Want to Make Six Figures? Consider a BI Graduate Program


As the trove of information collectively known as “big data” continues to grow exponentially, businesses in every industry are increasingly in need of analysts to interpret and make use of it. However, the amount of data is growing faster than the number of specialists trained to analyze it: According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the U.S. is facing a shortage of up to 190,000 analysts and 1.5 million managers within the next four years.

Thus, companies all across the board are seeking professionals with backgrounds in business intelligence (BI), business analytics (BA) and data science. And this high demand means big employers are making lucrative offers to students of business intelligence graduate programs—sometimes before they’ve even finished school.

So, will a graduate program in business intelligence help you achieve a more successful career? I spoke with faculty and alumni from some of the country’s top graduate programs in BI, BA and data science to discover how upper-level education can make you even more attractive to employers, provide you with essential experience and increase your earnings potential. Here’s what I found.

Who Are These Programs for?

Business intelligence graduate students come from many educational backgrounds. Predictably, most hail from engineering, computer science and mathematics programs. Some come from the business school; some from other sciences.

However, says Andrew Urbaczewski, chair of the Department of Business Information and Analytics at the University of Denver, a growing number of BI students are coming from less-than-expected undergraduate programs: political science, human resources and music. Maybe you’re into election forecasting, in the style of Nate Silver.

Maybe you thrive on figuring out the most cost-effective benefits plan or the best metrics-driven performance report for a company. Or maybe your brain just thinks progressively, as it does with chords and melodies. All these capabilities can translate into a successful career in BI, Urbaczewski says.

Ted Stohr, coordinator of the Business Intelligence and Analytics Program at the Stevens Institute of Technology’s Howe School of Technology Management, says that data analytics are only going to become more relevant in traditional spheres of business such as finance, marketing and operations.

This will not only draw more business students to BI graduate programs, it will also cause traditional Master of Business Administration (MBA) and management programs to start devoting more of their curriculum to analytics, he says. BI isn’t just for the math whiz; business acumen is also required to really succeed.

Some students come to their BI graduate program straight out of their undergraduate. However, others are professionals who seek to further expand their skills. These professionals may choose to pursue a master’s program part-time, so they can continue to work.

Alternatively, they may opt for a graduate-level certification program: these are typically shorter, more affordable and more specialized.

Students of the University of Denver’s Graduate Business Certificate in Business Information and Analytics are typically “working professionals in their 30s and 40s who are looking for additional training, but don’t yet want to commit to the actual degree program,” Urbaczewski says.

Tina Chang, assistant director of academic programs at the University of Washington’s school of Professional and Continuing Education, says that students who complete one of their certificate programs are typically already working in a specialized field.

Generally, those who opt for the Business Intelligence: Techniques for Decision Making (BI Tech) certificate are program managers, software development managers and business and planning analysts. Those who enroll in the Business Intelligence: Building the Data Warehouse (BI Data) certificate program commonly have software engineering backgrounds, but business and data analysts often join, too.

“Given the variety of careers, students will likely articulate highly specific professional goals,” Chang says. “However, it appears in recent cohorts [that] 60 percent of students can be considered career advancers, while 40 percent can be considered career changers.”

Kate Mueller, who earned a Certificate of Advanced Study in Data Science as part of her Master’s program at Syracuse University, says that she would only consider going back to school for additional BI certification after narrowing down what she would want to study through continued hands-on work experience. (Mueller is currently employed as a Senior Associate in Client Technology Services at the Bank of New York Mellon.)

Who Aren’t These Programs for?

The students and faculty I spoke to agree: these programs are meant for only the truly passionate. “Big data” may be a hot buzzword, but data science programs aren’t for those who are just “trying to chase a hot job market of a hot industry,” says Urbaczewski.

Andy Wasser, associate dean at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, agrees: not only do you have to be “a little bit geeky” about data analysis, there are many other characteristics you must possess, as well.

