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The opportunities and challenges of a freelance data scientist

(Editor's note: An impressive 53 percent of companies were using big data analytics in 2017 — an increase of 17 per cent since 2015, according to Dresner Advisory Services’ 2017 Big Data Analytics Market Study. With the volume of data in businesses increasing, the role of the data scientist is more important than ever. Here Richard Bradford, freelance statistician for online platform for freelance scientists Kolabtree, shares his experiences of working as a freelance data scientist and gives advice for others considering the freelance route.)

A day rarely goes by when there isn’t an article about how attractive the data science field is for all practitioners, regardless of where they are in their career. According to Glassdoor.com, data scientist topped the list of 50 Best Jobs in America in 2016 and 2017, based on metrics such as job satisfaction, number of job openings and median base salary.

I have worked as a full-time analyst, statistician and data scientist for the past 30 years. Now, while I work towards my master’s degree in business intelligence and analytics, I work full-time as a data scientist with a global telecommunications company. I also teach approximately 10 university-level courses a year, on topics such as statistics, finance, creative thinking and data science.

As well as this, I work as a freelance data scientist for Kolabtree clients. As a freelance statistician I get to select the projects that interest me, set my own hours and work on a variety of different projects in different industries.

The variety is what makes freelancing so interesting and enjoyable. For example, I have helped international publishing journals analyse survey responses from authors and editors. I have also developed analyses for a construction company, developed and analysed heart failure and stroke data and have even worked on biomarker data.

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Indian manager working in the office late at night

Freelancing gives me the opportunity to work with people from all over the world — for example, I have worked with clients in Italy, India, Amsterdam and Belgium. The variety means I get lots of opportunities to learn about new fields and new techniques. These kinds of learning experiences are vital to providing clients with quality deliverables.

Perhaps the most successful project I have worked on as a freelancer was with a team that was evaluating survey data for an international authors’ journal. The survey had hundreds of questions and results for several thousand authors and editors, who were located in five different countries. I developed smart techniques for analysing such a vast amount of data and the client was delighted with the outcome.

I particularly enjoy helping clients frame their projects, helping them to ask the right questions of the data and pointing out the value of generating testable hypotheses. The world of statistics can be intimidating and part of my responsibility is to communicate statistical thinking and techniques in a user-friendly, non-condescending way. I want the client to feel they have a true partner who is looking out for their best interests.

In my experience, the pros of freelancing far outweigh the cons. The cons are simply challenges that need to be overcome. Working with clients in different time zones and with different work cultures can be challenging but I find being gracious and patient with each other allows myself and the client to easily overcome this.

An important personality trait for people considering taking the freelance route is to be able to actively listen to clients. This shows respect for clients and shows them that you are sincerely interested in helping them. It’s also important to understand clients’ strengths and weaknesses, communicate without jargon and be open and honest with them so they feel comfortable with you as a person as well as an expert.

A good tip is to know your limitations. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not familiar with that, but I will go away and learn about it.”

There are plenty of online courses that provide a cost-effective way to explore the world of statistics and data science and sharpen your skills. As well as being an expert in your field, you are a life-long learner and as long as you are honest with clients about your abilities, you will both benefit.

Finally, make sure you connect with your clients. I have found the freelance experience is more rewarding and enjoyable for both parties if there is mutual respect, trust and engagement.

The best way to find out if freelancing is for you is to give a couple of projects a go and assess how enjoyable you find it and whether the clients got what they wanted. If you enjoy assisting people in solving problems and learning new things, you will probably enjoy working as a freelance data scientist.

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