Data science is an extremely popular field right now. Schools are rushing to create educational programs, and students are flocking to fill them. With the promised annual salaries of data scientists reaching well above $100,000, it is obvious why there is so much interest. Obtaining a master’s degree is one possible way to launch a career as a data scientist. Here are three big questions for you to consider before selecting a data science master’s degree program. While there are many other factors to consider, such as the cost and length of a particular program, the following questions should help you narrow down the list of choices.
1. What is my Background?
Your educational background is an important factor when selecting a master’s degree program. Without adequate background training, you may find getting accepted into top-ranked programs significantly more difficult. Even if you are accepted, completing the program may be more challenging without a proper understanding of the fundamentals. Therefore, it’s important that you know how your background matches up with your intended master’s degree program.
Specific academic departments will often outline the requisite training and background knowledge needed to be a successful candidate for the program. Checking a prospective department’s website to see if your skills match what the department is looking for may be a good way to determine if that program is the best choice for you. For example, do you have in-depth knowledge of algorithms, programming, the big O notion, and hexadecimal numbers? If those terms scare you or give you a headache, you may want to reconsider choosing a program administered by a computer science department. On the other hand, if you have previous experience with business intelligence, dashboards and KPIs, then a business school program might be a good fit. If regression, bias, variance, t-tests and histograms are your thing, then you may want to look at programs within statistics departments.
But even if you lack the training and education for pursuing a master’s degree program, you can still bolster your existing skills (and learn new ones) through a massive open online course, such as those offered through Coursera, EdX or Udacity, or by auditing classes at your local college or university. The point of analyzing your background is to prepare yourself to enter a program where you can succeed. Choosing a master’s degree program is an important decision, and you do not want to find yourself feeling overwhelmed before you even start.
2. What are my goals?
Knowing beforehand what it is that you want to accomplish is important for nearly every major decision; choosing a master’s degree program is no different. There are at least three (though probably more) focus areas for data science: machine learning/statistics, visualization, and management. All focus areas are equally important, but the training can vary greatly. For example, if management is your goal, then it makes more sense to consider a program in business analytics rather than a computer science and statistics program.
It’s important that you identify your goals and select a program that aligns with your objectives. Moreover, identifying goals ahead of time may even lead you to the conclusion that a data science program isn’t necessary for your long-term career goals.
3. Does location matter?
The short answer is: it depends. If location is important to you and you plan to attend a traditional on-campus program, then your decision just got a lot simpler. You can always choose from the shortlist of local universities closest to you. New York City, Chicago and San Francisco are the only U.S. cities offering more than two or three programs, so this should be a comparatively easy decision. If you are in a location without a local data science master’s degree program, then you could consider an online program. There are plenty from which to choose, but you’ll have fewer options overall. On the other hand, if you’re willing to relocate, then your decision will rely more heavily on the previous two questions.
These three questions are designed to provide you with some guidance to help you narrow down the list of potential schools. After you’ve given it some serious thought, the only question left is: which school are you going to choose?