April 24, 2015

Grad Schools Move to Fill Data Skills Gap

George Leopold

Graduate programs in data science are popping up across the country—some of them offered online—while some universities are elevating the status of their data science programs within computer science programs and backing these efforts with major investments.

Earlier this month, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst launched its Center for Data Science that will begin offering a master’s degree next year. The school has raised $100 million to hire 40 new faculty members over the next decade, doubling its current faculty.

Along with funding from the National Science Foundation, companies like Amazon, Google, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft are contributing to the initiative along with government contractors like Booz Allen and media companies such as Thomson Reuters.

The UMass data science research effort is also structured “to get more industry involved, because that’s what industry is really looking for, lots of different connections with the university,” said Steve Vinter, site and engineering director at Google.

Jennifer Shayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New England, noted that the unit that also includes product development currently has openings for “several dozen PhDs.”

Indeed, the dearth of qualified data scientists has prompted companies like IBM and Microsoft to begin investing in graduate programs. Those investments are designed to train a new cadre of data scientists needed to fill vacant positions in the booming data analytics field.

The companies are backing the UMass data science initiative “because our interests are very well aligned, because we all want to make better decisions,” said Andrew McCallum, director of the new Center for Data Science. “This is what data science is all about.”

Elsewhere, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago announced this week it would begin offering a Master of Data Science degree program online beginning in the fall 2015. The school cited statistics predicting a shortfall of 190,000 data scientists by 2018. Averages salaries for data scientists have topped $118,000 a year, the school noted.

IIT stressed that the online graduate program would allow data professionals to earn a master’s degree on either a full- or part-time basis. The initiative also illustrates how online courses are transforming higher education, especially in highly competitive technical fields.

IIT said the data science initiative responds to requests from prospective students and the data analytics industry to offer online graduate courses. The school launched its data science master’s program in June 2013.

“We’ve discovered that working professionals are very interested in our program but need the flexibility of online classes,” Shlomo Engelson Argamon, professor of computer science and director of the program, said in a statement. “This change will allow more people to earn the degree.”

Along with online courses taught by professors of computer science and applied mathematics, the IIT online program also will include a seminar series that includes top data science researchers and practitioners.

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