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Exponential growth in data has translated into a demand for data scientists that outpaces how fast universities can train them. But what are the best options if you’re looking to break into data science and don’t have time for in-person classes? To answer that question, Fortune built our second ranking of online data science graduate programs.
Pursuing a master’s degree in the fast-growing field of data science can help you to advance your career in a wide variety of tech-related roles. Expect to learn a broad set of skills, including how to use computer programming languages and about applied statistics, database systems, and machine learning. The skills and concepts you learn in a master’s degree program will prepare you for a career in data science to help organizations make strategic decisions based on the data they collect. There’s no significant difference between online and on-campus data science programs—schools typically offer the same courses that are taught by the same professors, regardless of the format.
You can expect a comprehensive curriculum in an online master’s degree program in data science that draws on both statistical and computational methods. Programs will emphasize the real-world application of these knowledge and skills, while offering a multidisciplinary approach to the field that also draws on statistics, computer science, and law. Data science is about more than numbers, however; you will also learn “soft skills” about how to effectively communicate the lessons learned and collaborate with others to learn how to best utilize information in an ethical way. Core coursework at many data science programs covers the following topics:
Beyond the core and advanced-level coursework that are common among all data science programs, some schools also offer mandatory or optional project-based learning opportunities. These projects focus on the real-world application of the skills learned in the program, and can be an opportunity for students to display the skills learned during a program to potential employers. The master’s degree programs at both the University of California-Berkeley and Bay Path University, for example, both include a culminating capstone project that draws upon the skills learned throughout the course of the program. Such projects may extend the length of a master’s degree program, however.
While the core coursework required for completing a master’s degree in data science is intentionally comprehensive, many programs offer specializations or concentrations so students can carve out a niche within this field. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers advanced coursework in cloud computing and scientific visualization, while Texas Tech University has advanced coursework in multivariate analysis and project management. Concentration options may include:
While admissions requirements can vary by school, graduate degree programs require the following of aspiring data scientists:
A majority of online master’s degree programs in data science have waived GRE or GMAT score requirements and, in fact, only two schools on Fortune’s ranking still require applicants to submit scores as part of that application process. That said, you may submit this information particularly if you want to provide additional supporting information that’s helpful in the admissions process. Moreover, GPA requirements also vary by school and may be waived with sufficient work experience.
While admissions officers strive to take a holistic approach when evaluating candidates, they will be particularly interested in your educational background and work experience in a data-related field. Applicants to some data science programs, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Connecticut, must show they’ve completed particular quantitative college-level coursework, while other programs like Syracuse University place a greater emphasis on the personal essay and what applicants emphasize they’re looking for in the program, why they chose it, and what their goals are.
Online learning has been growing in popularity in recent years, and students considering a master’s degree program in data science can often choose between an in-person or online option within the same school. Data science programs may offer a mix of both synchronous and asynchronous learning, meaning courses that either need to be attended live at a particular time or at the student’s convenience, and could include some limited in-person elements.
For the most part, students can expect to participate in class discussions via video conferencing or using other technology. And because of the online format, many students who pursue a master’s degree in data science are working while attending school with a goal of either switching careers or advancing their current career in data science.
Fortune’s ranking of online master’s degree programs in data science is a good starting place when comparing various programs. We emphasize selectivity (schools with top-notch faculty that attract some of the brightest students) and demand (based on the size of the student body), since the people you meet in graduate school could be transformative to your future career.
That said, prospective students should also consider how a particular program will help you achieve your goals and advance in the field of data science. Other factors that may be important include cost, a school’s prestige, its curriculum, and the years of work experience schools may require of applicants.
As data science programs have grown in popularity, schools have beefed up the number of start dates they offer. The University of Illinois and UC Berkeley, the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked programs, both offer three start dates throughout the year. Students may have some flexibility in choosing their schedule and how long it takes to complete the program of their choice, though two years is common.
As indicated, some data science programs include project-based learning opportunities that focus on the real-world application of skills taught in the program. Because these projects can be useful to show potential employers, career switchers may want to consider prioritizing schools with project-based learning opportunities—even if they could extend the program’s length.
As you think about your career goals post-graduation, you should also consider the concentrations offered by various data science programs. By carving out a specialty within data science, that may make you a more attractive job candidate for some employers—and it could increase your earning potential. People with the title of “data scientist” can earn up to $170,000, while manager-level professionals in the field could fetch salaries of as much as $250,000.
