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.