A city government wants to know whether a new highway will relieve traffic congestion on existing roads. An investment firm wants to devise a portfolio that will appeal especially to young investors. A police department cannot decide where it should locate new stations to optimize effectiveness. A manufacturer hopes to determine which mix of products will maximize production in its plants. An online retailer seeks an algorithm that will optimally price its inventory of tens of thousands of items.
These are all examples of operational problems that can be solved through the aggregation and analysis of big data, a process known as operations research. Experts in operations research, a subcategory of business intelligence, use data mining to study how operations function on a daily basis.
Through the application of software, probability calculations, mathematical formulas, and network analyses, operations researchers create solutions to the problem, then create projection models for their solutions to predict a range of possible outcomes. The goal is to use quantifiable evidence to reach, as nearly as possible, objective, scientifically supported guidance.
Operations research is a bit of a Frankenstein discipline, cobbled together from business, engineering, and mathematical principles and applications. Some schools offer a master’s in operations research through their engineering school, others through their business school, and some through their mathematics or computer science. The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) lists 60 programs offered through business schools and 95 offered through engineering/math/computer science programs in the U.S. Additionally, many MBA programs offer concentrations in operations research, or in an umbrella discipline—such as data science, business intelligence, or business analytics—that includes operations research.
Some schools are addressing the hybrid nature of the discipline by offering a hybrid master’s degree: a Master of Engineering Management (MEM or MSEM) that draws curriculum from both engineering and business divisions.
Top schools offering a master’s degree in operations research include:
As always, a master’s degree in a specific subject will dig deeper and more exclusively into the discipline than will the corresponding MBA; the tradeoff is a less thorough education in other business disciplines. If you know operations research is the lifetime field for you, pursue the master’s; if you’re interested but still not certain, the MBA is probably the better choice.
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Operations research experts are problem solvers, parsing reams of data to detect patterns, hidden inefficiencies, and ultimately, solutions to logistical challenges. Many job titles in the operations research field include the word ‘analyst’: information system analyst, business and data analyst, financial analyst, etc. Teaching computer science is another option.
The field of operations research is growing quickly: the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a sector growth rate of 27.4 percent from 2016 to 2026 (that’s against the overall job market growth rate of 7 percent).
US News & World Report calculates a median 2017 salary of $81,390 for operations research analysts, with the top quartile earning over $107,720 per year. Median pay in big cities is significantly higher; in San Francisco, for example, the median annual income is over $112,000.
Academic offerings in operations research are unusually diverse because the field is multidisciplinary. Your first consideration is whether you want your degree from a business program, an engineering program, a mathematics program, or a computer science program. All are available, both from top national institutions and from schools whose reputations are more local.
You may choose to pursue a master’s in engineering management, a blended business-engineering degree: according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 100 schools currently offer this degree.
When considering schools with regional reputations, look at the major employers in the area: the school will likely be feeding a related job market. The operations research program at North Carolina State University at Raleigh, for example, piggybacks off its proximity to Fort Bragg (the world’s largest military installation) through specialized courses in military operations research.
The most highly regarded operations research programs are those leading the way in new research and theory. Note that many of the schools below offer more than one master’s degree in operations research. Typically the difference between the degrees is the curricular balance between business and STEM disciplines.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SM in operations research or Dual SM/MBA in operations research: MIT’s SM in operations research is a two-year program that—surprise, surprise—is heavy on computer literacy and quantitative analysis. The program culminates in an independent-research thesis.
Stanford University, MS in operations and analytics (Engineering) or MBA with specialization in operations, information, and technology (business): Stanford differentiates its MS from its MBA by explaining that the former “addresses the technical as well as the behavioral challenges of running organizations and complex systems,” adding that the MS more strongly stresses quantitative analytical skills and entrepreneurial spirit. A stellar faculty provides the foundation for both programs.
Georgia Institute of Technology – Main Campus, MS in operations research (engineering) or MBA in operations management (business): Georgia Tech is deeply committed to operations research; nearly half the school’s Industrial and Systems Engineering faculty teach and conduct research in the area. The resulting programs—a quant- and theory-heavy MS offered through the College of Engineering or the MBA offered through the College of Business—are robust and rigorous. A state institution, Georgia Tech is considerably more affordable than comparable programs elsewhere, even for those who don’t reside in Georgia.
Cornell University, MEng in applied operations research: Theory and practice are given equal weight in Cornell’s MEng in applied operations research program. Hands-on learners will appreciate that the one-year program integrates interdisciplinary group projects and culminates in a research design project rather than a thesis.
Johns Hopkins University, MEM in applied and computational management: JHU’s hybrid MEM mixes a core of management courses with a slate of STEM-driven electives. The goal is to develop students equally adept at leadership and technical problem-solving.
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