Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI: Which Field Should You Pursue?

What should you pursue as a career? Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI: Which Field Should You Pursue? Discover all the facts in this article.

Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI represent some of the hottest and most exciting career paths in tech today. But deciding which field to specialize in can be a daunting choice.

This comprehensive guide will compare data science, machine learning, and AI across several factors to help you determine which career is the best fit for your skills and interests.

We’ll cover key topics like:

  • Overview of each field and main responsibilities
  • Required education and skills
  • Industry demand and growth projections
  • Salaries and job satisfaction
  • Work environment and culture
  • Pros and cons of each career path

By the end of this article, you’ll have a solid understanding of the core differences between these three careers so you can make an informed decision on which direction to take your career.

Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI - Data Science Overview
Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI – Data Science Overview

Contents: Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI

Data Science Overview

What is Data Science?

Data science is the domain of extracting insights from data through statistical and computational techniques. Data scientists analyze large datasets to identify trends, build predictive models, and optimize business performance.

Main Responsibilities of a Data Scientist

  • Collecting and cleaning raw data from sources like databases, APIs, sensors, etc.
  • Processing and standardizing data to prepare it for analysis
  • Performing exploratory analysis to uncover patterns and meaningful relationships in data
  • Building machine learning models for tasks like classification, prediction, clustering, etc.
  • Developing data visualizations and dashboards to communicate insights
  • Working with stakeholders across departments to identify opportunities for leveraging data to drive business solutions
  • Keeping up-to-date with latest data science methodologies and tools

Key Skills Needed

  • Coding skills in languages like Python and R
  • SQL and database skills for data manipulation
  • Statistical modeling and machine learning techniques
  • Math skills like linear algebra, calculus, and probability
  • Data visualization libraries like Matplotlib, Tableau, etc.
  • Problem solving and critical thinking skills
  • Communication and presentation abilities

Minimum Education

Most data science roles require a bachelor’s degree in a quantitative field like computer science, statistics, applied math, or economics. Higher degrees like a master’s in data science is preferred for more advanced positions. Certificates can also supplement education.

Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI - Machine Learning Engineering Overview
Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI – Machine Learning Engineering Overview

Machine Learning Engineering Overview

What is Machine Learning Engineering?

Machine learning engineering focuses on building and deploying ML models at scale. Machine learning engineers turn prototypes developed by data scientists into production-ready systems.

Main Responsibilities of ML Engineers

  • Working with data scientists to implement models for real-world usage
  • Developing pipelines to feed real-time data into ML models
  • Building and optimizing scalable data and model architectures
  • Monitoring models and data quality post-deployment
  • Improving model performance by tuning hyperparameters and algorithms
  • Automating repetitive processes for efficiency
  • Staying up-to-date on advances in ML techniques and tools

Key Skills Needed

  • Proficiency in Python data science libraries like NumPy, Pandas, Scikit-Learn
  • Experience with ML tools like TensorFlow, PyTorch, Keras
  • Cloud platform knowledge – AWS, GCP, Azure
  • Software engineering skills – CI/CD, unit testing, optimization
  • Distributed computing and architecture
  • Communication skills to collaborate with stakeholders

Minimum Education

A master’s degree in computer science, statistics, or machine learning is typically required. Bachelor’s holders with extensive hands-on ML expertise may qualify for some positions.

Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI - AI Research Overview
Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI – AI Research Overview

AI Research Overview

What is AI Research?

AI research focuses on developing novel machine learning and deep learning techniques to solve challenging problems in areas like computer vision, NLP, robotics, recommendation engines, and more.

Main Responsibilities of AI Researchers

  • Developing new ML and DL architectures and algorithms
  • Designing and running experiments to test new theories and approaches
  • Publishing papers detailing research progress and results
  • Advancing the state-of-the-art in domains like neural networks, reinforcement learning, evolutionary computation
  • Collaborating with other scientists and engineers to identify practical applications of research
  • Staying up-to-date with latest innovations in the dynamic field of AI

Key Skills Needed

  • Expert-level knowledge in math, statistics, algorithms, data structures, programming
  • Creativity and problem-solving abilities
  • Strong publication record demonstrating research impact
  • PhD in computer science, computational statistics, math or related field
  • Passion for pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence

Minimum Education

A PhD is typically the minimum requirement for entry-level AI research positions. Candidates need to demonstrate strong research experience through publications, dissertations, collaborations, etc.

Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI - Industry Demand and Growth
Data Science vs Machine Learning vs AI – Industry Demand and Growth

Industry Demand and Growth

Data science, machine learning, and AI are all rapidly growing and in-demand fields. But they differ in how abundant jobs are currently, and projected growth rates.

Data Science Demand

Data science has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, with no signs of slowing down. As organizations accumulate more data, they need analytics talent to generate value from it.

According to a report from Indeed, data science job postings grew over 650% from 2013 to 2019. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects nearly 25% growth for data science related positions from 2020 to 2030, much faster than average job growth.

Data science also provides flexibility to work across different industries. Top companies hiring data scientists include Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Visa, Walmart, Uber, etc. This diversity of potential employers creates good job stability.

Machine Learning Engineering Demand

The specialized nature of machine learning engineering makes job openings more limited than data science. However, it remains a rapidly growing field as companies build out capabilities.

According to LinkedIn data, machine learning engineer job listings grew nearly 10x from 2015 to 2020. And the market for ML solutions is predicted to grow from $7.3 billion in 2020 to $30.6 billion by 2024 according to IDC.

ML engineering talent is scarce, especially cloud and production-scale expertise. Top companies hiring include Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Uber, Salesforce, etc. Overall strong demand, but smaller talent pool than data science.

AI Research Demand

AI research roles remain limited for several reasons. First conducting high-level R&D requires exceptional qualifications, keeping candidate pools small. Openings are generally limited to universities and organizations like Google Brain, DeepMind, Meta AI, etc.

However, appetite for AI innovation remains very strong. According to a Stanford University AI Index report, private AI start-up funding surged from $6.3 billion in 2016 to over $54 billion in 2021. So while competitive, properly credentialed candidates can find big opportunities.

Salaries and Job Satisfaction Comparison

Salaries and job satisfaction vary across data science, ML engineering, and AI research. Here’s an overview of earning potential and overall job pros and cons.

Data Science Salaries

Data scientists generally earn strong salaries, especially at tech companies or with senior-level experience. Here are some common data points:

  • According to Glassdoor, the average data scientist earns $117,345 in the US per year.
  • Entry-level salaries range from ~$85K to $130K. 5+ years experience can reach $150K+
  • Senior data scientists and architects can earn $200K+ at top tech companies
  • Bonuses, stock options, and benefits can add 10-20% more to total compensation

Job Satisfaction

Data science offers good work-life balance compared to some tech roles. The breadth of potential employers and applications prevents overspecialization. But poor data infrastructure can lead to frustrating slow progress. Handling organizational politics around analytics strategy is also key.

Machine Learning Engineering Salaries

Given the supply-demand dynamics for ML engineers, salaries run high, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area tech scene:

  • According to Indeed, the average ML engineer earns $149,847 per year.
  • Entry-level roles can still start from $130K to $160K+ at top companies
  • 5+ years of experience can earn $250K+ at leading tech firms
  • Equity can significantly increase total compensation – easily over $500K at the high end

Job Satisfaction

ML engineering can be deeply technically satisfying to engineers who enjoy optimization challenges. But poor overall software/infrastructure design can limit production model impact. On-call schedules for live production models can also lead to burnout over time.

AI Research Salaries

Salaries at elite AI research labs and universities can be wildly high for top talent. For example:

  • According to, ML researchers at Google Brain with 5+ years experience can earn $300K to $600K+
  • Facebook AI researchers with just 1 to 2 years earn average total compensation of $289K
  • An associate professor focusing on AI at MIT has a median salary of $192K

Note research salaries at universities tend to be lower than industry labs. But prestigious professorships confer high status.

Job Satisfaction

Pushing the limits of AI knowledge is deeply satisfying for researchers. But progress can be slow and highly uncertain, which isn’t suited to everyone. Teaching demands and proposing grants for research funding is also a big component of the job.

