Ten Ideas for Students Thinking About Data Science Grad School
By: Omry Brewster and Sophia Ma
Hi, I’m Omry Brewster. I recently graduated from NC State University with a BS in Applied Mathematics. And I’m Sophia Ma. I also recently graduated with a BS in Business Administration and a BA in International Studies. We were initially exposed to data science during our undergraduate career while taking courses in the Data Science Academy at NC State. Now, we are in our 7th week as graduate students in the Master of Science in Analytics program at the Institute for Advanced Analytics (IAA) at NC State.
As first-generation college students, completing undergrad was a big deal to us. Now that we have made it into graduate school, we have been reflecting on our journey. How did we get here? What helped us? What was a struggle? We wanted to share this information with other undergraduate students who are interested in applying to graduate programs, and would benefit from some support and encouragement.
Here are 10 ideas that we hope will help you on your data science application journey:
1. GO FOR IT.
During the application, I doubted whether my experience would be enough to get me into the program. I did it anyway because I knew that after filling out the application, I would get a solid answer. There was a chance I would get denied, but there was also a chance that I’d be accepted, and I’d rather have that chance than have none at all. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will!
2. HAVE A CLEAR GOAL IN MIND FOR WHY YOU WANT TO APPLY.
For me, it was very easy to get lost in being obsessed with the application and receiving the decision. I found that I constantly needed to remind myself of my goal to become a data scientist. I needed to get beyond wanting to be admitted to graduate school and understand my career desires. I wanted to use data science to work towards social good. It was very easy to lose track of that as other people got admitted, and I worried about whether I was enough like them to be accepted.
3. ASK FOR A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF ADVICE.
Applying to grad school was new, and as someone who spent half of their undergraduate years online due to COVID, I was not that confident in the experiences and value I would provide. I didn’t want to do anything wrong. As a result, I went and sought out too much advice from alumni and admissions consultants. My mindset when seeking outside advice was based on the assumption that alumni had regrets about their application, which was not healthy. I asked them, “What would you have done differently about your application”, or “What would have made it better.” My main focus should have been thinking about what I knew I could bring to the table instead of thinking about what other people had done that I could imitate. Reflection will help you with your essay. Go ahead and write your personal statement and then get some feedback to improve it.
4. HAVE AN OPEN MIND ABOUT YOUR CLASSMATES.
People are coming in from very different backgrounds, and in our program, some people come in with a lot of work experience from many different fields. You may come across people who are at different stages of life. Some people have families and kids. Don’t compare yourself to them. It may seem scary to meet a bunch of new people. Depending on how social you are able to be, you may make some new acquaintances in a few weeks. It is also inspiring to hear stories from your classmates.
5. BE PREPARED FOR THINGS TO NOT BE WHAT YOU EXPECTED.
Since starting the program, I have been challenged in ways I never thought that I would be. I applied to gain experience in data science and become better at working in teams, and now I am constantly being pushed out of my comfort zone. Although it is uncomfortable, I know that it will help me to grow and become the best data professional that I can be.
6. BUILD A SUPPORT SYSTEM.
Applying to graduate school is a daunting task, especially if none of your peers can relate. Having a support system that will stick with you through the ups and downs of the application period is a game changer. Reach out to everyone you can: family, friends, alumni, current students, faculty, and advisors. There will always be at least a few people who can support you throughout that process, and as a result, you’ll have people to lift you up when you eventually receive an acceptance letter.
7. FIND OUT WHETHER YOU ARE ALLOWED TO TAKE OUTSIDE WORK.
If you are concerned about finances, take some time to research different program formats. Some programs provide research or teaching assistantships, while other programs allow you to work outside of the university as long as you prioritize your schoolwork. In our program specifically, students are strongly discouraged from working because it is an intensive 10-month program. The job prospects upon graduating from the program are high-paying, so the return on investment (ROI) justified our decision to attend the program. The presumption is that if you have to take on a loan, you will be able to pay it back soon. However, it can still be stressful to make ends meet and try to find financial aid or scholarships, so make sure you consider what format is best for you.
8. FIND OUTLETS FOR YOUR FEELINGS.
Trying to handle all of the issues above led to extreme frustration at times. I probably needed a good cry, but I couldn’t let myself until it was all over. I was trying to force myself into being a perfect candidate and an ideal one, without realizing that they were not looking for a particular mold of a person. They were trying to create a diverse cohort. So understand that no matter how much you prepare, it might not be enough, but you can also find comfort in knowing that you did the best you can. The worst that can happen when you apply is someone says no. They can’t take away your undergraduate degree. Take advantage of counseling resources if they are available and you need them.
9. LOOK FOR THE CAREER DEVELOPMENT ASPECTS IN THE PROGRAM.
Data science requires a lot of technical skills. The career coaching and development aspect of our program was important in persuading us to apply. The program focuses on soft skills, such as communication, working in groups, and presenting. All of these skills help students to develop into well-rounded and effective data scientists.
10. CONSIDER THE STRUCTURE OF THE PROGRAM.
Some programs are more theoretical and others are more applied, while some are a mix. Some programs create a very close cohort and have students work in teams, while in others, students work more independently. In our program, every week is different, so we don’t have that much of a routine. Find out what the program expects you to already know and take some time to brush up on it. Some programs solve problems for real stakeholders, which can be motivating. Every program will have its own flavor. You can find and apply to the ones you think will provide the best environment for your learning.
About the Authors
As a recent graduate in Applied Mathematics and a current master’s student in Analytics, problem-solving is what I love to do. I never turn down an opportunity to learn something new and increase my skillset, so once I learned about data science, I dove in headfirst. My top priority moving forward was altering my class schedule to include as many data science courses as possible.
Over the course of my undergraduate studies, I took classes and served as a Course Collaboration Leader at the NC State Data Science Academy. Throughout this time, I was able to assist my peers with data science questions and learn more about the field of data science as a whole. I was also a data analyst intern for a local company in my college town, which furthered my passion for the field.
As a M.S. Candidate in Analytics at the Institute of Advanced Analytics at NC State University with degrees in Business Administration and International Studies, I am passionate about data-driven insights and analyzing data to initiate change. I want to work towards purpose and fulfillment in a career to use data for advocacy and combating disparities.
While an undergraduate student, I worked for the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, assessing focus groups in a team that collected and analyzed qualitative data that is still currently being utilized by NC State to better support first-gen students and their unique experiences. My experience working with a community I share a sense of belonging around allowed me to realize my passion for deriving value from data. I can work in diverse groups to explore problems, analyze data, tell stories, and create solutions in an innovative process to bring about data-informed actions.