Educating Analysts, One Way or Another

Employers, the academics who are involved in training the next generation of analysts are listening. They know what sort of job candidates you want. They just have different recipes for producing them. Take the master of science programs at North Carolina State University and Northwestern University.

I spoke the other day with Michael Rappa, director of NC State's Institute for Advanced Analytics, and he told me something that could be considered blasphemy in academic circles. He said he views his primary customers to be you, the future employers of his students. Sure, the students are customers, too. But they are easy to please. Employers (the real world) are tough.

When the first-ever master of science in analytics (MSA) program was launched in 2007, Rappa designed the curriculum with them in mind. The goal for the program isn't only to develop students who have technical analytics skillsets. That's the bottom of the employer's job description -- table stakes, Rappa said. His program is geared toward developing strong teamwork and communication skills. The latter is especially important in the enterprise environment, where analysts will have to translate complex data and models into decision matrices that are legible and credible to decision-makers. These people have to be leaders and managers in their own rights.

Diego Klabjan, the director of Northwestern’s new MSA program (set to bring in its first students this fall), said he went to the industry for guidance on how to design the curriculum. He circulated his first draft of the Northwestern curriculum to a handful of practicing experts and incorporated their feedback.

Klebjan has more than 10 years of experience in research and practicing analytics, and he said he knows the complaints the industry typically has about analytics recruits. "I know very well how to fill those gaps and make sure those deficiencies are not reflected in the curriculum."

Like its NC State counterpart, the Northwestern curriculum stresses the ability to apply teamwork and communication skills, along with technical prowess, within the context of a sector.

However, for all their similarities and all the seemingly similar feedback the two programs got from the industry, there is a striking difference.

Northwestern's MSA is a structured, five-quarter-long program with traditional courses and electives -- 15 in all. For one quarter, students will be out in the "field" tackling real-world problems, but for the most part, Klabjan said, they will be immersed on campus.

Rappa's institute, on the other hand, started from a "clean whiteboard" -- no courses, no electives. Students get a technical and software foundation in the beginning, but the rest of the 10-month-long curriculum looks like a choose-your-own-adventure flowchart. Students join a set cohort at the outset and move from one problem-solving group to the next every five or six weeks. All students also participate in a seven-month Practicum, during which they tackle an actual analytics project from an outside sponsor.

Want to create the analytics leader of tomorrow? "You can't do it with just a bunch of courses," Rappa said.


Matthew Brodsky, Writer & Editor

For more than a dozen years, Matthew Brodsky has been a professional writer and editor, with more than half of that time spent writing on, reading about, and researching business- and technology-related topics, enterprises, and people. He has covered risk management and strategic decision-making, healthcare and human resources, natural and man-made disasters, innovation and entrepreneurship, consumer and corporate technology, and more. He graduated from Cornell University with a BA and from the University of Georgia with an MA, both in history, but don't hold that against him.

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Re: Choose your own...
  • 3/24/2012 11:49:49 PM

@Broadway, thats a great point, everyone does learn differently. I am sure both programs are great, but I am in the same boat with you and would probably still stick with NC. 

Re: People Skills and Analysts
  • 3/24/2012 10:42:26 AM

Broadway.  When I speak of Education, I may not be as versed as you are.  By the way with the advent of Social humanites degree is useless ( my opinion).

The approach of viewing a employer as a customer takes all of emotional issues out of the agreement.  I think in the past the employer/employee relationship was based on rules that no longer you will provide for me into retirement. 

Re: Agreed but...
  • 3/23/2012 11:54:50 PM


I think this aspect of the program is its single most innovative component since it insures that students will be learning and evolving along with the industry right up until graduation and so will be infinitely more prepared for the real work environment in the industry once they enter the workforce.

Re: Choose your own...
  • 3/23/2012 11:45:53 PM

@bulk, one thing I think it's important to consider when deciding which program would be better for you is that everyone learns differently. Some students might appreciate the traditional structure at Northwestern -- might actually require the classroom setting and instruction for them to maximize their educational experience. Whereas, for me, for instance, I learn best by doing. So maybe NC State would be best for me. 

Re: People Skills and Analysts
  • 3/23/2012 11:41:52 PM

@ckelly1, as someone with work experience in higher education and a "worthless" master's degree (in history), I actually found this notion of "employer as customer" a bit disconcerting. It makes perfect sense from a basic supply and demand viewpoint --- one of the major selling points of the NC State program to its students is that they will in be high demand by employers and get big paychecks right out of school --- but from a philosophical standpoint, it's almost like higher education losing its way. Selling out. No?

Re: Agreed but...
  • 3/23/2012 11:36:31 PM

@Shawn, one of the ways that the NC State program remains "fresh" and in tune with what employers want is that it stays in constant contact with employers --- corporate and other real-world organizations submit projects to the Institute, things they really need done, and these are the projects that the NC State student teams take on during their coursework.

Re: Educating for Trait Development
  • 3/23/2012 11:33:16 PM

@Beth, that was definitely one common thread between the two master's programs: the need to create analysts who would be leaders, communicators and team-members, if not team- and consensus builders. It is a matter of creating analysts who don't hide in their offices and believe they're only job is to crunch the numbers. That's not what employers want.

People Skills and Analysts
  • 3/23/2012 6:05:25 AM

So glad education is catching up with the real world.  As has been discussed in other posts..the role of an effective Analyst has as much to do with technical skills as people skills.  Viewing an Employer as a customer or visa versa is novel...and a great way to look at it.

Re: Choose your own...
  • 3/22/2012 11:58:11 PM

Thanks for the input. It'll be interesting see what other kinds of training programs emerge to meet the growing demand.

Re: Choose your own...
  • 3/22/2012 11:32:27 PM

To me the program at NC State seems to be interesting. If each problem solving group you move to builds on the one before it I think this could be a great format. Like i said it has to build on itself so when you look back you can understand how each piece fits to make the big picture. Thats my thoughts anyway. So I would pick NC. 

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