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Big data = big money: why graduate finance jobs aren’t the only option for ambitious numerical graduates

Sep 11, 2018



The story of numerical graduates being sucked into London’s behemothic financial services is not a new one. 

Students from disciplines as wide-ranging as Psychology, Engineering and the sciences have for many years been drawn into finance, with the eye-watering remuneration on offer playing no small part. 

Often, other sectors which require similar skillsets and would otherwise be attractive are left with a smaller talent pool because they cannot compete financially. 

But are things starting to change? 

There is a new growth area which is competing for a similar type of graduate, has the funds to compete with finance and is (arguably) a more interesting career choice: big data. 

We’ll look at how big data has become a behemoth in its own right and why, for many bright graduates, it is more appealing than the traditional banking route.  

Numerical degree to finance: a well-trodden path

Financial services in London has, for around 30 years, been the destination of choice for graduates who can boast a BSc and the ability to work with numbers. 

The financial rewards on offer and the long-term security this provides has simply trumped many other potential careers. Even for those with a vocational degree linked to an industry where there is no shortage of jobs - Engineering, for example - the salaries offered within banking are too tempting to ignore.1 

According to High Fliers Research, the average starting salary for a graduate in investment banking is £47,000 (with a big bonus likely to come on top of this), while the according to some estimates the average graduate salary is just £22,000. 

Further, with large recruitment budgets to play with, major finance firms are able to cement themselves as the destination of choice before students have even taken their finals. Their presence on campus at the best universities, bombarding students with positive messages about their graduate schemes through promotions such as talks, stands, and sponsored events, is hard to compete with. Especially for those companies unable to spare plenty of staff and cash. 

The double-whammy of the highest salaries and the biggest marketing efforts, not to mention the inevitable prestige attached to joining a big name firm from the world of finance, has been something of a vacuum for ambitious, numerical graduates. 

We are now, however, starting to see shift. 

Rise of big data

As the internet age has matured and greater numbers of technology companies have developed, a new business phenomenon has been created: big data. 

The term ‘big data’ loosely refers to the kind of very large datasets that traditional data-processing struggles to deal with, and relates to everything from data capture, to secure storage, to analysis. 

This reflects the fact that more data than ever is being created (it is estimated that 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years alone) and it is being harnessed to provide insights into everything from human behaviour to where to drill for oil. 

The control of data, along with the ability to draw conclusions from it and inform decision-making, is now a key facet of many technology businesses. Google is perhaps the most well-known data-focused business, from its data-driven search algorithm to its targeted advertising based on the extensive data it knows about you. 

Given that data now runs through the heart of pretty much every technology company - powering everything from which shows Netflix recommends you to how much you pay for flights - there is a massive demand for employees who have the ability to work with this powerful tool. 

And with its huge value to business comes competitive salaries that are starting to persuade numerical graduates that finance is not the only lucrative career option.

Rewards of big data

So why is big data potentially a more attractive path than finance? 

First and foremost, big data is without doubt a sector that has a long future and will only continue to increase in importance. 

It is estimated that, since 2012, the number of data scientist roles in existence has increased by a whopping 650%. At a time when the ongoing existence of a wide range of job types is threatened by the advent of automation and AI, there is no doubt that data-focused roles are not only here to stay but set to grow in number. 

Even the financial industry itself is being reshaped by the data revolution. Traders, for example, are starting to be replaced by quantitative analysts in some markets, who work with artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to provide more efficient prices and faster trades. 

Beyond longevity, the demand for those with big data experience and the relative lack of such professionals means that graduates entering this area can expect relatively fast career progression. There are, quite simply, fewer incumbents blocking your path to a senior job and ever more roles being created. If you can prove yourself adept in this function, the possibilities for promotion (and a more swift rise than other graduates) are extensive. 

Further, there is a perception (rightly or wrongly) that some aspects of the finance industry are a little dull. Graduates are sometimes tempted in to such roles not by a real passion for the company, product or job but because of the financial rewards. 

If, however, the financial rewards can be matched by a company that actually does interest you, then why would you plump for the less stimulating job?

Tech companies are often tackling new problems and building new products that are changing their respective industries and have the potential to make a major impact on the world. They also, famously, spend a significant amount of time and money creating work environments which are incredibly attractive. From free meals to flexible working arrangements, tech companies and startups are repeatedly voted better places to work than traditional financial employers. 

Joining a tech company, particularly a relatively new one, can also bring longer term benefits in the form of stock options. Lots of startups offer options as part of of their overall remuneration package and it gives employees a real vested interest in the business where they work. If the company goes on to be sold or floats, these can represent a not insignificant payday. Even established businesses such as Amazon continue to offer new employees stocks. And given their share price has gone from around $300 at the start of 2015 to around $1800 at the time of writing, this has been a lucrative bonus for many Amazon employees.  

Types of big data jobs

As discussed already, companies have a broad range of requirements that fall under the banner of big data. Here are some of the most in-demand and best paid roles. 

Data Scientist (Senior Data Scientist median wage £82,500)

There can be a number of interpretations of a data scientist’s role, but essentially it is to analyse information hidden within vast amounts of data, enabling companies to make informed decisions. 

The sorts of tasks a data scientist can expect to be charged with include data collection, rigorous statistical analysis, and data mining. Typically, this requires knowledge of NoSQL databases, machine learning techniques and algorithms, and programming ability (e.g. with Python or R) to apply this knowledge and integrate it with other business functions. 

Data Architect (Chief Data Architect median wage £125,000)

Data architects are responsible for the systems and processes related to data storage and management and their broader integration into IT infrastructure. 

This ultimately manifests itself as playing a crucial role in how data is used within an organisation and holding responsibility for the strategic deployment of data. 

The role is particularly important in light of the recent implementation of new EU-wide GDPR data laws which require greater safeguards and transparency with regards to personal data held by an organisation. 

Because of the wide-ranging nature of the role, data architects can expect to work with different areas of the business, from developers to lawyers. 

Data Visualiser (Data Visualisation Specialist median wage £140,000)

Having reams of data can mean very little to a company if that data (and the conclusions drawn from it) cannot be easily and succinctly communicated. 

As such, data visualisation is one of the most in-demand data specialisms. It requires an ability to comprehend the raw information, decide which aspects are relevant, then sufficient design nous to translate that into easily understandable nuggets which anyone (particularly those who are not numerically-minded) can easily follow. 

As such data visualisers require both experience working with data as well as experience with interfaces and design. Typically this requires coding knowledge in Javascript as well as web languages such as HTML and CSS. 

This is truly a jack of all trades type position, which will appeal to those who do not just want to see their role restricted to pure analysis. If you can happily sit between data, web development, design, and user experience/user interfaces, this would seem to be an ideal career. 

Big Data Developer/Engineer (Senior Big Data Developer/Engineer median salary £80,000)

Big data developers are charged with creating, testing, and monitoring the data solutions used by companies in their day-to-day operations. Often this can relate to improving existing products or reducing costs. 

They combine both a strong knowledge of database languages along with software and programming experience. Hadoop, the open source Java-based programming framework that processes data, is one of the most desirable areas of expertise for data developers and engineers. 

Creating new data tools and improving existing ones that store and manage data is a crucial part of most technology companies and this role is right at the heart of that.


Big data is, officially, sexy. 

It offers fantastic careers, great financial rewards, and highly satisfying work. 

For ambitious numerical graduates, that well-trodden path into finance lubricated by high pay and prestige now has a real competitor. 

Current big data job vacancies

Have we piqued your interest? Why not browse the data-focused roles currently live on Advance.Careers?

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