MS Analytics at NC State: Interview with Admissions Head
North Carolina State University (Raleigh), also known as NC State, is the first US university that launched a graduate program (MS) in Analytics back in 2007. This gives it a big first-mover advantage and clear vision in nurturing data scientists and analytics professionals. More importantly, the MS Analytics (MSA) program at NC State has served as the model for most of the top MS Analytics programs in the US as well.
In 2018, 93% of NC State’s cohort of 120 students had jobs at graduation with an average starting salary of $98,200 along with a $10,000 bonus. The Class of 2019 (cohort of 104 students) reported 95% graduate employability rate along with an average base salary of $98,500.
Apart from being one of the best programs for analytics, the MS Analytics program at NC State is also one of the most competitive programs to get in for international students (overall acceptance rate ~ 14%). The tuition fee for the Class of 2020 is $45,814 (Total Program Fees for Non-Residents).
“The Harvard Business Review identified the Institute among the best, as one of only a few sources of talent with proven strengths in data science alongside Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard, and Carnegie Mellon. In addition to being the nation’s first and preeminent analytics degree, the MSA is an innovative learning experience that differs from conventional programs in several ways.”
In order to go beyond the numbers and find out more about the institute and the program, I recently interviewed Valerie Schwartz, Head of Admissions, Institute of Analytics, NC State University.
MS Analytics at NC State: Admissions, Academics & Placements
Q&A with Valerie Schwartz, Head of Admissions, MS Analytics at NC State University
Quite often candidates are confused while choosing between MS Data Science and MS Analytics. What would be your advice for the prospective applicants for choosing the right program?
My advice to prospective applicants is to have a clear picture of what you want in a graduate program and then do your research to identify programs that deliver your desired attributes. Even among programs that are seemingly similar, you will observe differences in selectivity, curriculum, structure, cost, and reported outcomes.
If you wish to study among motivated, high-achieving classmates, you should consider programs that are selective in whom they admit. If you’re looking for a carefully calibrated curriculum that continuously evolves to meet changing industry demands for well-rounded data science professionals, a program like NC State’s MSA is a better fit than one which simply offers a menu of courses. Of course, you should evaluate a program’s return on investment as well.
NC State’s Institute for Advanced Analytics faculty recently used text scraped from 259 program websites categorized as degrees in data analytics, business analytics, and data science, and analyzed the similarities in program and course descriptions.
The goal was to see if programs within a category had strong enough similarities to separate that category from the other two. Based on this analysis, they identified no discernible pattern in how the programs and courses are described across the three degrees. The three clusters essentially overlap.
Note that seven longstanding programs were renamed from MS in Analytics to MS in Data Science in the past 24 months, without any visible change in the program or curriculum descriptions.
NCSU is the first US school to launch the MS in Analytics program back in 2007. What were the vision and objective?
The objective of NC State’s Institute for Advanced Analytics has remained consistent since its founding: to prepare data-savvy individuals for leadership in a digital world.
Our mission is to produce the world’s finest analytical practitioners — data scientists, analysts, and consultants — who have mastered complex methods for large-scale data modeling, who have a passion for solving challenging problems through teamwork, who are guided by intellectual curiosity, honesty and integrity, and who strive to attain the highest level of professionalism through continuous self-improvement.
MOOCs & Online Courses in Analytics and related areas (data science, machine learning, etc.) are also becoming popular worldwide. How are the regular MS programs (like MS in Analytics at NCSU) keeping themselves relevant in the market?
While MOOCs certainly have their place, what they provide differs from what a full-time, residential master’s degree program provides. We would not be able to replicate the experience of a student in NC State’s MSA program in an online format.
The interactions among diverse MSA students who are learning together in an immersive environment — wherein they are physically sharing space and thinking about data science for 40 hours/week (at least!) for 10 straight months — are nuanced.
Our students benefit not only from the faculty’s close proximity and open-door policy, but also from one another’s individual backgrounds, strengths, and interests.
How should candidates (specifically working professionals who feel the need to upgrade themselves and stay competitive in the job market) go about selecting the right program – an online course or a regular MS program?
Your first consideration when researching a program should be its structure and curriculum. If a full-time, residential program is simply not an option for you given financial or other personal circumstances, then an online program might be a better fit.
Take a look at the classes and material taught within the program to better understand what skills you can expect to acquire/refine. Some data science programs focus solely on coding; others are more discipline-specific, such as healthcare or business analytics.
