5 Valuable Insights from Data Science Students

Author: Roger Woodard

Left: Headshot of Mitch Speer in a lavender button down shirt and dark grey blazer; Right: Headshot of Sarah Reitz in a dark blue top.

In our recent information session, I spoke with two of our students, Sarah Baylor and Mitch Speer, about their experiences in the online MS-ACMS Data Science program.

Prior to joining the program, Sarah and Mitch were both high school math teachers. They enjoyed teaching but wanted to take their careers in a new direction. As Mitch and Sarah learned more about the field of data science, they felt that Notre Dame’s online data science master’s program would prepare them to thrive in new careers as data scientists.

I’m excited to share:

  1. Why they chose to pursue master’s degrees in data science
  2. What they think about Notre Dame’s approach to online learning
  3. How our program prepares them with real-world experience
  4. How they successfully manage the work/life balance
  5. Their advice for potential applicants

1. Why Pursue a Master’s Degree in Data Science?

In the fast-changing world of data science, the technologies and methods we teach students today might be very different in five years.

Data scientists must understand why these technologies and methods work the way they do so that when new tools and new techniques emerge in the field, they can adapt and use them.

Without a deep understanding of how the data science process works this isn’t possible.

When Mitch was considering a career in data science, he decided Notre Dame’s online master’s in data science program was what he needed to develop the skill set to succeed as a data scientist.

“The gravity of a master’s degree versus just a certificate or completing a course was a draw for me. Since this was a career pivot for me,” said Mitch. “I wanted a more in-depth program like a master’s degree. I also find that it ties in well with my current position as a data analyst at a credit union.”

In Notre Dame’s online master’s in data science program, our students become three-dimensional data scientists by going beyond the techniques.

Students are not just thinking about topics for a couple of weeks.

They are thinking about them in a synchronized way across the entire program.

2. A Personalized Approach to Online Learning

A personalized approach was important to Mitch and Sarah. They wanted to connect and interact with faculty and their classmates in an online learning environment. Building connections between faculty and students creates a successful learning environment and encourages student success.

The student-centered approach is an integral part of what defines the Notre Dame experience. That’s why we keep our online classroom size small (approximately 24 students). Even though faculty and students are meeting in a virtual classroom, they still get the close-knit learning experience for which Notre Dame is known.

“You become friends with your fellow classmates, and you get know your professors,” Sarah said. “I think it’s unique for an online program to have so much human interaction and connection, even though I don’t actually see my classmates and professors in person.”

Sarah recalled how early in the program her data science professors helped her and some of her classmates who needed to strengthen their programming skills.

“They started us off with some really good basics, and we had some awesome professors who sacrificed every Friday night for an entire semester to help those of us who had no idea what we were doing, so we could get up to speed,” she said. “To be able to ask questions of your professors and fellow students and get help is really an important aspect of the program that really does help the learning process.”

3. Obtaining Real-World Data Science Experience

Working in teams is an important skill for future data scientists.

Our unique online platform and the group work in synchronous sessions is designed to mirror a typical work environment for data scientists, giving students real-world experience working in teams and collaborating with other technical professionals.

Mitch shared his experience completing a team project for his class:

“We can set-up our own virtual meetings, which is great. My group did that and worked every night for a week on a group project. We went online and shared our screens. We all worked on the project together and made suggestions as we went along. It was definitely one of the best group projects I’ve ever worked on.

In addition, Notre Dame’s alignment with AT&T provides students with coursework that is informed by real industry challenges. Our curriculum is specifically designed to train our students with the real-world skills that employers are seeking in future data scientists.

4. Mastering Work/Life Balance

Notre Dame’s online master’s in data science is designed to be completed in 21 months of half-time enrollment to allow students to remain fully employed while completing 30 hours of coursework a week.

We tailored the program to be accessible and manageable for busy working adults. Sarah and Mitch shared their thoughts about how they manage the program in their busy professional and personal lives.

What Does a Typical Week in the Program Look Like?

Readings, videos, and practice problems are posted a week in advance of the live session. This means that students can complete the work at their own pace in advance of the twice weekly synchronous sessions.

On Mondays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. EST, Mitch and Sarah and their classmates meet in a virtual classroom for a 90-minute synchronous session. Professors and students log-on to the video platform before the session begins; just like in a traditional classroom, they enjoy the benefits of building connections.

To Mitch’s delight, students enjoy chatting before class gets started.

“A lot of us are interacting before class, and even asking each other questions, or just shooting the breeze and talking about random stuff before the class. You still get that really personal kind of kind of classroom experience, which I think was a really unexpected draw for me.”

The Monday synchronous session is devoted to one course and the Thursday session to another.

“We log into whatever class it is that day, and you have a professor who actually explains the material and answers your questions and does a lot of group work,” said Sarah. “You really do get to know your classmates and work with other people.”

The online platform is easy to access, so students who travel for work or pleasure can access it from their hotel or an airport.

“My wife and I both work. I started coaching football in addition to my career as a data analyst at a credit union,” explained Mitch. “Since the start of the program, we have taken 4 plane trips out of town and bought our first home. I can easily access the platform and the material from the airport or a hotel. I’m still able to keep up with the material and prepare for the weekly synchronous sessions.”

Additionally, Mitch appreciated the ease and flexibility of taking tests in his courses.

“You’re able to take the exam in your home or wherever you choose to take the exam, which is really awesome because you can prepare as you need to beforehand. You don’t have to worry about reporting to a testing center at a certain time.”

5. What are we Looking for in an Applicant?

While Mitch and Sarah both have undergraduate degrees in math, students in our program come from a variety of disciplines and professions.

When Notre Dame reviews student applications, we look at the whole person.

The applicant’s desire to succeed in the field and become an outstanding data scientist is one of the most important factors we consider.

We have students in the program who graduated from Notre Dame a year ago, and we have students who have established successful careers. We also have students with advanced degrees from a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds.

Preparing for the Program

Some prerequisite training in math and computer science is necessary for success in the program. However, applicants can meet the prerequisites through undergraduate study, work experience, some recommended online coursework, or a combination of the above.

Sarah and Mitch found the online readiness assessment helpful. It is not part of the admissions process, but it is instead a resource to help applicants understand their current preparation in math and computer programming.

“After taking the assessments, I felt more confident knowing that I’m in a good spot,” said Mitch, “and I understand what I’m doing.”

At the end of the student info session, Sarah summarized her experience as student in the first cohort of Notre Dame’s online master’s in data science, and offered prospective applicants this insight:

“They’ve done a great job at bringing us all together, which has been a really great experience for me. Don’t fret if you don’t pass the assessments or you get a lower score on the GRE. You can still succeed in the program. There are plenty of resources and support available.”

I encourage you to download the application checklist to learn more about applying to our program, and to hear more from Mitch and Sarah, watch our student-led information session.