U readies new grad program

A master’s program was made to meet a national demand for highly skilled data analysts.

by Ethan Nelson

The University of Minnesota is now accepting applications for a new master’s degree program in data science in response to a growing demand for data specialists.

Experts say the demand for people with experience analyzing and handling data is quickly growing. The University’s program, set to begin this fall, is designed to help meet that need.

The University already offers courses in data mining, and the Carlson School of Management houses a business analytics graduate program, but the new degree will focus more on computer science and teach graduate students to create new techniques for analyzing data.

“We realized we had something to contribute,” said Dan Boley, the new program’s graduate director. “We could teach people the skills needed to handle all this data and analyze it.”

The program’s graduates will learn to make sense of large datasets and find patterns within them, Boley said.

“Computer science as a degree tends to lack fundamentals for dealing with data,” he said.

The United States will face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with data analysis experience by 2018, according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute.

The shortage in data scientists could be attributed to the technical expertise needed to effectively work with large data collections, said Zack Almquist, a statistics and sociology professor.

Ravi Bapna, academic director of the Social Media and Business Analytics Collaborative at the University, said the job market in data science is “exploding” and many jobs in the field pay well.

Boley said data scientists could work in nearly any field or industry.

“Every company under the sun is trying to figure out how to extract data from the customer,” Boley said. “Google’s business is data.”

The Carlson School’s business analytics degree is in its first year. The program’s director, Gedas Adomavicius, said he received several hundred applications last year and is expecting more for his program this year.

He said the business analytics degree is more focused on applying existing data analysis techniques rather than learning how to create new technologies.

Almquist said applicants to the new data science program should have some background in computer science.

Boley estimated that around one-third of the degree program — a collaboration between five departments, including computer science, biostatistics and electrical engineering — will comprise courses in statistics.

Almquist said both the University’s statistics and sociology departments are interested in analyzing social media behavior. Tracking people interacting on Twitter or Facebook involves large amounts of data, which can be difficult to manage, he said.

Research into climate change is also driven by data collection, Boley said, adding that computer science majors are in such high demand that they are often hired before they finish their degrees.

“Every week I hear about a new data science program cropping up,” Boley said.

Boley said he’s received more than 100 applications for the program. Applications close March 1 for domestic students and Feb. 1 for international students.