Programs like NC State’s MSA take an interdisciplinary approach — combining technical knowledge in coding and statistics with communication and other soft skills — to produce well-rounded data science professionals. Once you’ve narrowed your preferences in terms of a program’s format and content, consider factors such as return on investment. Are the program’s published graduate outcomes (starting salaries, etc.) worth the time and money you’ll spend completing it?
Related Article: Online Masters vs Regular (On-Campus) Masters – Pros & Cons
Who are the ideal students for the MS Analytics program at NCSU? Could you please share some stats in the class profile?
Admission to the MSA program is highly selective; however, we admit students from a wide variety of backgrounds. While a candidate’s past academic performance is important, our admissions committee bases its decisions on a combination of criteria including, but not limited to, the following:
- Applicant’s career aspirations align with the program mission;
- The applicant holds a bachelor’s degree from or is in the final year of undergraduate study at an accredited U.S. college or university or its foreign equivalent;
- An applicant has completed (or is currently completing) the prerequisite courses;
- The applicant has experience with coding in one or more languages (note: there are numerous online resources for developing coding skills, many of them free or at low cost);
- Applicant demonstrates a strong aptitude for complex quantitative analysis and academic success as evidenced by undergraduate coursework and (if applicable) graduate coursework and/or work experience;
- Applicant’s past professional or other experiences suggest a propensity for teamwork;
- Applicant demonstrates maturity, self-initiative, and leadership potential;
- The applicant meets the English proficiency requirements.
GRE/GMAT scores are NOT required, nor will they be considered as part of the admissions process. We have found that there is no correlation between students’ scores on these exams and their success in our program.
The annual admissions reports on our website show our students’ demographics.
What are a few lesser-known facts about the Institute for Advanced Analytics and the MS in Analytics program that you would like to share with our readers?
The MSA program emphasizes much more than statistical methods and coding. We guide our students through extensive communications training: from assistance with presentation skills and writing (business reports, resumes, cover letters, etc.) to best practices for professional networking and mock job interviews (behavioral, technical, case study, etc.) with MSA alumni.
Our students benefit from collaborative, team-based learning, a rigorous system of peer feedback, and individualized professional development coaching. We’re firm believers in continuous self-improvement!
In addition to the official website, how can international applicants learn more about the MS in Analytics program and interact with the admissions team, faculty members, alumni and current students on a more personal basis?
Our website contains a tremendous amount of information about the MSA, so most applicants find everything they need there. Our admissions team also hosts periodic virtual information sessions to allow prospective students to hear from us directly and ask questions to which they couldn’t find answers on our website.
Due to the volume of requests we receive, we typically do not connect prospective students with faculty, alumni, or current students. We are, however, happy to facilitate such connections for those applicants to whom we’ve offered admission. For student and alumni perspectives, I encourage you to check out the Data Column, our students’ collaborative blog.
How are applications evaluated? Could you please provide some insights on the review process?
Our approach to application review is holistic. On the academic front, an applicant’s transcripts shed light on their past academic performance and work ethic. We pay attention to all of the information transcripts provide but are especially keen to see high marks in statistics and other quantitative courses. The MSA condenses 2+ years’ worth of material into a 10-month program.
To be successful in such an accelerated program, MSA students must possess a strong foundation of statistical knowledge. Some experience with coding (especially in Python, R, SQL, and/or SAS) is also beneficial, although less critical than a solid understanding of statistical methods.
Related Article: R vs Python – Popularity, Pros & Cons, Jobs, and Salaries
It’s also essential for applicants to demonstrate a genuine interest in data science, a propensity for teamwork, effective communication skills, and leadership potential. The applicant’s personal statement, resume, and letters of recommendation are all helpful in conveying these attributes. We invite approximately one-third of our applicants to interview (in-person or virtually) with a few members of our admissions committee — a combination of MSA faculty, staff, and (in some cases) alumni. Ultimately, we offer admission to about half of the applicants we interview. Our annual admissions reports provide further detail on acceptance rates and the like.
How does an applicant evaluate if he or she will ‘fit’ with the program?
When evaluating program fit, prospective students should consider whether their learning styles and career preferences are compatible with the program’s environment and emphases. Students who prefer to work independently, as well as those who tend to be resistant to giving/receiving feedback will likely struggle in the highly structured and interactive atmosphere of NC State’s MSA program. As our program is designed to prepare students for careers in the industry upon graduation, we focus on application rather than theory. Hence, the MSA is not ideal for those who wish to pursue PhD studies and/or a career in academia.
What are the common mistakes applicants make?
Many of the mistakes we encounter appear in applicants’ personal statements and letters of recommendation.
