Data Science

The Master’s in Data Science at UVA Tackles More Than Just Tech

The Master’s in Data Science at UVA Tackles More Than Just Tech
UVA delivers a rigorous, highly technical education but doesn't merely crank out rigid number-crunchers. Rather, the school's approach to data science is elegant and inclusive. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry September 23, 2020

With its emphasis on professional development, creativity, and collaboration, the University of Virginia's master's in data science program is one of the most well-rounded anywhere.

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In 2013, the University of Virginia (Main Campus) in Charlottesville opened the Data Science Institute, a first-of-its-kind academic research institution dedicated to advancing data science knowledge and training the next generation of data scientists. In 2019, the institute was redesignated the UVA School of Data Science (SDS), a transformation Provost Liz Magill described as “positively thrilling… The SDS is on the cutting edge of an emerging field… and we are at the leading edge.”

SDS offers innovative STEM-focused on-campus and online Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS) degree programs. It’s working to develop undergraduate, PhD, certificate, and executive education pathways as well. The school delivers a rigorous, highly technical education but doesn’t merely crank out rigid number-crunchers. Rather, he UVA approach to data science is elegant and inclusive. As the school’s website explains, “Data tells a story—and our students know how to see it and share it by asking the right questions and understanding how to find the best solutions.”

Accordingly, the curriculum covers more than advanced analytics and programming. Students pursuing a master’s in data science at UVA exercise their creativity, ponder ethical issues and the meaning of integrity in data science, work collaboratively, and solve real-world challenges.

Intrigued? In this article about pursuing a __ master’s in data science at UVA__, we cover:

  • What sets the University of Virginia School of Data Science apart
  • The format of UVA’s Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS)
  • Dual degree options offered UVA’s data science department
  • How to get accepted into this program
  • Research and innovation opportunities at the University of Virginia
  • The School of Data Science’s academic and industry partners
  • Tuition and financial aid options
  • How UVA supports its data science master’s graduates

What sets the University of Virginia School of Data Science apart

Students enrolled in the UVA School of Data Science benefit from:

  • An integrated curriculum that includes ethics, project management, and proposal writing. Faculty from multiple departments expose students to a varied range of perspectives.
  • Hands-on learning experiences, including a capstone project designed around student interests and evaluated by faculty members from different disciplines. Students tackle challenges like using AI to diagnose diseases or mining social media data to assess the threat posed by extremist groups.
  • A vibrant cohort experience that emphasizes teamwork. Students pursuing data science degrees at UVA build strong relationships while honing their practical skills.
  • Funding for professional development that’s part of the school’s robust career support. Data science students at UVA can attend conferences, pursue data science certifications, and more without paying out of pocket.
  • A diversity of student backgrounds in each cohort. Incoming MSDS students have degrees in not only computer science, but also English, biology, nursing, public policy, computer science, astronomy, journalism, German, and more.

“I’m Interested in Data Science!”

Data science professionals can use their knowledge and skills in many ways and in almost every industry. You might specialize in business intelligence or robotics or healthcare informatics. There are almost too many options.

90 percent of data scientists hold master’s degrees, and 47 percent hold doctoral degrees. (source)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics sets median data scientist annual pay at just over $100,000. Top-paying sectors include (source):

- Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing ($148,290)
- Semiconductor and other electronic equipment manufacturing ($142,150)
- Specialized information services ($139,600)
- Data processing, hosting, and related services ($126,160)
- Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, payroll services ($124,440)

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The format of UVA’s Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS)

Students at UVA currently have two degree options: a full-time 32-credit 11-month program on the UVA campus and a flexible 32-credit online data science program that typically takes two years to complete. Regardless of format, the curriculum consists almost entirely of core courses delivered in a specific sequence. Students begin by mastering foundational programming languages, computation, and linear modeling, then transition into classes focused on more advanced skills.

Classes in the on-campus curriculum include:

  • Bayesian Machine Learning
  • Data Mining
  • Ethics of Big Data
  • Foundations of Computer Science
  • Linear Models for Data Science
  • Machine Learning
  • Practice and Application of Data Science
  • Programming and Systems for Data Science

Students in the on-campus master’s in data science program also choose two three-credit electives under the program director’s guidance. Options include:

  • Biomedical Cloud Computing
  • Database Systems
  • Longitudinal Data Analysis
  • Parallel Computing
  • Selected Topics in Systems Engineering (e.g., Reinforcement Learning, User Experience Design, Sensors & Perception, Bioinformatics)
  • Special Topics in Computer Science (e.g., Text Mining, Cloud Computing, Vision & Language, Artificial Intelligence)
  • Theory of Computation
  • Time Series Econometrics

The online master’s in data science offers an identical curriculum. The main difference is that distance learners take Big Data Analytics and Exploratory Text Analytics in place of the two electives. Additionally, work on capstone data science projects starts in the second term for students on-campus and in the fourth term for students in the online program.

