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I have never taken part in an official or structured data analysis or machine learning course (other than recent online offerings) and have learned most of what I know from reading and trying things out. I know I am far away from being able to get a job.

My question isn't what is better (like this question) but rather, can I reach a level where I can apply for a job and actually have a chance with self-study alone? Also, is it possible to do this within a reasonable time frame (maybe 10 years? I'm 31 now so...)?

Or will I have to find a way to attend some sort of college/uni?

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I was in a position like yours long ago (at a similar age) and to this day have not taken a college or university course in data analysis or anything remotely related to it. Based on how little I actually know after all that time, it's abundantly clear that I will never stop learning about data analysis techniques and the theory behind them. Becoming active on this site has been extremely helpful in exposing--and helping to close--some gaps and deficiencies in my education and understanding. It can help not to know your limitations: I began consulting (in 1988) after one month of study. :-) –  whuber Jan 12 '13 at 17:58
    
@whuber That is great to hear. It is definitely something that I am willing to invest the time and effort into. –  The_Cthulhu_Kid Jan 12 '13 at 18:24
    
@whuber Just out of curiosity why did you make the question a CW? –  The_Cthulhu_Kid Jan 12 '13 at 19:06
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It is difficult to conceive of what a definitive or objective answer would be. This question invites subjective comments, anecdotal evidence, and discussion. The principal decision I had to make, as moderator, was whether to make it CW or close it. (You will notice it has collected some close votes already and could still be closed by the community.) –  whuber Jan 12 '13 at 19:08
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It's a good question that many people probably ask. It would be a real shame to close it. –  Dave Kincaid Jan 12 '13 at 19:38
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2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It's all about being able to show a potential employer that you have the skills they are looking for. A degree from a college is one piece of information that an employer can use for that, but not the only thing (nor does it necessarily translate into real world skills).

For me as a hiring manager even more important than that is experience and hands on examples. If you want to work in data analysis or machine learning my advice to you would be to do as much data analysis and machine learning work as you can. Start a blog, open a Github account, compete in competitions like on Kaggle. Depending on where you live, find a meetup, hackathon, etc.

Not only will you learn a lot from those experiences, you'll also meet a lot of people in the field and generate some examples of work that you can show an employer.

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Thanks for the answer. By building a portfolio --as long as it is good enough-- I can work around going to uni? It is definitely encouraging to hear, I missed my chance when I was younger because I wanted to travel and now want to make up for lost time. –  The_Cthulhu_Kid Jan 12 '13 at 17:36
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The answer may depend very much on your local culture. I see that you are based in Vienna, Austria. Now, I'm Austrian myself (though I never worked in Austria), and the Austrian (along with the German and other European) job market always strikes me as much more credential-oriented than, e.g., the market in the US. Thus, getting a foot in the door without formal credentials may be a lot easier in the US than in Europe.

It might be helpful if other responders could indicate which culture their experience comes from.

In addition, if you are 31 now and do another 10 years of self-study, you will be 41, and for all purposes, you will compete against recent graduates who are 15 years younger and do have credentials. It seems reasonable that 10 years hands-on experience should beat 3 years of college courses, but HR people may see that differently.

Bottom line: I think this may be doable, but it will not be easy. Good luck!

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You are definitely right about Austria, although they are trying to change it and have gotten rid of 'Magister'. Unfortunately I found what I wanted to do way too late. We are now expecting our second child so I might move back to the UK if I think I'll have a better chance at a job. –  The_Cthulhu_Kid Jan 12 '13 at 21:21
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Oy vey. My very personal gut feeling would be (and I may be UTTERLY mistaken about this) that now you are not only someone without credentials looking for a job in Austria, now you are a foreigner without credentials looking for a job in Austria... I hope there are no (other) Austrians feeling insulted, but I think there are definitely better places to be in that situation, e.g., the US. It sounds to me like you should certainly keep an eye on the UK job market. Once more: good luck! –  Stephan Kolassa Jan 12 '13 at 21:27
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Just to clarify on my last comment (misunderstandings are too easy on the interwebs): I do not want "foreigners without credentials out of my wonderful country". I am simply afraid that Austrian culture is not very welcoming to someone in this situation. –  Stephan Kolassa Jan 12 '13 at 21:29
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I know what you mean, but English speaking people are welcome, I speak near to perfect German and I have been here for over 10 years. –  The_Cthulhu_Kid Jan 12 '13 at 21:31
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