A degree in data science is in demand

Our world is awash in data. Every time you click your computer mouse to buy something, that information is stored. It can be used in the future by that same retailer, to encourage you to make more purchases.

Social media generates millions and millions of tiny bytes of computer data. All those Facebook posts and likes, tweets, Instagram photos and more can all be sorted to discover what we want, and when we want it.

Wall Street has used data mining for years in an attempt to profit from swings in the market; baseball general managers have used data mining for years in an attempt to predict good swings in players.

Collecting and sorting all this data into something useful and productive is the work of a relatively new kind of job, the data scientist.

There are lots of other applications of data science beyond marketing, social media, stock picking and sports. Data science can be used to determine trends in the delivery of health care, with an eye toward optimizing treatments. It can be used to detect cyber threats, or help find missing children, or determine what skills are most in demand by skimming thousands of job postings.

The work of a data scientist is really two-fold. First, the data scientist must pull together all this data, which is often just a collection of garbled text or numbers, and clean it up to the point where it can be analyzed. Then, the data scientist has to know how to extract meaningful information from the cleaned-up data.

“Big data represents one of the fastest growing areas of business, estimated to become a 17-trillion-dollar industry by 2020,” wrote Becker College when it introduced its new data science program earlier this year. 

Locally, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Becker offer data science programs; both convinced that data science is already a desired career path for their students.

WPI’s data science program is entering its second year; it currently offers a two-year, graduate-level degree in data science, and this fall, is adding a doctorate-level degree.

Elke Rudensteiner, a computer science professor at WPI and the founding director of its data science program, said the data science students are finding many job offers when they graduate.

“We can barely hold onto them to finish their degrees,” she said, noting that two of the students loaded up on courses and graduated in one year, instead of two. They each have found high-paying jobs, one with Monster.com, the other with a financial services company. More students will graduate this fall, having completed their masters degree in a year and a half. “The demand is clearly there.”

WPI also requires its graduate students to participate in project-based education, and for data science, those projects involve real-world research for business clients in cyber security and the pharmaceutical industries, she said. For the spring semester, WPI is discussing collaborations with companies as varied as pharmaceutical giant Pfizer; GenomeQuest, a Boston-based “life science information and search company”; IBM and Trip Advisor.

Just by the types of projects these students are taking on, one can see the diversity of potential career paths for data science students, she said.

Prof. Rudensteiner said that while WPI’s data science program is new, it actually pulls together many disciplines that WPI has been teaching for years – statistics, data mining, cloud computing, and more.

“What is different is that we are digging deeper, offering more specific courses, and finding new intersections between disciplines,” she said. 

Becker College will launch its data science program this fall, for undergraduates.

In March, Becker hired Feyzi R. Bagirov to lead the new program. He said Becker is one of only a handful of colleges nationwide that offer a data science degree at the undergraduate level.

“We’re looking to give students a good base, in mathematics, in statistics, and then work on the new technological developments, which will be adding to the growth of the industry,” he said. “A student majoring in data science will be building foundations for future work.”

Data science students will collaborate with other disciplines at Becker, “like biology (informatics), business (big data analytics), criminal justice (policing analytics), interactive media (gaming analytics), and other areas to realize the potential of data science applications in various disciplines.”

Becker is initially going to pair its data science program with its successful video game program, MassDiGI, he said. The data science students will study data from the video games as they are developed, in an attempt to study user engagement and how the games are found and purchased by their customers.

“This is a field that will be in constant growth, due to new technical developments in the industry,” he said.

“Most companies have a data science problem that they have to deal with,” said Prof. Rudensteiner, at WPI. “Companies are calling us all the time, looking for people with these skills to solve their problems.”