“That’s the toughest part these days,” Wasser explains. “To be really engaged in this, you need unique people with a diverse set of skills: in technology, empirical methods and business strategy. If you add on that they need to have the communications skills to interact with senior management, it’s a really tough combination.”

James Van Scotter, program director of the Master of Science in Analytics program at Louisiana State University’s E.J. Ourso College of Business, notes that applicants need to have experience with either statistics or programming to be successful—and preferably both.

Without this, he says, they will typically recommend that applicants take some background courses and reapply the following year. Stohr adds that applicants should have experience with calculus and probability, as well.

While certificate programs may not have as stringent academic requirements as master’s programs, they may have experience requirements, instead. For example, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS: the largest professional society for operations research, management science and analytics) offers a Certified Analytics Program (CAP). This program requires that applicants have a combination of relevant education and work experience (from three to seven years).

What Kinds of Jobs Do Graduates Get?

The more pervasive big data becomes across industries, the more analytics jobs crop up in every kind of business imaginable. However, since BI is a developing field, some of these jobs may not be clearly defined.

“There’s a huge amount of interest in data science as a field, [but] a lot of people have no idea what it actually means and what those skillsets actually are,” Mueller says. “I think a lot of employers are looking to people who have certifications and degrees in it to help them structure what those positions should look like.”

Wasser seconds this emotion. Graduates of Carnegie Mellon’s Business Information and Data Analytics (BIDA) master’s program have gone on to prestigious employment at such companies as Google, IBM, Oracle, LinkedIn and PricewaterhouseCoopers, but their job titles don’t tell you much about their positions, he says.

The actual scope of work can vary considerably from company to company—not to mention that the field of data science is constantly evolving.

For this reason, most master’s programs in BI provide students with a comprehensive education, steeped in practical applications of conceptual and theoretical knowledge, rather than training them in very specific skills for specific roles.

“Our program doesn’t focus on just creating, for example, financial analysts or marketing analysts,” Urbaczewski says. “Rather, it tries to teach analytics from the broad spectrum of business… allowing individuals to go into a particular area without being too committed to a very narrow field.”

These programs are unique from other quantitative-heavy fields of study such as computer science and engineering in that they also focus largely on business, including marketing, communication skills and management. This positions graduates for jobs at all kinds of companies that combine their analytical aptitude with the ability to express the meaning of their analyses to upper management.

“We’ve had people hired by Amazon, Bank of America, Disney, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cox Communications,” says Van Scotter. “We had one person go into an oil exploration company. A couple of them started their own businesses; two went to SaaS [Software as a Service].”

RP Raghupathi, professor and director of the Master of Science in Business Analytics program at Fordham University, says students often go on to work in banks and investment brokerages, Web-based companies, the retail and food product industry and media companies. Stohr, too, affirms that the media industry is seeing a rapid increase in the need for predictive analytics and the ability to make real-time adjustments to their marketing programs.

As opposed to the broader education provided by a master’s degree, graduate-level certification programs cater to working professionals who are looking to advance or change their career in a specialized area. Students who complete these programs tend to have specific goals in mind.

“In the past, BI Data students have gone on to become BI Database Administrators, Database Warehouse Administrators, Data Architects, Database Warehouse Software Engineers and Database Developers,” Chang says of the University of Washington’s programs.

“Previous BI Tech students have gone on to become Junior/Mid-Level Business Intelligence Analysts, Business Systems Analysts and Program and Marketing Managers involved in BI projects.” She notes that graduates find employment at companies all along the spectrum: from Fortune 500 companies such as Amazon and Boeing to small startups.

“Analytics professionals work in many industries,” says Louise Wehrle, certification manager at INFORMS. “We have had candidates from military, from professors of analytics programs, from health care, from aerospace and from consulting companies who deliver analytic services to all of the above and more.”

She also notes that college professors often complete the CAP so that they can recommend similar programs to their students and ensure their curriculum covers all necessary material.

What Are the Costs and Durations of These Programs?

