Operations research, historians agree, originated in World War II Britain, the offspring of a project in which scientists, engineers, and mathematicians partnered with the military to integrate radar technology into aerial combat. The work was so successful that the approach was quickly applied to other military challenges, and pretty soon a discipline—one which utilized mathematical and scientific principles to determine optimal solutions to operational problems—was born. It didn’t take long for operational research practices to be adopted by businesses, governments, and other organizations.
Operations research feeds on data, and the era of Big Data has unsurprisingly brought on boom times for the field. Whereas in the past operations research may have struggled to find enough relevant data to produce reliable guidance, today it’s a question of filtering the torrent of data to find the most relevant information. It’s a process that requires plenty of skill in mathematics, computer science, engineering, and business, as well as plenty of smarts. It is a field in which a graduate degree is pretty much a requirement.
Graduate school programs in operations research are popular among many students pursuing their master’s in business; the degree is typically conferred through a university’s school of engineering. If you’re wondering how to choose a master’s in operations research program, here are some factors you should take into account.
Applicants to undergraduate programs and larger, popular graduate programs can usually see the average GPAs and standardized test scores of recently admitted students in order to gauge their chances at admission. That’s not the case in smaller niche graduate programs like operations research. Schools typically report a minimum undergraduate GPA (usually 3.0) and identify which standardized test is required (usually the GRE, although some accept the GMAT) but few if any will tell you more.
Program websites contain occasional hints.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s__ site reveals that the school receives “hundreds of applications each year from the best and brightest students” around the world, of which it admits a total of 40 for its three graduate programs (PhD, SM, MBAn) in operations research. Also, it’s MIT. It’s safe to assume that anything less than stellar qualifications makes you a long shot.
Nearly all operations research master’s degree programs require prerequisite work in advanced mathematics: calculus, linear algebra, and statistical analysis are all part of the OR experience. Some also require work experience or previous coursework in computer programming as well. Many programs require a bachelor’s degree in business, mathematics, science, computing, or engineering. Some programs offer remedial pre-degree courses to students whom they conditionally admit pending completion of these courses.
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A master’s in operations research can typically be completed in one year by a full-time student, so the opportunity cost here isn’t great: one year away from earning and advancing in your current job vs. the advantages conferred by a master’s degree. Full-time students usually relocate, which can be both expensive and disruptive, but also creates new opportunities for job search through networking with faculty and other students. While many part-time programs provide recruitment and placement services for students, full-time programs definitely offer an advantage when it comes to networking opportunities with faculty, recruiters, and fellow students.
Part-time study allows students to continue working, earning, and applying what you’re learning in real time. Many employers will cover some or all of an employee’s graduate education tuition fees and expenses in return for a commitment to continue working for them post-graduation, making the part-time degree a potentially significant money-saver.
The best online programs (most of which are designed for part-time students), allow you to earn your degree without having to relocate.
The typical operations research program features elements of computer science, information systems, mathematics, systems engineering, supply chain management, industrial engineering, and business. The way these disciplines are weighted in the curriculum varies among programs. Unsurprisingly, schools with strong computer science programs stress programming and data mining, while schools with great mathematics programs emphasize theory and number-crunching.
Fortunately programs post their curricula, with reasonably thorough course descriptions. Look for the program with the balance of disciplines that matches your career goals and the course offerings that excite you most. Pay particular attention to whether the program includes any management courses. You may only be interested in the STEM side of operations research, but if you’re looking to add business skills to your portfolio, make sure they’re covered by the program you choose.
Most master’s programs allow students to customize their degree through electives. These electives are typically offered through the school’s programs in applied mathematics, computer science, finance, economics, and management science. Many programs allow students to formulate a concentration by taking a number of electives in a single area.
Full-time tuition for an operations research master’s can run over $100,000 (MIT’s two-year program charges over $50,000 tuition per school year). Most programs can be completed in one year, resulting in considerable savings (Cornell University’s program, for example, costs approximately $55,000). Public institutions are typically less expensive still; tuition at Georgia Institute of Technology is $1,100 per credit, for a total of $33,000. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill charges in-state students $6,106 per semester and nonresidents $14,712 per semester. Living expenses and, in most cases, relocation expenses will likely be significant no matter where you attend.
Part-time programs typically charge by the credit, with tuitions ranging from $777 per credit hour (Florida Institute of Technology) to $2,018 per credit hour (Columbia University). Most master’s programs require 30 credits to graduate.
A degree from a well-respected institution confers automatic prestige; it can make the difference in whether your résumé makes it past an HR screener. That’s because a degree communicates to employers that you have been deemed capable of handling a difficult challenge (by the school’s admissions committee) and that you succeeded in that challenge. In a crowded employment market, that can be a big leg up. The better the school, the bigger the boost.
You don’t need a degree from an Ivy or a tech powerhouse to have a successful career in operations research, however. Many schools have great local and regional reputations that, within their markets, may be even more valuable than a ‘fancier’ degree. Alumni connections are an invaluable resource in your job search, and in most markets workplaces are full of graduates from nearby state universities, not MIT wonks.
Visit the websites of all programs you are considering, click on the careers tab, and look at the list of recent employers of graduates. These are the employers who value the school’s degree most, the ones most likely to recruit you when you graduate. If you are pursuing this degree in order to change careers, this factor should weigh heavily in your school choice.
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