Work Environment Comparison

Beyond just salaries and demand, the day-to-day work experience varies considerably between these three careers.

Data Science Work Environment

Data scientists typically work on small, cross-functional teams that include engineers, product managers, and business stakeholders.

They split time between heads-down analysis and collaborating with others to refine approaches and translate insights into business impacts.

Work environments can vary substantially based on company size and industry:

  • Startups tend to move quickly and offer more influence over direction
  • Large tech companies like FAANG have more resources but also bureaucracy
  • Non-tech roles in sectors like finance and healthcare tend to have slower pace

Data scientists also need to be flexible adapters as priorities and technologies quickly change. Communicating and storytelling to non-technical folks is also key.

ML Engineering Environment

ML engineers work closely with data scientists but spend most of their time heads-down coding complex infrastructure.

They tend to work on back-end systems rather than front-facing product features. Collaboration is focused on debugging models and systems post-deployment.

Environments again differ based on company size and maturity:

  • Startups offer more greenfield opportunities but also chaos
  • Large techs have hardened stack but also bureaucracy and on-call
  • Non-tech companies tend to lack resources to build full production systems

Overall ML engineering requires comfort with ambiguous, unstructured debugging and optimization challenges.

AI Research Work Environment

AI research environments can vary substantially based on whether you’re in academia or industry.

Academic labs tend to operate much like a PhD program – researchers have independence but need to also teach classes and pitch grants. There is pressure to publish.

Industry labs remove teaching demands and provide more structure, collaboration and resources. But there is also secrecy and intellectual property considerations limiting openness.

Overall research moves slowly, so individuals need patience and passion for incremental discovery, even if ultimate impact is unclear.

Career Path Pros and Cons Comparison

Let’s summarize some of the key pros and cons to each career path:

Data Science Pros and Cons


  • Strong industry demand across domains
  • Well-compensated, especially at tech companies ($120K+ averages)
  • Broad applicability of skills to roles beyond just analytics
  • More accessible entry point to get started in data vs ML/AI


  • Can get pigeonholed into reporting/dashboarding
  • As field matures, automation may eliminate some entry-level work
  • Dealing with messy data infrastructure can be frustrating
  • Changes in organizational data strategy lead to frequent churn

Machine Learning Engineer Pros and Cons


  • In high demand at cutting edge tech companies
  • Specialized skills make jobs lucrative but also scarce ($150K+ averages)
  • Work on bleeding edge models and technology
  • Technical environment removed from business stakeholders


  • Can be difficult transition from data science roles
  • Requires significant advanced CS/math education
  • Poor infrastructure/system design limits model impact
  • On-call schedules can lead to burnout over time

AI Research Pros and Cons


  • Work on most advanced problems at leading edge of field
  • Huge potential financial upside at top companies ($300K+ averages)
  • Deeply intellectually satisfying to push boundaries of knowledge


  • Incredibly competitive, majority of roles require PhDs
  • Research involves lots of frustration and uncertainty
  • Progress is slow and high risk of failure
  • Tenure-track academic roles come with requirement to teach and fundraise

Career Progression Comparisons

Beyond just entry-level roles, data science, ML engineering, and AI research offer different paths for career growth.

Data Science Career Progression

Typical data science career progressions include:

  • Entry-level: Data analyst
  • After 2-5 years: Senior data analyst/scientist
  • After 5+ years: Lead data scientist, principal data scientist, analytics manager
  • Beyond individual contributor: Head of data science, chief data officer

Data scientists have opportunities to specialize in areas like:

  • Analytics engineering: Focusing on building data infrastructure
  • Machine learning engineering: Moving into more production ML system work
  • Quantitative research: Moving closer to risk modeling and quantitative trading
  • Management: Managing teams of data professionals

Machine Learning Engineering Career Progression

Machine learning engineering career paths include:

  • Entry-level: Junior machine learning engineer
  • After 2-5 years: ML engineer, senior ML engineer
  • After 5+ years: Staff ML engineer, principal engineer, architect
  • Beyond IC: ML eng director, AI/ML VP

Specialization paths involve:

