More universities are starting master’s programs in data science and analytics, of which statistics is foundational, due to the wide interest from students and employers. Amstat News reached out to those in the statistical community who are involved in such programs. Given their interdisciplinary nature, we identified programs involving faculty with expertise in different disciplines to jointly reply to our questions.

Master in Complex Systems and Data Science at UVM

 Please describe the basic elements of your data science/analytics curriculum and how the curriculum was developed.

Our program provides students with a transdisciplinary education that prepares them for business environments or a PhD in an analytic field. Our program is more scientific than professional and is unique in its combination of complex systems and data science (CSDS). Throughout the MS in CSDS program, students are challenged to create defensible arguments for their findings, with warnings against the many potential pitfalls associated with exploring large-scale data sets, coupled with the use of computational process-based models that lend insight into emergent properties of complex systems. Admissions requirements include courses in calculus, programming, data structures, linear algebra, and probability and statistics. We offer opportunities for students to make up missing prerequisites. 

Year in which the first students graduated/are expected to graduate: 2016
Number of students currently enrolled: Five
Partnering departments: Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Department of Computer Science
Program format: In-person instruction, 30 credits (coursework only, project, and thesis options). Support for finding internships, no graduate teaching assistantships, research assistantships possible for students working with externally funded advisers.

What was your primary motivation(s) for developing a master’s data science/analytics program? What’s been the reaction from students so far?

Almost all scientific fields have moved from data scarce to data rich, and sophisticated analyses have been made possible by the advent of distributed computing and storage, with accompanying advances in algorithms and theory. As Big Data has become a common thread across disparate disciplines, so too have methods for contending with the many difficulties presented by large-scale data analysis. The program was created to address the opportunities created by these conditions. Faculty were already working on modeling and analysis of complex systems using transdisciplinary approaches, and we already had a five-course Certificate of Graduate Study in Complex Systems, so it was natural to build an MS degree upon this foundation.

Quote from a student course evaluation: “This class changed the way I see the world.” 

How do you view the relationship between statistics and data science/analytics?

Data science is at the intersection of statistics and computer science. Data munging, machine learning, visualization, text processing, heterogeneous data types, and web scraping are examples of tasks not typically addressed in traditional statistics programs. Inferential logic/methodologies and design of experiments are not typically taught in computer science programs. A large number of schools have business-themed data science programs. The core data science part of our MS in CSDS at UVM provides more general purpose training, though certainly a career in the business world would be a possible outcome for students.

What types of jobs are you preparing your graduates for? 

We have developed close relationships with several companies, and they are helping to support our programs. The program is new and we don’t yet have data to address demand for our graduates, but it is worth noting that data scientists are increasingly in demand across the spectrum of occupations in government, finance, corporations, and journalism. The job title of data scientist is now commonplace. Popularized by Nate Silver and Moneyball, training in data science is being sought after across the United States. Perhaps the clearest evidence is the growth of data science degrees globally. Also, these degrees, which are largely master’s level, are easily being filled by applicants within the United States.

What advice do you have for students considering a data science/analytics degree?

We aim to serve students coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and therefore deliberately keep the prerequisites to a minimum. Students must have a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field and prior coursework in computer programming, data structures, calculus, linear algebra, probability, and statistics.

Our program is ideal for students interested in the intersection of statistics, computer science, and mathematics with applications in any of a wide variety of domains. The degree provides more exposure to computing and statistics than the traditional statistics or computer science degrees (respectively), offers unique transdisciplinary courses in complex systems and data science, does not require strictly disciplinary courses (e.g., we do not require computer science–specific courses like operating systems), and provides a great deal of flexibility in customizing coursework to student interests.

Do you have any advice for institutions considering the establishment of such a degree?

The statistics, computer science, and mathematics programs at UVM have a collegial relationship, which has helped significantly in the formation of our BS in data science and our MS in complex systems and data science degrees. We work closely on course scheduling so the courses in the different disciplines do not conflict. Cross-listing of courses also provides for increased options for students. Collaboration is also made easier in that the participating disciplines all reside in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. 



University of Vermont

James P. Bagrow
 is an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Vermont and a member of the Vermont Complex Systems Center. He has degrees in liberal arts (AS) and physics (BS, MS, and PhD).


Jeffrey S. Buzas is professor and chair of mathematics and statistics and director of the statistics program at the University of Vermont. He has degrees in mathematics (BS) and statistics (MS and PhD).


Peter Sheridan Dodds is a professor in mathematics and statistics at the University of Vermont, where he is also the director of the Vermont Complex Systems Center and co-director of the Computational Story Lab.


Margaret J. Eppstein is professor and chair of computer science at the University of Vermont and founding director of the Vermont Complex Systems Center. She has a BS in zoology, MS in computer science, and PhD in environmental engineering.



Steve Pierson, ASA Director of Science Policy