SQL is a critical skill for pretty much anyone who works with data or databases. And while learning a new programming language is never a walk in the park, we’ve got some good news — it typically doesn’t take too long to get the basics of SQL down. But how long does it take to really learn SQL?
The answer really depends on you, your goals, and your background. So rather than try to give you a one-size-fits-all answer, we've gamed out a number of different scenarios. Let’s dive into the details.
What is SQL?
To understand what it takes to learn SQL, it’s important to understand what SQL actually is. In the previous section, I called it a programming language, but it would be more accurate to say that SQL is a query language.
A query language is a type of programming language that’s built for one thing: interacting with databases. When you’ve learned SQL, you’ll use it to do things such as:
If you’ve got data that’s stored in a SQL-based database—and you probably do, most companies use some form of SQL-based database management system—SQL is the tool that’ll help you quickly select and work with the specific data you need.
What this means is that SQL isn’t a full-on programming language in the way that Python (for example) is. SQL isn’t going to be the language you use to do something like code a video game, or build a mobile app. It’s really only useful for tasks that involve working with data in databases.
But that’s a good thing! Because SQL is specifically focused on working with data, there’s less for you to learn, and most of the SQL educational materials you encounter will be focused on using SQL for common data tasks.
Why Learn SQL?
We’ve written a whole article on why you should learn SQL, with up-to-date jobs information from 2021. The full article is definitely worth reading, but in case you don’t want to click through, here’s are a few quick reasons:
How Much Time Will it Really Take to Learn SQL?
The answer to this question depends on both your background and your goals for learning SQL.
So, rather than giving you a one-size-fits-all answer, let’s break this down into a few different scenarios. Each scenario assumes you're starting from scratch with SQL, and are looking to learn up through and including the specified skill level.
Feel free to jump to whichever of these subheadings describes you best:
(Note: all of the time estimates here assume you already have a full-time job and, like most adults, are limited to just a few hours a week of study time. If you can devote more time each week to studying, you’ll progress even faster).
No programming experience, and want to learn through basic SQL
Maybe your job isn’t technical, but you’re interested in learning a bit more from your company’s data, or running a few specific queries regularly to understand more about the impact of the work you’re doing. If you’ve never written code before, but you’d like to learn enough SQL to run a quick query to answer questions every now and then, this section is for you.
The fundamentals of SQL really won’t take very long to learn. Our first SQL course, for example, takes most people about an hour to complete.
Because you don’t have prior experience with programming languages, you’ll probably want to set aside a little extra time to wrap your head around everything. And you’ll definitely want to set aside some extra time for practice.
Even so, you should expect to be able to learn the fundamentals of SQL — how to query specific data tables from your database, how to select specific columns from those tables, how to do basic math with SQL, and how to limit the output your queries return — in the space of a few hours, or a weekend at most.
No programming experience, and want to learn through intermediate SQL
If you don’t have prior coding experience, but you’re expecting to use SQL pretty regularly, and take on some more complicated tasks like joining different tables together to create new tables for analysis, this section describes you.
How much time this takes will vary a bit from person to person, but you should expect it to take anywhere from a single weekend to a few weeks (we’re assuming that you have a full-time job already and are only able to study occasionally, during your free time).
If you’re studying with Dataquest, this section would map onto our first two or three SQL courses, depending on how much you need to learn for your specific use case. You can probably complete all three courses (not counting the guided projects) in around five or six hours, but you should definitely set aside extra time for practice and to work through the projects to cement your learning.
No programming experience, and want to learn through advanced SQL
If you don’t have coding experience but you’re looking to land a role that’s heavily reliant on SQL skills, like a data analyst job or perhaps even a data engineering job, this section is for you.
You’ll want to learn everything from the basics through advanced queries, but you’ll probably also want to learn skills like creating databases using PostgreSQL.
Depending on how deep you need to go, this is likely to take anywhere from a month to several months, because you’ll be learning advanced queries, but you’ll also need to cover topics like building and optimizing databases, database security, etc.
Note that if you’re looking for a job like data engineer, SQL skills are not the only thing you’ll need to learn, so the amount of time it takes you to get to job-ready will be quite a bit longer than the time it takes to learn SQL. Some data analyst jobs will also have additional technical requirements, like some knowledge of Python programming, although there are analyst jobs that only require SQL.
Prior programming experience, and want to learn through basic SQL
If you’ve already got some experience with programming languages and you just want to learn enough to query your company’s database for the right tables — maybe you’re planning to pull that data into Python or R for analysis — this section is for you.
The basics of SQL likely will take you just an hour or two to learn. You’ll probably find it to be refreshingly straightforward compared to other programming languages, as SQL is quite readable.
Prior programming experience, and want to learn through intermediate SQL
If you’ve already got some coding experience, but you anticipate using SQL fairly regularly to do things like join data tables on different columns and filter for the specific data you need, this section is for you.
Precisely how long it takes will depend on how far you want to go with SQL, but you will probably be able to comfortably work through the material our first two or three SQL courses in a week. Completing the guided projects may extend that time a little further, but you’ll probably be able to start querying your company’s database and using your new SQL skills in meaningful ways within just a few hours of beginning your study.
Prior programming experience, and want to learn through advanced SQL
If you’ve already got some coding experience but you’re looking to move into a full-time role that’s going to require a lot of SQL work, this section is for you.
You’ll want to learn all of the querying skills from the previous section, but you may also need to learn more about creating databases, optimizing them, and ensuring that they are secure. This means you’ll need to spend additional time learning about things like PostgreSQL, and think about the SQL skills you need from a data engineer’s perspective.
This will probably take you a month or two, although it’s worth noting that these kinds of roles will generally also require other technical skills that’ll take additional time to learn if you don’t already know them.
Ready to get started?
SQL can unlock a whole new world of data that makes all of your work more efficient and more impactful. Sign up for a free Dataquest account and you can try out our SQL Fundamentals course and see just how quickly you can make real progress learning SQL!
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