The cost of a data science program is undoubtedly a factor to consider when applying to school—and tuition varies widely. Students may be able to pay one-year tuition of about $20,000 (or less) at schools like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Loyola University Maryland, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and CUNY School of Professional Studies. That said, the cost of tuition exceeds $50,000 at UC Berkeley, Syracuse University, and the University of Denver.
The more students a data science program has, the larger its alumni network. This is important to consider during your selection process, not only because your cohort can be a defining characteristic of your grad school experience even if you’re attending classes online. What’s more, the network and a school’s ability to connect you with alumni may help you when looking for jobs—and particularly if you’re not already working in the field.
Because many data science programs are seeking out applicants who already have relevant work experience, it may be useful to see how your experience compares. What’s more, the amount of work experience will inherently influence how advanced your fellow students are in their careers. Worcester Polytechnic Institute reports that students have an average of 8 years of work experience, while roughly half of the master’s degree students in New York University’s program enroll straight out of undergrad.
There’s a hot job market for data scientists thanks to robust demand—and that means many graduates of master’s degree programs are fielding multiple, six-digit salary offers. Big tech companies are a likely career path for many data scientists. A survey of more than 11,000 data scientists found that the companies with the largest teams of data scientists are Microsoft, Facebook, and IBM. And Apple, for example, pays as much as $182,000 for data scientists.
If your goal of obtaining a master’s degree in data science is to advance within your current company, then your employer may help pay for the cost of the program. New York University grants tuition scholarships to some master’s degree students, while UC Berkeley offers several fellowships of varying amounts.
You may also want to seek out a growing number of scholarship or fellowship opportunities from private organizations. Some examples that are available to master’s degree students include:
Finally, current members of the military or veterans may want to consider covering the cost of your data science program with Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits or the Yellow Ribbon Program, which can cover any tuition and fees not covered by those benefits.
While still relatively new, data science is a field that incorporates preparing and analyzing data to draw conclusions. Data scientists design and build new processes for data modeling by using algorithms, prototypes, predictive models, and custom analysis. People should pursue data science if they’re interested in asking questions and creating algorithms and statistical models to estimate the unknown.
All of the data in the world is projected to grow to a staggering 181 zettabytes by 2025. And this growth has translated into high demand for data scientists—even outpacing the speed with which colleges and universities can train them. Data scientist ranks No. 3 among the 50 best occupations in the U.S., according to Glassdoor’s list of the best jobs for 2022, and was beat out only by the roles of enterprise architect and full stack engineer.
Some people may choose to follow a step-by-step guide to become a data scientist. First, you may want to pursue an undergraduate degree that focuses on technical skills like programming or statistics. Then, you should identify an area of specialization and hone this specialization by enrolling in a master’s degree program in data science. Finally, you should showcase your data science experience when applying for jobs.
In addition to high demand, people with a master’s degree in data science can expect to enter a rapidly-growing field with solid salary prospects. Through 2026, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects data science jobs will grow by 28% per year. Even before graduation, some data science students in master’s degree programs are fielding offers of $125,000 and up.
As with any career, pay prospects can vary by company and role. Data scientists made a median salary of $164,500 in 2020, according to a 2021 survey of engineering professionals by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
The median base salary for data scientists is $120,000, according to figures from Glassdoor, though the likely range for positions goes as high as $294,000. Some tech companies are even paying in excess of $300,000 for senior-level data scientist roles.
The sky’s the limit for job opportunities for data scientists, including careers in tech, entertainment, pharmaceuticals, telecom, sports, consulting, or even as a company executive who understands data. What’s more, new job titles are likely to be created, particularly related to ethical concerns with sensitive data and as companies look for new ways to utilize their massive data sets and emerging technologies such as cloud computing, A.I., and machine learning.
In 2012, Harvard Business Review called the role of a data scientist “the sexiest job of the 21st century.” Ten years later, data science remains a good career field for many people thanks to the wide range of jobs available now and in the future, along with robust demand and six-figure salary prospects.
The class of 2022 from master’s degree programs in data science were fielding job offers, with competitive salaries, months ahead of graduation. Demand for data scientists is growing faster than colleges and universities can train them. Even so, job applicants should still expect a rigorous interview process that often entails showcasing examples of work or a commitment to staying up-to-date in a rapidly changing industry.