By Abby Weingarten
During a year marked by economic and academic uncertainty, one thing is for sure: the data science graduate program at New College has never been more in demand.
This fall, 18 students enrolled in the program (a significant jump from the inaugural class of seven in 2015). Students know the value of data science careers, especially at a time when skills in information analysis (such as tracking COVID-19 patterns) are more essential than ever.
“A field like data science is so critical right now,” said Burçin Bozkaya, Ph.D., New College professor of data science and the director of the data science graduate program, who helped select the students from an applicant pool of 25 (a six-year record high). “Data science is the profession of the future, because the world’s problems are not getting easier, the data sets are not getting smaller, and there is so much data to analyze (definitely during a pandemic but the rest of the time, too). This is the right place for students to be.”
Professor Pat McDonald, Ph.D. initially launched the data science program at New College five years ago, and Bozkaya took the helm in August 2019. In the fall of 2021, the program will be renamed the Applied Data Science program, with some modifications to the curricular requirements. There are eight faculty members on board—all from various disciplines, including statistics, computer science, mathematics, political science and bioinformatics. There were 14 students in the 2019 cohort, 10 in 2018, 15 in 2017, and seven in both 2016 and 2015.
Tiffany Washington, manager of graduate and international enrollment at New College, has been instrumental in recruiting students (along with Data Science Program Coordinator Nikita Bagley). Considering the advantages of the degree and the lucrative career opportunities it generates, it is not a hard sell.
“Our program has had a 100 percent placement rate in a data science position within three months of graduation for all students thus far,” Washington said. “Also, the median starting salary is $95,000 for data scientists.”
To generate interest in the program from the best possible crop of students, Bozkaya introduced a new rolling application review strategy in the winter that would allow New College to begin taking applications in January. It paid off, as many students committed before the pandemic significantly hit America.
“Instead of waiting until May or June, we started in January to attract strong applicants and even award scholarships,” Washington said. “I believe, if we did not pivot so quickly, we would certainly have suffered from the COVID-related enrollment pitfalls other graduate programs are trying to recover from.”
Agbeyeye Koffi Ledi, who will relocate from Ghana to join the data science program in the fall of 2021, is among Washington’s recruits.
“I needed a program that would provide a holistic approach that emphasized gaining both theoretical concepts and real-world experience. This program offers real-world experience alongside classroom experience through partnerships with the industry,” Ledi said. “You are privileged to work and provide solutions to real problems faced by organizations while in school. I found no other place better than New College to undertake my master’s degree in data science.”
Zhandos Zhaken, from Kazakhstan, shared a similar stance to Ledi’s.
“We are living in an age of big data and people are leaving their digital footprints everywhere: products they buy, places they go, people they call, etc. And all of these things generate sufficient amounts of data to study and analyze,” Zhaken said. “I want to be part of this hot industry where I can create some impact.”
As the data science program becomes more multicultural and appealing to international students, the New College curriculum is expanding to accommodate them.
In April, two new offerings were approved for the graduate program (both of which are now available): a data science minor and a 3+2 B.A.-to-M.S. option. Undergraduate students will be able to either combine a primary area of concentration (AOC) with a secondary focus in data science, and/or earn both a data science bachelor of arts (B.A.) and master of science (M.S.) degree in five years instead of the usual six. Bozkaya hopes to also officially add a full data science undergraduate AOC in the fall of 2021.
And Bozkaya’s current data science students are already working on cutting-edge research that transcends New College, helping transform the way people communicate during the COVID-19 crisis.
In May, a grant from the New College Foundation allowed the data science program to partner with Riff Analytics (a Boston, Massachusetts-based tech company, born from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab). New College faculty and students began researching ways to fundamentally improve virtual communication in online platforms, and their findings could be instrumental in determining how people interact in a socially-distanced world.
“At a time like this, the discipline of data science can help with a lot of things. Think about the pandemic and how the outbreak happens. You can analyze tons of data to see what’s making an impact and how things can be improved,” Bozkaya said. “Also, if everybody has to stay at home during lockdowns, they can still perform their job duties as data scientists. Our students who graduated in May all got great jobs and immediately started working remotely. This is a fantastic career for so many reasons and, every year, the world needs more and more data scientists.”
For more information on the data science graduate program, call 941-487-4173 or visit ncf.edu/academics/graduate-program.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.