A Degree in Big Data

Graduate courses are springing up to meet the demand for analysts

How can a car-sharing ­company figure out the best spots to park vehicles, or an electric utility forecast the demand for power? The solution today often involves crunching terabytes, and sometimes petabytes, of data. ­Whether retail, telecom, or health care, businesses in ­almost every sector are hoping to innovate and increase profits by analyzing immense data sets.

Obtaining data is easy; it can come from a huge variety of automated sources, including RFID tags, mouse clicks, or sales receipts. And the analytic software systems—such as SAS Institute’s eponymous SAS and IBM’s SPSS—that are required to work with this data are getting better, says Michael Hasler, director of a new M.S. in Business Analytics program at the University of Texas at Austin. But what’s missing are the people: “You need to take these large unstructured data sets, clean them up, and find insights, but there’s a shortage of talent to do that work,” says Hasler.

By 2018, the United States is projected to face a shortfall of as many as 190 000 experts who can make sense of big data, according to the ­McKinsey Global Institute. Universities are now trying to fill the gap with advanced degree programs that aim to produce graduates who can provide useful information and communicate it to business leaders and clients. “Our fundamental goal is to create storytellers,” says Hasler, whose program will begin its first class at the end of August. “After a week’s worth of work developing a data model, they should be able to tell a 10-minute story about the nugget of information that resides in the data.”

The University of Texas is not alone as enter­prises like Cisco, IBM, and Walmart have been urging universities to launch master’s programs in analytics in recent years. North ­Carolina State University, in Raleigh, launched the first such program in 2007. Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., the only one to offer the degree through an engineering school, welcomed its first class in 2012. And New York University and the University of Michigan–Dearborn, among others, are launching programs this year.

And the United States isn’t the only country noticing a dearth of data experts. Deakin ­University, in Melbourne, Australia, plans to introduce a master’s program in business analytics this year with IBM’s support. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the University of Warwick, the University of Strathclyde, and University ­College Dublin are among those offering business analytics master’s degrees. The ­Indian ­Institute of Science in Bangalore is the first ­Indian university to launch a degree program, but certificate courses are offered at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and at a few Indian Institutes of Management.

The programs, which typically run for one year, combine knowledge from computer science, statistics, and business, says Diego Klabjan, ­director of Northwestern’s M.S. in Analytics program. This focus gives students a more technical approach to problem solving than they would get from an MBA program. “Inside a corporation, a data scientist would work with a domain expert [say, in marketing] to make decisions data-­driven,” says Harry Chernoff, academic director of NYU’s business analytics program.

Students are generally required to have a quantitative background, either through work or through a bachelor’s degree in fields such as engineering, statistics, or economics.

The programs are opening up new careers for students. For example, after earning a bachelor’s in industrial engineering, Scott ­Albrecht worked for four years at an IT consulting firm. After reading about the shortage of big data analysts, he applied to North­western’s program, he says, and he’s confident the degree will pay for itself. A sports buff, Albrecht hopes to apply his passion for analytics to sports, where there are opportunities for using big data in marketing and reve­nue as well as player performance evaluation. For now, he’s scored a hit: a summer internship with the Cleveland Cavaliers professional basket­ball team.

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