Visualization Education Mailbag

Posted to Ask FlowingData  |  Tags:  |  Nathan Yau

It’s around that time of year when more people than usual ask for advice about degrees in statistics, career paths in visualization, and how to get started with something that looks awesome.

The high of graduation from high school, undergrad, and grad school has settled, and it’s time to think about the future. Maybe summer brought more idle time at work to imagine what else you could do every day. I know the feeling.

I’ll try to answer the more common questions. However, keep in mind that I’m nowhere near the best person to ask about these things. I didn’t grow interested in statistics until late in college, I studied remotely for most of my graduate student life, and although I consult occasionally, I run FlowingData for a living.

So there’s your salt. Now some Q & A.

I just finished my undergraduate degree in graphic design/engineering/computer science/statistics/etc. Should I go to graduate school for statistics and/or visualization?

I assume you had a taste of statistics and visualization already, and you liked it. You enjoy data analysis and understand why someone is “playing” with data when others might think of it as grunt work. If this is you, and you’re eager to learn more, then yeah, go for graduate school.

If however, the thought of loads of data in various formats gives you the shivers, then you should probably avoid graduate school. You will be miserable.

Now let’s say you decide in favor of graduate school. If you’re mostly interested in data visualization, I’d seek out visualization-specific programs over statistics programs. Then I’d take statistics courses along the way. I went the other way around — statistics first and stumbled on visualization along the way — but I got lucky. I didn’t even know the depth of visualization before graduate school, and there aren’t many statistics programs that offer courses specifically on visualization.

Do take graduate-level statistics courses though if given the opportunity. The analysis experience helps.

I’m an analyst and like to work on visualization projects on the side. I want to make it a full-time thing though. Is it better to go for a master’s degree or should I apply to PhD programs?

You can preface all of my answers with “it depends.” I personally started as a master’s student and I wanted to learn more, so I kept going with the PhD. My dad once told me that there’s no point in rushing into work, because there’s the rest of your life for that, and you’re only young for so long. I always thought that was great advice.

Some want to get right to work though, so five or eight years might seem like a long time. I realize making money is an essential part of you know, staying alive, but you get opportunties in graduate school too. There are research positions and teaching assistantships that reduce tuition by a lot and provide stipends. No one’s getting rich off graduate student salaries, but it always felt like getting paid to learn to me.

So master’s or PhD? If your’e unsure, maybe start with the former and go with the latter later if you want more. The one gotcha is that PhD students are often offered better financial aid packages.

What universities are good to learn data visualization?

Again, it varies by what aspect of visualization you want to focus on. Visualization for analysis is different than visualization for presentation. They can both aid each other, but one tends to place more weight on quantitative analysis and the other places more weight on design.

You want to go to a program that offers a balance that is similar to your interests. Look through professor research, course listings, and recommended readings.

There are a ton of programs these days, and it feels like new ones are popping up all the time. Off the top, I’d check out the visualization labs at University of California, Berkeley and Stanford for a more computer science-y feel. The MIT Media Lab seems more opened ended, and the students there produce a lot of interesting work. NYU ITP is also good. For statistics-spepcific folks, check out the Iowa State stat department.

These of course are a small sample of what’s out there, but they should give you way to guage caliber.

I’m brand new to data visualization, but it looks amazing and I want to learn more. What tools should I familiarize myself with, and what should I learn?

There’s this resource list from a few years ago. Most of it is still valid. Then there’s getting started after the early stages of learning visualization.

These days though, I tend to direct people towards R for static graphics, D3.js for web and interactive graphics, and Adobe Illustrator for more information-heavy graphics.

What career paths are there for people who specialize in data visualization?

See here.

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