Most BI master’s programs take one to two years to complete, while certification programs can range from a few months up to a year (or more). Some programs allow students to attend part-time or work at their own pace, in which cases they take longer to complete.

Master’s programs typically include an internship designed to give students real-world experience. This may extend the program another quarter or semester past the one- or two-year mark, depending on the program.

Tuition costs for a master’s program at the colleges and universities I spoke with range from about $35,000 to $60,000 per year. Some state universities, such as LSU, offer reduced tuition rates and/or scholarships to in-state students (LSU’s master’s program only costs $10,000 for Louisiana residents).

The cost of certificate programs can vary from a few hundred dollars, if taken through a professional association or other organization not affiliated with the university system (such as INFORMS), to just under $20,000 when affiliated with a university. Some certificate programs are nearly equivalent in cost to a master’s program; check with admissions offices at individual schools for more information.

Certificate programs at a college or university typically allow students to apply the credits earned during their certification to a master’s program within a specified number of years after completion. Thus, students of certificate programs who find their interest piqued can choose to continue their education even further.

Why Go Back to School?

Not only can graduate-level BI programs give students the training they need—these programs can also open the door to better job prospects and higher salaries, both students and faculty report.

Lucio Daza, an alumnus of LSU’s MSA program, says that with his education, his earnings potential “increased considerably.” He notes that salaries upwards of $90,000 a year are now common in the field: if you are focused in terms of what you want to do (and do it well), you can expect to at least double your earnings.

And job prospects are plentiful, too. “Before graduating, I had [already been] interviewed by 10 different companies and received offers from at least four of them,” says Daza.

Another LSU alumnus, Mel Lazo, says that what he learned in school has proven directly relevant to his career in BI. He currently works as a Decision Science Consultant at The Walt Disney Company.

“I certainly feel I am qualified for many more prospective jobs after getting my master’s,” Lazo says. “I feel analytics/data science is an emerging and quickly-growing field with new methodologies being discovered and new problems always arising. My program gave me a good foundation to build my career and together with my experience at Disney, I feel primed to take on these new challenges.”

Wasser confirms that graduates of BI master’s programs can typically expect to go on to a fruitful career. “They’re doing incredibly well,” he says. “The average salary is just north of $98,000.”

That’s because there is high (and rising) demand for the relatively small number of trained analysts working today. In light of this, a growing number of schools are adding BI, analytics and data science programs at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. (In fact, many of the programs whose representatives I spoke with are only a few years old.)

The technical nature of the BI field also lends greater importance to higher education for these professionals. While some do teach themselves on their own time or on the job, formal training is generally required in order to really advance or specialize.

“A degree is essential for entry in this highly-ordered field,” Wehrle says. However, she notes that certifications, too, are becoming an increasingly viable option for those who wish to pursue additional BI training.

Chang agrees, noting that certifications can open the door to a wider pool of qualified applicants. “Investing the time and financial resources into a master’s or doctoral-level graduate program is not a feasible option for all of us,” she says. “Certificate programs are able to provide people with access to very specific information in a one-year time frame.”

For those who aren’t sure if they are ready to make the commitment to graduate-level education, Mueller says, there are a number of free online resources that potential students can use to help them make their decision, such as Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and training videos or courses offered by BI software vendors.

“It’s worth getting your feet wet and seeing if you really like the nature of the work before going the higher-education route,” she says.

If you have the interest and the talent, a graduate education in BI can give you the training you need to expand your skillset, expand your job prospects and increase your earnings potential in a highly-sought-after professional field.

After all, says Urbaczewski, “businesses who are trying to compete without the benefit of analytics are destined to fall behind.”

Graduation” created by Sean MacEntee used under CC BY / Resized.

Share this post:  
Holly Regan

About the Author

Holly Regan is the Content Editor for Software Advice. Her work has appeared on many notable sites, including The New York Times, PRNews and oDesk. She has also contributed to works on top-tier publications such as Entrepreneur, the Wall Street Journal and Business Insider.

Connect with Holly Regan via: 
Email  | Google+  | LinkedIn