Dual degree options offered UVA’s data science department

The UVA School of Data Science has three dual degree pathways:

  • A two-year MBA/MSDS program offered in partnership with the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. The program covers not only the technological side of data science but also its applications in entrepreneurship, consulting, and other areas of business.
  • An 11-month MSDS/PhD program offered in partnership with the University of Virginia School of Medicine that’s designed for MD candidates. The program looks at how data science tools and techniques can be used in the field of medicine.
  • A non-specific PhD/MSDS program offered in partnership with various schools and departments at UVA designed for all students who want to apply data science in their fields.

How to get accepted into this program

You don’t need to have an undergraduate degree in computer science or analytics to apply to the UVA data science program. Consequently, students come from a variety of undergraduate backgrounds.

Even so, applicants are expected to have not only a bachelor’s degree but also specific foundational knowledge. Students accepted into the program must take and pass the following prerequisite courses before the start of the program:

  • Introductory Programming
  • Introductory Statistics
  • Linear Algebra or Matrix Algebra
  • Single Variable Calculus

Applicants must also submit transcripts and GRE scores, GMAT scores, or—surprisingly—MCAT scores. UVA does not publish the average GPA for admitted students and, according to the program website, there is no predetermined minimum required GRE score. The university doesn’t offer GRE waivers except in cases where an applicant has remarkable work experience, but unlike many institutions, it accepts older scores. The School of Data Science stresses in its application guidelines that “the GRE is only one part of the application.”

Research and innovation opportunities at the University of Virginia

The UVA School of Data Science is a research institution, so it should be no surprise that students in the MSDS program participate in research exploring real-world problems. The school regularly pairs teams of graduate students with industry, academic, and community sponsors to tackle challenges in academic and professional arenas using the information contained in large data sets.

Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, one research team used machine learning to investigate how women are radicalized to commit acts of terrorism online. Other students helped develop Scholia, a wiki-type tool that makes academic research more accessible. Students sometimes launch their own collaborative, multi-disciplinary research projects as part of the Presidential Fellowships in Data Science program.

The School of Data Science’s academic and industry partners

The School of Data Science maintains strong relationships with employers, many of which participate in the capstone projects course as industry partners. Representatives from these companies also make regular campus visits as guest lecturers, event speakers, workshop hosts, conference VIPs, and recruiters. As a result, UVA alumni who graduate from the on-campus program and the online MS program work at top-tier companies like Amazon, Capital One, MITRE, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey, Deloitte, Meetup, and Northrop Grumman. Some go to work for government agencies like the CIA and NIH.

Tuition and financial aid options

The cost of the UVA MSDS is on par with other data science master’s programs. The total cost for Virginia residents is about $35,264. Out-of-state students pay $49,976. That’s not exactly cheap, but when you consider that many of the top data science master’s programs cost $70,000 or more, it starts to look like a real bargain.

On the other hand, be aware that the figures above don’t include books or materials, living expenses, and the very real cost of taking time off work to pursue a degree. UVA students pursuing the master’s in data science can access all the usual financial options, including federal student aid, scholarships, grants, and loans, and about 25 percent of incoming students receive some kind of need-based fellowship.


How UVA supports its data science master’s graduates

UVA’s School of Data Science does a lot to support students before and after graduation and set them up for career success. Students benefit from:

  • Alumni referrals
  • Career fairs
  • Career-readiness bootcamps
  • Career treks to San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, DC
  • Data science meetups
  • Industry-led talks
  • LinkedIn and GitHub reviews
  • Networking happy hours in tech hubs
  • One-on-one career coaching
  • Package negotiation training
  • Professional development funding
  • Professional development workshops
  • Resume reviews
  • Skills development workshops
  • Technical interview prep sessions

The bottom line is that what UVA is doing in the School of Data Science works. According to the school’s most recent employment statistics, 100 percent of graduates are employed and have titles like data science, senior data analyst, data engineer, and data science developer. The average starting salary of MSDS graduates is about $87,000, and the average signing bonus is close to $10,000. Given that UVA offers one of the more affordable data science master’s degrees out there, the data suggests that pursuing your degree at this school could be highly beneficial to your career.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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