How much is a freelance data scientist’s salary? There is no simple answer and it doesn’t make much sense to talk about average rates. The main factors determining a freelance data scientist’s salary are location, speciality and experience level, not to mention the data scientist’s business acumen and negotiation skills. However, it’s hard to find out exactly what salary a freelance data scientist can charge because freelance work is not always advertised and when it is, the rate is usually negotiable.
How do qualifications and experience level affect a freelance data scientist’s salary?
Let’s imagine a number of scenarios. I am quoting some typical figures for UK- or US-based freelance data scientist salaries but the numbers would vary by location.
Novice freelance data scientist salary
A novice freelance data scientist who is fresh out of university can probably use online marketplaces such as Upwork to apply for small freelance data science gigs, and will be competing with people of similar experience levels worldwide. The competition will include people in low-income countries and people who have learnt data science on a bootcamp course rather than a degree programme, and the clients may not always know how to distinguish qualified freelancers from unqualified, so there will be a race to the bottom on novice freelance data scientist salaries. You can read my post on how to become a freelance data scientist for more information.
Salaries are advertised on Upwork and most likely the novice freelance data scientist can charge a salary of $50/hour. Most of the gigs they take on will be relatively low level, perhaps mundane tasks in Python rather than cutting-edge machine learning, and this is reflected in an inexperienced freelance data scientist’s salary.
Moderately experienced freelance data scientist salary
A freelance data scientist with a moderate amount of experience can charge a slightly higher salary. Imagine a freelance data scientist with a Masters or PhD and a few years of experience working in small but unknown companies. A moderately experienced freelance data scientist can use their connections and network on LinkedIn to find more challenging work. Perhaps they will have a degree of experience in a particular industry and they can leverage that. A moderately experienced freelance data scientist could charge a salary of about $100/hour.
Contractor freelance data scientist salary
A freelance data scientist with a decade or more of experience can charge much higher salaries. Let us imagine a freelance data scientist who has been working in machine learning since before the term “data science” was widely used. This person has worked across a range of industries. This freelance data scientist prefers to work in comfortable long term contracts for a single client, alongside the client’s permanent employees. The salaries for contracting are good and a contractor freelance data scientist can charge salaries up to $200/hour.
In the UK it’s possible to get some feel for what salaries a freelance data scientist can charge, simply by looking at the advertised salaries for contractor roles.
I’ve taken a sample of 54 data science contract positions in natural language processing which were advertised in London in 2018-2020. I have taken the daily or salaries which were either advertised or stated by the recruiter. You can see that there is a lot of variation but the contracted salaries averaged around $115/hour. In general, freelance data science contracts in natural language processing or computer vision tended to pay higher salaries than contracts in general data science, and the salaries are also higher than the salaries for employment.
Expert consultant freelance data scientist salary
Finally, there are the consultants. A consultant data scientist does not apply for jobs or gigs on any kind of marketplace, but rather uses networking and even direct sales pitches. This person operates effectively like a small company and may compete against consultancies, and this is reflected in the consultant freelance data scientist’s salaries. The consultant may have two decades of experience, will have written a series of books and may be an in-demand speaker or lecturer. Large companies know to look for the consultant for difficult problems. An expert consultant freelance data scientist does not have an explicit salary, but charges clients on a per-project basis. They may waive fees if a project does not deliver the expected result. The sales process may involve a series of presentations and unpaid proof-of-concepts, and the consultant may enlist a sales representative to help with sales. Working from the fixed price charged to clients, the expert consultant freelance data scientist has an effective salary of $500 and up.
How does a freelance data scientist’s salary vary by location?
Location is a very important factor in determining a freelance data scientist’s salary. In general, the USA, especially the West Coast, has the highest demand and highest salaries. The geographical variation in data scientist salaries is dampened tempered slightly by the fact that a lot of work can be done remotely, however the salaries still vary hugely between locations.
I was unable to obtain comprehensive data on freelance data scientists’ salaries between countries, so as a proxy I have used permanent data scientists’ reported salaries to estimate the geographical variation in four countries.
We can see that North America has higher salaries than Europe across the board. Within countries there is also considerable variation, with cities paying considerably more. In addition, the wealth of a country is not necessarily a predictor of the salaries. Data science is a very important field in the USA, but less so than in, for example, France, which is a much more conservative country when it comes to technology.
I suspect also that larger countries such as the USA, UK and Germany tend to have more demand for data scientists than wealthy smaller countries, because companies in large countries have huge customer bases and larger datasets to work with. Within Europe I have definitely found a divide between north and south, with the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia having very highly paid freelance and permanent data science jobs on offer, while southern European countries such as Spain and Italy do not have such a high demand for data science services and consequently pay much lower freelance data science salaries.
How does a freelance data scientist’s salary vary by speciality?
In recent years, demand has grown for data science specialists who can work with more generalist data scientists and analysts. For example, experts in natural language processing, computer vision, and deep learning libraries are in high demand, and can consequently charge salaries much higher than a data scientist who works with the basic toolkit in Scikit-Learn. I would venture to say that freelance data scientists in these niche areas could charge double the salaries of their generalist counterparts, although I do not currently have data to back this up.
There are many factors affecting a freelance data scientist’s salary. First of all, the data scientist’s location is an important factor, with many companies in the US preferring to hire US-based freelancers, even if the work is completely remote. Secondly, freelancers with an in-demand speciality such as natural language processing can increase their salaries accordingly, as they do not need to compete with so many people. Thirdly, the freelance data scientist must know how to negotiate salaries, and find clients directly. If the freelancer uses marketplaces such as Upwork, the competition will force a race to the bottom on cost, and the freelancer will wish to avoid this.