What to look for in a business analytics curriculum

BY Peter Olsen-PhillipsJanuary 20, 2022, 2:03 PM
Two people walk at the University of California, Irvine campus, as seen in January 2022. (Photo by Paul Bersebach—MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images)

Businesses today are awash in data. From customer leads and details about sales transactions to social media statistics and updates from the supply chain, successful organizations are collecting all sorts of information. In the right hands, these data sets can be mined to glean useful insights and inform actions that boost profits and increase efficiency.

The people who make sense of those vast data sets increasingly have a degree in business analytics, perhaps from one of the schools in Fortune’s ranking of the best online master’s in business analytics programs. But a high quality business analytics curriculum involves a lot more than crunching numbers.

In addition to preparing students to use the latest technologies for gathering, cleaning, visualizing and modeling data, programs in business analytics emphasize the importance of getting students ‘business-ready,’ or familiar with how value is measured and created in a business context. This applied knowledge is part of what distinguishes the field from other related programs. 

“To me, it’s about ‘We have a business problem, which techniques should we apply?’” says Alex Lopes, the associate chair of the Kelley Direct online program at Indiana University. “That, to me, is what business analytics is about, it’s more on the application side versus the technique side that you may see more of in a data science program.”

For graduates, the combination of business savvy and modeling mastery can prepare them for a wide variety of professional opportunities with solid earnings. People with a master’s degree in business analytics earn an average base salary of $74,000, according to a Paycheck.com survey of 418 workers. Experienced analysts can expect to earn more, however, as more than 80% of survey respondents were either entry level or early career employees.

 If you’re considering a business analytics program, here’s what you need to know.

An emphasis on quantitative skills

For master’s degree programs in business analytics, curricula typically require 35 to 40 credit hours and include some coursework in business fundamentals, like finance and marketing. Most programs, however, expect students to have some experience in the business world, as well as basic quantitative skills.

“We’re looking for people who have quantitative aptitude and ability,” Jade DeKinder, associate dean for master’s of science programs at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tells Fortune. “Some of them demonstrated it through their academic experience—their test scores, their transcripts, their grades—and some have demonstrated it in a professional setting.”

At McCombs, an advisory council made up of leaders from Deloitte, Facebook, Google, and other major companies provides feedback on the curriculum. Master’s students can choose to follow one of three tracks: The general curriculum, financial analytics, or supply chain and marketing. The latter two specialties allow students to build off of prior experience, diving deeper into those fields and the analytics attached to them.

All three areas, however, cover pure analytics: “Machine learning, artificial intelligence, data mining, optimization—you name it,” says Genaro Gutierrez, the program director for McCombs’ Master of Science in Business Analytics. The curricula also include dataset engineering, which teaches students the skills to find and interact with data in real world environments.

“We need to train our students to extract information from whatever infrastructure is available. What we have learned is that industry is not going to hire someone who needs the data on a silver platter in order to analyze it,” Gutierrez says.

How to become a ‘quantitative storyteller’

Beyond gathering and analyzing the data, students are also trained to become “quantitative storytellers,” or effective communicators that bridge the gap between analytics insights and business action. Most business people “couldn’t care less what type of math you used,” Gutierrez notes. “At the end of the day, you have to translate your analysis into business insights and explain it well enough that they understand it.”

This emphasis on bridging the gap between algorithm and implementation is at the fore of many analytics curricula—including at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “On the continuum between the super technical and the super managerial, we’re trying to be in the middle,” Lopes says.

The master’s in science program at Kelley Direct is ideal for people who are already in the business world and want to level up their analytical skills, according to Lopes. “We want people who have good backgrounds in business—in finance, in marketing, etc.—and we want to add value to their degree.”

The elements of the business analytics degree program

Kelley Direct’s master’s in business analytics program is broken into four major components: basic statistics, predictive analytics, data handling, and application. Students learn both the mathematical principles underlying their models, as well as how to interpret these models in a real life business context, according to Lopes. For him, the successful application of analytics requires “understanding the nuances of the model you choose, its application and how to interpret those results and what it means for your organization.”

Of course, every business problem is different and some questions may require the use of multiple techniques. That’s why successful graduates need to be comfortable using and explaining an array of different models.

“Good programs allow you to increase the portfolio of techniques that you are exposed to, so that you can understand what the best match is between the problem, the data and the type of answer that you need,” Lopes tells Fortune.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.