For part-time students considering popular graduate programs, earning an online master’s degree can significantly augment their choices. No longer confined to what is geographically feasible, part-time students can continue to work at their current jobs while pursuing a degree from a university that is several states—or even a continent—away. Better still, online master’s degrees can create the opportunity to attend a more prestigious, more challenging graduate program than might be available within driving distance.
For niche disciplines—such as operations research—the choices are, at present, fewer. Most schools seek to go online with programs that can draw hundreds, if not thousands, of students since one of the purposes of launching an online master’s degree program—which can be expensive to build and manage—is to generate revenue for the university. While operations research is an important and growing field, it doesn’t draw students the way programs in public health, social work, or nursing do.
You might think that you would at least find a number of options among online MBA programs, given the popularity of that degree. We thought so too, and were surprised that we could only find one online MBA program offering an operations research concentration that we were comfortable recommending (and that program, at Carnegie-Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, is actually a hybrid program that requires significant commitments to face-to-face interaction, making it much less flexible than your typical online MBA).
We believe more operations research programs will go online in the coming years, but for now, the selection is fairly limited. Here are some factors to consider as you review your options.
So, which degree program? The answer to this question hinges on your career goals. A master’s in operations research will dig deeper and more exclusively into the mathematics and computer science underlying the discipline than will the corresponding MBA; the tradeoff is a less thorough education in other business disciplines. If your goal is to be a manager with a solid understanding of operations research, the MBA is probably the degree for you. If you’d rather get up to your elbows in data aggregation, mathematical calculations, statistics, and computer programming, then the MS is the better choice.
Of course, as previously noted, your online MBA choice in this field is currently limited to Carnegie-Mellon, a highly selective program that requires students to meet in person six weekends per year. If these are disqualifying factors for you, your only other choice would be to seek an online MBA with a concentration in operations management, business analytics, or data science, which would cover some—but not all—of what you’d learn pursuing an operations research concentration. Or, you could pursue an online Master of Science degree in the field, where your choices are not quite as restricted.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted an average starting salary for 2019 MBA graduates of $84,580—provided those graduates found jobs in computer science, engineering, science, or business. (
Students considering an MBA or graduate business degree can choose from varied career paths, including those focused on financial management, data analytics, market research, healthcare management, and operations management. The analytical skills and problem-solving techniques gained from graduate level business degrees are in high demand across business sectors. ( )
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Operations research is a STEM field, and programs typically expect applicants to arrive with a strong background in mathematics (most recommend college-level calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra). Admissions requirements often include an undergraduate degree in mathematics, science, computing, or engineering. Many programs require the GRE, although some accept the GMAT.
Operations research is a hybrid discipline, drawing from computer science, mathematics, engineering, and business. Different programs weight these inputs differently, especially when it comes to the balance between computer science and mathematics. Review each program’s curriculum carefully to make sure its focus coincides with your priorities.
Most online operations research MS programs allow you to customize your degree through electives. Many of these elective courses are offered through the school’s other online degree programs, e.g. computer science or industrial engineering. Review the elective choices of each program you consider and make sure that each contributing academic department has the same solid reputation as does the operations research program. Note that some programs allow you to formulate a concentration by taking a number of electives in a single area.
As an online student, your primary interface with the school and the program will be the web-based learning management system (LMS), which delivers your courses. You’ll find your course syllabi, recorded lectures, assignments, and grades in the LMS. You’ll interact with classmates and faculty through discussion boards, listservs, and instant messaging in the LMS as well. If your program uses simulation programs and other interactive apps, you will probably access them through the LMS.
In short, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the LMS, so you want to make sure that it is an intuitive, user-friendly environment. Some school websites provide access to their LMS or videos that demonstrate the online learning experience, but not all do. Once you express interest in a program, you will be contacted by an admissions counselor. Ask the counselor whether you can get a preview of the LMS. Explain that you are considering making a big investment in the program and that you aren’t comfortable doing that without a better understanding of how courses are delivered. Proceed cautiously with any program that refuses to let you see the LMS.
As you consider the learning platform, remember that an operations research master’s involves a lot of advanced mathematics and computer programming. Ask your admissions counselor how this work is accomplished. How will you access the databases and powerful apps you need to complete your work? What sort of minimum standards do your Internet connection and computer need to meet in order for you to complete the program? These questions may seem trivial now; they won’t when you are trying to upload a statistical analysis project at 4 a.m.
Most online operations research MS degrees require 30 credit hours to graduate. Tuition ranges from $777 per credit hour (Florida Institute of Technology) to $2,018 per credit hour (Columbia University), so there’s quite a range of price points out there. The cost of the part-time online MBA at Carnegie-Mellon is approximately $134,000.
Loans and grants are available for most programs. Some employers will cover some or all the cost of a graduate degree in return for a commitment to remain with the company for some period post-graduation. If you’re eyeballing a high-ticket program, getting a job with such an employer is a strategy definitely worth considering.
You enroll in a graduate program because you want to acquire expertise in a particular area, but unless you’re independently wealthy you are probably motivated, at least in part, by how that degree will improve your career prospects. The reputation of the institution conferring your master’s degree can help considerably in that area. Most people have heard of Columbia University and many of those—particularly those hiring in operations research—will know that the engineering school there is highly regarded. That can’t hurt when it comes time to send out résumés.
Schools like Columbia earn their reputations by hiring prestigious faculty and providing excellent career networking and placement support; there’s a reason the big-name schools typically cost a lot more. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a valuable degree from a less expensive, lesser-known school, however. Plenty of schools are widely respected regionally and locally, including many reasonably priced state universities.
Nearly every online master’s website includes a lists recent employers of graduates. Review these lists carefully; they reveal which employers and industries favor the program. In the end, any master’s from a recognized university will assure employers that you can take on and master challenging problems, which is what they are looking for in their potential hires.
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