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No doubt you've heard about "big data", those mounds of information being garnered from every collectable source, pretty much every minute of every day. Whether that data is being used to help college students choose lucrative careers, or to predict consumer behavior, workers are needed who can turn these oceans of information into usable business intelligence.

Data scientists are becoming the employees of the future, as companies who need their expertise court them with personalized letters, chocolates – and huge salaries. 

Jobs are many...
Nearly every business sector you can imagine has a need for data scientists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which acknowledges that the occupational segment is quite new, currently has no "data scientist" designation, but lists those who work with big data by titles such as statisticians and computer programmers. 

 BLS notes that industries as diverse as finance and health care use big data, as well as government entities. The Wall Street Journal describes several big data opportunities at Internet-based firms, such as social media sites and business-review sites.

The WSJ notes that these jobs are so in-demand that data scientists with two years' experience are commanding salaries between $200,000 and $300,000 annually.

...qualified candidates are few
Though jobs for data scientists are becoming plentiful, finding the right candidate can be tough. Likewise, those looking to entering the field will find educational requirements akin to those of rocket scientists. Coursework in science, technology, math, and statistics are core requirements. Most often, a graduate degree in a STEM discipline is preferred. A study published last summer by Burtch Works showed that 46% of data scientists held a PhD, and 42% had earned a Master's degree. Only 11% had only a Bachelor's degree. 

Flickr / nyuhuhuu.

Specialization is also key. The BLS notes that, for instance, data scientists who want to work with health care companies would do well to have some background in the industry. Often, however, having education or experience in one field helps the data scientist get a job in a completely different discipline. The WSJ mentions one astrophysicist who now works for Yelp, as well as a former biostatistician who crunches data for e-commerce site Etsy.

That's not all. Employers want soft skills, too – great communication skills and the ability to work as part of a team being of paramount importance. Then, there are those characteristics that make these data tamers worth those glamorous salaries: intellectual curiosity, and the ability to make sense of seemingly unrelated pieces of data.

Once interpretations are made, the data scientists must then create statistical models that use those reams of information to give the employer insight into customer behavior. In this occupation, problem-solving skills are an absolute must.

For STEM students who are interested in pursuing a career in big data, employment is practically guaranteed. With the surging demand and dearth of qualified candidates, higher education and business have joined forces to help increase the pool of candidates. A program called Insight Data Science Fellows Program near Stanford University, for example has a job placement rate of 100%. 

With the sector still evolving, it may be difficult to identify which areas of study will produce the desired mix of education and skills required for big data jobs. Colleges and universities are rushing to fill the void, dishing up new offerings that can help students tailor their degrees to suit these jobs. With an estimated 4 million jobs in big data opening up by 2018, the time to begin acquiring the right combination of skills and training is right now.