Applicants should avoid cliches and generalities in their personal statement. We know data science is a booming field — you don’t need to tell us that! Furthermore, understand that there is no singular formula for constructing a personal statement. In other words, it’s not necessary to address your academic/professional background in the first paragraph, your hobbies/extracurricular activities in the second, etc. (We’ll see many of those details in your resume, anyway.) Instead, tell us what excites you about working with data, what you would bring to the MSA program and, in turn, what you hope to get out of it. Your voice and personality should come through.
Related Article: How to Write an Effective Personal Statement for MS
Our website offers tips for selecting individuals to provide your letters of recommendation. I encourage applicants to waive their rights to view their letters of recommendation. Demonstrating this level of trust in your recommenders affords us greater confidence that their assessments of your candidacy are fully transparent. No one is perfect! We welcome letters of recommendation that acknowledge both an applicant’s strengths and areas for improvement.
Does the Institute offer any scholarships for MS in Analytics students? If yes, what are the eligibility/selection criteria and approximately what percentage of the incoming class receives a scholarship?
MSA students are typically self-financed through personal savings or educational loans. As a 10-month intensive program, the tuition and fees for the MSA are considerably lower than master’s degrees requiring registration for four or more semesters. While, of course, we understand students’ desire to minimize the amount you’ll need to borrow, we believe the MSA program is an investment in your future with a well-documented return.
What are some of the unique courses and learning methodologies adopted in the MS Analytics program at NC State?
Unlike traditional graduate programs where candidates might complete a summer internship or second-year capstone experience, teams of 4-5 MSA students complete an eight-month, industry-sponsored practicum project concurrent with their studies. Students’ level of engagement on the practicum projects increases as class time decreases, as depicted on the curriculum map.
How do you ensure that the curriculum retains its practicality despite its shorter format (10-month course)?
As our faculty and staff are in near-constant contact with industry representatives, we have a clear picture of which skill sets are in greatest demand among employers — and we continually modify our curriculum to ensure MSA students are developing relevant skills.
Our students are immersed in study full-time, late June through early May. Students are required to be at the Institute for program-related activities Monday-Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. We advise students to budget 60 hours/week for the MSA: 40 hours/week on-site plus approximately 20 hours/week on their own. That said, the actual number of hours spent studying varies from student to student, depending on their prior knowledge, how they learn/study best, etc.
95% of students in the Class of 2019 accepted offers of employment by graduation with an average annual salary of $98,500. That is an encouragingly high number compared to other top schools. What kind of support do the students receive from the school regarding placements?
The Institute for Advanced Analytics benefits from having cultivated longstanding positive relationships with many companies interested in hiring our graduates, as well as from an 870-member network of alumni eager to hire fellow MSA grads.
We provide dedicated career services to all students throughout the course of the program, including extensive resume review, interview coaching, exposure to dozens of companies/organizations through employer information sessions and networking receptions, and on-site interviews with 50+ companies annually.
Nearly all of our students secure employment by graduation and the handful who don’t typically secure jobs within 1-2 months of graduation. Of course, we always remind students that the fewer restrictions they place on their job search, the more offers they are likely to receive.
In recent years, applicants in India have had concerns regarding U.S. immigration policies. What are your perceptions of the new H-1B rules and how would you address the applicants’ concerns?
Staff members in NC State’s individual graduate programs are not involved in the visa application process and do not advise students on legal matters. Applicants should consult their immigration attorney if they have concerns about visa status.
That said, most international students enrolled in the MSA program are on F1 student visas. While the H-1B visa currently allows for the study and helps some candidates qualify for in-state resident tuition rates, it does not grant the same permissions for working in the US after graduation.
In many cases, these students will need sponsorship to work in the US, which can be challenging to secure. Students on F1 visas are eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT). As the MSA is a STEM-designated program, our students qualify for an extension, granting F1 visa holders up to 36 months of OPT.
What are your views on the job prospects for MS Analytics graduates in the U.S. in the coming years, especially for international students?
The Institute for Advanced Analytics has a long-standing track record for placing its graduates in data science roles, but it does not under any circumstance offer a guarantee of employment upon completion of the MSA degree. We also have no ability to predict changes in immigration policy, but adjust practices as needed to best serve our students.
To date, international MSA graduates have most commonly accepted job offers with large finance and consulting institutions, as these types of companies are more likely to have the resources to hire non-US citizens.
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Author: Tanmoy Ray
I am a Career Adviser & MS Admission Consultant. Additionally, I also manage online marketing at Stoodnt. I did my Masters from the UK (Aston University) and have worked at the University of Oxford (UK), Utrecht University (Netherlands), University of New South Wales (Australia) and MeetUniversity (India).
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