Data Science vs. Programming—Which Should You Choose?

While there’s overlap between a career as a data scientist and a career as a programmer, these jobs have different roles and responsibilities. Generally speaking, data science is more of a creative role that requires analytical thinking, while programming involves creating and testing code and scripts for software to function properly. You could say data scientists are right-brainers, and programmers are left-brainers!

But which of these jobs is better?

Learn more about data science vs. programming below and discover which career choice is right for you.

What Is a Data Scientist?

Data scientists are experts who solve complex data problems for an organization. They use their big brains to determine the most valuable data sets and analyze incredible amounts of data for insights. Data science can be a high-pressure role. Some professionals joke that data science is 80% preparing data and 20% complaining about preparing data.

The truth is data science is an exciting and well-paid role, with the average data scientist earning $100,274 per year in the United States—that’s well above the national average salary. Data scientists are also in incredible demand because of a skills shortage. That means many qualified and experienced scientists won’t find it hard to land a job that meets their requirements. Sounds pretty good, right?

U.S. News & World Report—which ranked ‘data scientist’ as the third-best tech job and sixth-best overall job in America—noted that more employers recognize the value of professionals with data science expertise:

“Today, you’ll find data scientists working at a range of organizations, including tech startups, government agencies, large companies, and research institutions.”

What Is a Programmer?

A programmer—or software engineer—is someone that writes and modifies code for computer software. While data science requires some programming, software engineers spend more time coding to ensure applications adhere to performance and security practices. 

Programmers often joke about how much code they deal with daily. There’s a famous line in software engineering circles that goes:

Why do Java programmers have to wear sunglasses?

Because they can’t C#!

If you understand what that means, you’ll be a good candidate for a career in programming. 

Programming can be a more restrictive role than data science. That’s because software engineers spend much of their time coding, while data scientists have more diverse responsibilities, such as:

  • Collecting data from sources
  • Cleaning data
  • Validating data
  • Applying models and algorithms
  • Identifying patterns and trends in data


A programmer also makes less money, on average, than a data scientist—$69,392 per year. While that’s still above the national average salary, it’s $30,882 less per year than a data scientist’s average wage. While that isn’t optimal, many programmers aren’t in it for the money. They love creating something from scratch that can make a real difference for someone in the world. 

Data Science vs. Programming—Which Is Better?

There’s no honest answer to this question, as it all depends on your specific career goals. However, data scientists earn more on average than software engineers and typically have a more diverse role. With the proper training, someone committed to data science can enter this job field relatively easily and get a high-paying entry-level job that will kick-start their career. That might be you!

Here is a question to answer when comparing data science vs. programming:

Do you have more of an analytical mind, or are you a logical thinker? 

If you think creatively when developing solutions to complex problems, you will enjoy becoming a data scientist. This role involves getting to the bottom of issues plaguing organizations by analyzing large data sets. That might include taking risks, but the payoff can be lucrative! 

If you like to follow step-by-step instructions and solve problems in a more orderly way, you might enjoy a career in programming. This role primarily involves working with programming languages like Python and R, which have an order of operations. There’s less risk involved in programming than in data science, but this role can still be fulfilling. 

Final Word

Data science and programming are two career options that might interest you. However, choosing whether to become a data scientist or software engineer will depend on your specific job goals and personality characteristics. If you want a data science career in the future, starting your training now can help you land a high-paying and fulfilling role in this field.

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