  • Research Science: Moving from applied ML engineering closer to research
  • Software engineering: General software architectures and systems design
  • Algorithm Specialist: Focusing on innovations in ML theory/approaches
  • Management: Managing teams of ML researchers and engineers

AI Research Career Progression

Progressing in an AI research career involves:

  • Early stages: PhD student, postdoc, research scientist
  • After 5+ years: Senior research scientist, principal scientist
  • After 10+ years: Distinguished/staff researcher, research manager
  • Academia follows professorship tenure track

Researchers can specialize on topics like:

  • Computer vision, NLP, reinforcement learning, robotics
  • Specialize on techniques – neuroevolution, generative adversarial networks
  • Move into adjacent disciplines like neuroscience, cognitive science, HCI

Switching Between Data Science, ML, and AI

Can you transition between data science, ML engineering and AI research roles?

Switching between data science and ML engineering is quite common, especially early in your career. Learning production ML skills as a data scientist, or vice versa, rounds out your skillset.

Jumping from ML engineering to AI research is more challenging. You’ll likely need to specialize in an ML sub-field and ideally get some peer-reviewed academic papers published to make the case for transitioning.

For data scientists, moving directly into AI research jobs would be very difficult without getting an advanced degree like a PhD first.

Overall, some movement between the fields is certainly possible, but expect challenges the further apart the roles are.

How to Choose Between Data Science vs ML vs AI

So with all that overview, how do you choose which career path is right for you? Here are some key considerations:

Problem-Solving Style

  • Data science involves rapid iteration and ad hoc analysis for business challenges
  • ML engineering requires methodical optimization of complex systems
  • AI research needs tireless experimentation and incremental discovery

Work Environment Preferences

  • Data science balances collaboration and technical work
  • ML engineering does heads-down systems building
  • AI research emphasizes freedom but can be isolated

Educational Background and Experience

  • Data science accessible for those new to data with BA/BS degrees
  • ML engineering requires more advanced MS/PhD training
  • AI research needs a PhD and strong publications

Career Pros and Cons Tradeoffs

  • Evaluate demand, compensation, work culture, career growth options
  • Opportunities vs education and experience required

Interests and Passions

  • Applying data to real-world problems vs innovating techniques
  • Helping businesses succeed vs advancing scientific knowledge

There’s no one right answer – evaluate all these factors against your own strengths and interests.

Getting some hands-on experience via coursework, personal projects, or internships in each area can help make the differences more tangible. Don’t be afraid to try different roles, especially earlier in your career.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Deciding whether to specialize in data science, ML engineering, or AI research is an important fork in the road for aspiring tech careers. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Data science offers accessibility for new entrants but can pigeonhole over time. Great for those interested in business analytics.
  • ML engineering provides lucrative upside but requires advanced tech skills. Ideal for systems-builders who like optimization challenges.
  • AI research remains an elite group of people with sound knowledge of AI.
  • Data science offers accessibility for new entrants but can pigeonhole over time. Great for those interested in business analytics.
  • ML engineering provides lucrative upside but requires advanced tech skills. Ideal for systems-builders who like optimization challenges.
  • AI research remains an elite field reserved for those pursuing cutting edge discoveries. Long education but big potential upside.
  • Industry demand is strongest for data science, followed by ML engineering, then AI research. But all fields are rapidly evolving.
  • Work environments vary from collaborative analytics, to technical engineering, to isolated research.
  • Salaries are strong across all areas, especially at top tech companies. AI research has especially high potential compensation.
  • Career progression can involve management, specialization, or movement between domains. Experience determines viability.

Overall, evaluate your interests, skills, and professional goals to determine which field is the best fit. There’s no one right answer – each path has tradeoffs.

The more hands-on experience you gain, the better sense you’ll have of the day-to-day reality of each role. Don’t be afraid to try different opportunities, especially early in your career.

With the continued growth of data and AI, there will be no shortage of demand for top talent across data science, machine learning engineering, and AI research. Hopefully this guide provides a useful foundation for deciding which of these emerging careers is right for you.

To learn more, check out my blog where I cover topics like this in-depth. Please like this article, share it with your network, and leave any comments or questions below!

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