It’s emerging, it’s big, it’s not going to go away, and I think it’s going to transform fields, professions and sectors.”

The term “data scientist” was used rarely in academic circles before two Silicon Valley executives popularized the title in 2008. Dhanurjay “DJ” Patil, who ran the data team at LinkedIn Corp., and Jeff Hammerbacher, who managed the data group at Facebook Inc., were both under pressure from their human resource departments to come up with an appropriate title for their team members.

Degrees Not Needed “We didn’t know what to call ourselves,” said Patil, who until January served as the chief data scientist at the White House. “Jeff was like: ‘Research scientist sounds too academic, economist makes statisticians see red, and vice versa. So how about data scientist?’”

Patil then tested their idea by posting the same job opening multiple times using different titles, such as analyst, research scientist and data scientist.

“The people that we hired all applied to the data scientist job posting, so that’s what stuck,” said Patil. “I never expected it to take off as a field. The only rationale I have is nobody exactly knows what it means. If you’re a data scientist, people are like, ‘We don’t know exactly what they are, but they’re really important.’"

Patil, who earned a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Maryland, rejects the notion that a degree in data science is required to be good at it.

“Some of the best data scientists I know have no real classic training,” he said. “There are great data scientists who come from everywhere. It’s how you pick up the skills and apply your knowledge to that.”

Defining Data Science Universities are now defining what a data scientist should know. NYU trains data science students to conduct scientific inquiry that encompasses causal reasoning, machine learning, graph models, big-data analysis, statistics, math, ethics and more. They also can focus on several subjects, including health care, physics, biology and finance. A Ph.D. can dig much deeper than a master’s graduate, attacking fundamental research problems like the nature of randomness of financial markets.

“People learn a bunch of python and they call it a day and say, ‘Now I’m a data scientist.’ They’re not, there’s a big difference,” said NYU’s Dhar, who founded and runs the $250 million Adaptive Quant Trading program at SCT Capital Management, a hedge fund that uses machine learning to make investment decisions without human intervention. “That’s what employers need to be more cognizant of. You need to hire people that have this holistic skill set that’s effective at solving business problems.”

NYU master’s graduates have been quickly snapped up by the biggest names in tech and finance. Two Sigma, the quant hedge fund, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley as well as Facebook and Google have hired them.

The university plans to ramp up its Ph.D. program to include 50 to 100 students in five years. Newly minted doctorates stand to make a lot of money -- $200,000 plus a bonus -- at a hedge fund, estimated Adam Zoia, head of recruiting firm Glocap.

“There’s an insatiable demand for data scientists,” said Zoia. “A data science Ph.D. program, if it’s sufficiently quantitative, makes fantastic sense.”

Bloomberg News