Computational scientists, physicists, astronomers and other researchers at George Mason University have been analyzing large datasets for two decades—long before “data scientist” became the sexiest job title in business.
Still, with rising demand for expertise in business-oriented analytics skills, George Mason’s School of Physics, Astronomy and Computational Sciences is preparing to join a raft of other universities by updating its master’s degree programs to include three new areas of emphasis: data science, modeling and simulations, and transportation safety.
The move, scheduled to take place in the fall of 2014, serves two concurrent purposes, according to Kirk D. Borne, a professor of astrophysics and computational science at George Mason who has been active in the curriculum updates. One benefit: it strengthens the existing master’s degree program by giving students options to specialize in areas relevant to both science and business. And second: it responds to an outpouring of demand from students, alumni and others in the university community to meet a growing demand for trained analytics professionals.
That last piece, common to so many university data science programs, has particular resonance at George Mason because the school—based in Fairfax, Va., at the end of the Washington, D.C., Metro Orange Line—caters to part-time graduate students who hold down jobs in government and industry. Graduate classes begin in the late afternoon and early evening for that reason.
Borne, whose career includes 10 years on the Hubble Space Telescope program, has been at George Mason since 2003. He said that while those going into scientific research fields benefit from earning a doctorate—and 80 of the 95 graduate students now enrolled at the computational sciences programs are Ph.D. candidates—businesses crying out for data science talent are, in general, not requiring the terminal degree.
“The world is changing and these masters of big data analytics programs are sprouting up everywhere,” Borne said. “It’s clear the workforce need for data science is not for Ph.D.’s. There will be jobs for the Ph.D.’s, but the business world is not demanding Ph.D.’s.” Master’s students can do the work required to earn a degree, without the extra hurdles presented by a doctoral program and with the promise of quality job opportunities, he said.
The three specialties in the master’s program reflect the research and teaching strengths of the school, Borne said. Students must earn 30 credits, through 10 courses. Courses include topics like data mining, machine learning, statistics, visualizations and database management, plus a wide range of computational mathematics courses. Students can also take approved electives at George Mason’s business school or other departments, Borne said.
The school is now seeking a professor of data science with Hadoop programming experience. “We know that is essential,” Borne said.
There has been a lot of interest in the graduate school community about the new data science concentration, said Brian Curtis, a researcher in space weather model validation and verification who is finishing up his doctorate at George Mason. Curtis, 28, earned a meteorology degree from the State University of New York at Oswego before coming to George Mason. His academic career has included summer stints at a space weather prediction center at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and as a science collaborator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Asked to suggest to a prospective student how to look at the new data science concentration, Curtis said he saw the potential for someone interested in biology or another field to combine that interest with the curriculum in the updated program. “It would help them a lot, I believe,” he said.
• Degree awarded: Master of Science in Computational Science
• Program updates—concentrations in data science, modeling and simulations, and transportation safety—scheduled to start in fall 2014
• Students may enroll full- or part-time
• Requirements: 30 credits (10 courses) including three courses from the computational core of five computational elective courses, and two scientific electives
• Cost: $493.25 per credit hour (for in-state students), $1,176.75 per credit hour (out-of-state students)
George Mason’s Ph.D. degree in computational science and informatics offers tracks in computational fluid dynamics, computational materials and physical chemistry sciences, space sciences and computational astrophysics, computational mathematics, computational physics, computational statistics, computational learning, or an original area of emphasis in consultation with their academic advisers.
The university also offers a certificate in computational techniques and applications.
Correction, January 24, 2013: The original version of this story has been updated to reflect the fact that George Mason offers a doctorate degree program in computational science and informatics.