Data are becoming the new raw material of business
The Economist

How to Kickstart Your Data Science Career

At The Data Incubator, we run a free six week data science fellowship to help transition our Fellows from Academia to Industry. This post runs through some of the toolsets you’ll need to know to kickstart your Data Science Career

If you’re an aspiring data scientist but still processing your data in Excel, you might want to upgrade your toolset.  Why?  Firstly, while advanced features like Excel Pivot tables can do a lot, they don’t offer nearly the flexibility, control, and power of tools like SQL, or their functional equivalents in Python (Pandas) or R (Dataframes).  Also, Excel has low size limits, making it suitable for “small data”, not  “big data.”

In this blog entry we’ll talk about SQL.  This should cover your “medium data” needs, which we’ll define as the next level of data where the rows do not fit the 1 million row restriction in Excel.  SQL stores data in tables, which you can think of as a spreadsheet layout but with more structure.  Each row represents a specific record, (e.g. an employee at your company) and each column of a table corresponds to an attribute (e.g. name, department id, salary).  Critically, each column must be of the same “type”.  Here is a sample of the table Employees:

EmployeeId Name StartYear Salary DepartmentId
1 Bob 2001 10.5 10
2 Sally 2004 20. 10
3 Alice 2005 25. 20
4 Fred 2004 12.5 20

SQL has many keywords which compose its query language but the ones most relevant to data scientists are SELECT, WHERE, GROUP BY, JOIN.  We’ll go through these each individually.


SELECT is the foundational keyword in SQL. SELECT can also filter on columns.  For example

SELECT Name, StartYear FROM Employees


Name StartYear
Bob 2001
Sally 2004
Alice 2005
Fred 2004



The WHERE clause filters the rows. For example

SELECT * FROM Employees WHERE StartYear=2004


EmployeeId Name StartYear Salary DepartmentId
2 Sally 2004 20. 10
4 Fred 2004 12.5 20



Next, the GROUP BY clause allows for combining rows using different functions like COUNT (count) and AVG (average). For example,

SELECT StartYear, COUNT(*) as Num, AVG(Salary) as AvgSalary FROM EMPLOYEES GROUP BY StartYear


StartYear Num AvgSalary
2001 1 10.5
2004 2 16.25
2005 1 25.



Finally, the JOIN clause allows us to join in other tables. For example, assume we have a table called Departments:

DepartmentId DepartmentName
10 Sales
20 Engineering

We could use JOIN to combine the Employees and Departments tables based ON the DepartmentId fields:

SELECT Employees.Name AS EmpName, Departments.DepartmentName AS DepName
FROM Employees JOIN Departments
ON Employees.DepartmentId = Departments.DepartmentId;

The results might look like:

EmpName DepName
Bob Sales
Sally Sales
Alice Engineering
Fred Engineering

We’ve ignored a lot of details about joins: e.g. there are actually (at least) 4 types of joins, but hopefully this gives you a good picture.

Conclusion and Further Reading

With these basic commands, you can get a lot of basic data processing done.  Don’t forget, that you can nest queries and create really complicated joins.  It’s a lot more powerful than Excel, and gives you much better control of .  Of course, there’s a lot more to SQL than what we’ve mentioned and this is only intended to wet your appetite and give you a taste of what you’re missing.

And when you’re ready to step it up from “medium data” to “big data”, you should apply for a fellowship at The Data Incubator where we work with current-generation data-processing technologies like MapReduce and Spark!

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