UI data science degree sees rise in enrollment as chance of employment soars

By Therese Pokorney , Staff Writer

As data analysis becomes more vital for businesses, data scientist positions in the U.S. are reaching an all-time high, according to a recent report by the recruiting site Glassdoor.

However, not all candidates are being trained in the same way or have the experience employers are looking for.

In order to specify the tools job applicants need, executives from eight companies have created a data science standards board. The companies, which include The New York Times, Spotify and Chicago-based firms, plan to establish a standardized test for applicants, similar to a bar exam.

“It’s perfectly fine for employers to have a test,” said John Hart, professor and director of online professional programs in computer science. “We prepare students for lifelong careers in computing and data science, with lectures focusing on fundamentals and not on the latest platforms.”

Glassdoor reported ‘data scientist’ has been named the best job in America for the third year in a row, with a median salary of $110,000 and 4,524 job openings.

Along with the abundance of job openings, Hart said the University’s enrollment for the master of computer science in data science degree has been exploding. Students in the MCS-DS program will study data visualization, machine learning, data mining, cloud computing and how to properly analyze big data for future employers.

The online degree uses the teaching program Coursera’s Massive Open Online Course to combine assessments and short video lessons, allowing students to complete the courses at their own pace, within a five-year window.

Hart said the University has been offering the degree for decades and the online courses since the 90s. In 2016, the program began delivering the degree using the Coursera MOOC platform, to reach a wider population.

For the first two years, Hart said the program enrolled just under 100 students; however, he expects enrollment to soar over 1,000 in the upcoming year, to receive the degree and prepare for the standardized tests.

For one University graduate, taking a standardized test would mean having a lesser chance of employment.

“I definitely think experience is much more valuable to have,” said Isaac Ramsay, a 2016 alumnus from Engineering who was recently employed without taking a qualification exam.

Ramsay said establishing a standardized test would be helpful for companies to see who is qualified. But, he thinks employers should look at the candidate as a whole — not just a score.

“If you take all this time studying for the standardized test and not getting experience in a related field, you won’t be a successful employee,” he said. “If I was an employer, I would rather hire a well-rounded candidate than someone who just passed a test.”

Hart said the MCS-DS course prepares students by teaching the fundamentals of data analysis and computing programs that they may be tested on, without altering the program’s curriculum.

“A lot of our graduates go to Google, since they look for the best data scientists,” he said. “They have a computer science test that includes theoretical computing. Our students added a theory course to specifically pass the Google test.”

Hart said the MCS-DS program didn’t have to alter the theory course at all, and the theoretical computing class teaches exactly what Google asks of future employers. The online degree program has been covering topics for students to ensure success; however, some employers might be testing for specific programs the curriculum doesn’t cover.

“The only exception is some employers could be tested on the latest package, then it’s up to the students to learn the latest application,” Hart said. “We don’t focus our coursework on the latest application. We don’t want to diminish the amount of knowledge we present in a course. All of our graduates should be able to come to speed with that.”

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