How to Become an Operations Research Analyst
March 10, 2021
The world is a complicated place full of complex problems. Operations research analysts exist to solve them. If you have a knack for using hard data to solve real-world puzzles, this might just be the career for you.
Scenario: a city's chief of police wants to determine whether relocating some stations will have a positive impact on outcomes. Her gut tells her that the answer is yes, but she needs to prove that relocating those stations will reduce response times, save lives, and lower crime rates. She's facing an operational problem, one that can only be solved by pulling together and analyzing lots of data. Who should she call? Let's hope there's an operations research analyst in her Rolodex.
Operations research analysts use Big Data and advanced mathematical modeling to study and solve problems like that one… and problems nothing like that one. An operations research analyst may work in transportation or business, manufacturing or banking, the public sector, or retail. Whenever and wherever there are problems that only data can solve, you’ll find operations research analysts crunching numbers to find and then test possible solutions.
Does that sound amazing? Do you love math? Do you find beauty in the quantifiable and excitement in efficiency? Then keep reading to find out what it takes to become an operations research analyst.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What operations research analysts do
- What becomes an operations research analyst?
- The educational commitment to become an operations research analyst
- Operations research at the bachelor’s degree level
- Operations research at the master’s degree level
- What else you’ll need to become an operations research analyst
Kinds of operations research analyst careers
When you become an operations research analyst, you’ll use software, probability calculations, mathematical formulas, and network analysis to identify scientifically supported solutions to problems and test those solutions using projection models. That is what all operations research analysts do, across industries.
The process may be similar from industry to industry, but the problems are not. Depending on where they work, these operations research analysts may tackle problems related to:
- Saving money
- Improving revenue
- Setting prices
- Mapping product distribution
- Optimizing resource usage
- Managing supply chains
- Creating production schedules
- Analyzing performance
- Streamlining logistics
- Coordinating transportation
- Determining labor requirements
- Saving lives
The operations research analyst in the police station relocation example above might save lives, save the city money, and reduce traffic congestion. An operations research analyst working for a large supermarket chain might determine which store layout both inspires customers to spend the most money and reduces the amount of time it takes to restock the shelves. Yet another operations research analyst employed by a health insurance company might be asked to find the optimal schedule of checkups and tests for catching illnesses early.
Many operations research analysts find work in the military, not surprising given that the military is the incubator in which operations research developed. Efforts to optimize such processes as shipping supplies to troops in the field, deploying radar, determining where to place units, and finding enemy submarines gave rise to the field during World War II. The military, along with most industries, continues to benefit from operations research today.
Who becomes an operations research analyst?
This career attracts people with analytical minds and a predilection for solving super-complex puzzles with hard facts. They’re natural problem solvers, and they tend to prefer data-driven solutions over gut feelings. That said, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a job for the unimaginative. Operations research analysts have to be able to not only identify existing patterns, but to envision what kinds of additional data might alter those patterns.
An effective operations research analyst's skill set includes:
- Solid technical and math skills
- An understanding of lots of different software packages and how to use them for forecasting, data mining, and statistical analysis
- The ability to apply statistics, calculus, and other advanced math to a problem
- Good communication skills, in order to report their findings to non-technical people in management positions
- Critical-thinking skills, in order to determine what data are relevant to a problem.
- Interpersonal skills, because operations research analysts frequently work on teams
Educational commitment to become an operations research analyst
There are entry-level positions for operations research analysts out there, but they are few and far between. If you’re interested in this career, it’s a good idea to earn a master’s degree in operations research or even a doctoral degree. There’s just one problem. There aren’t that many schools that offer operations research degrees at the bachelor’s degree or the master’s degree level.
Operations research at the bachelor’s degree level
It’s much more common for entry-level operations research analysts to hold undergraduate degrees in computer science, math, engineering, business, or data science than in operations research, though programs do exist.
Cornell University offers an Operations Research and Engineering major, University of California - Berkeley has a BA in Operations Research and Management Science, and Columbia University has a BS in Operations Research. Coursework in these programs covers not only the technical elements of big data analytics, but also logistics management, managerial science, sustainability, supply chain management, business operations, ethics, and possibly also software engineering.
If choosing a school with an operations research major isn’t an option, you can still prepare to enter the field during your undergraduate studies by doing as much coursework as possible in the following areas:
- Business analytics
- Operations management
- Supply chain management
- Computer science
- Management science
- Industrial systems
- Data science
- Advanced mathematics
- Quantitative analysis
Operations research at the master’s degree level
If you want to dive into operations research at the master’s degree level, you’ll have a few more options. The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) maintains a list of colleges and universities that offer masters in operations research degrees.
Note that these degrees can be offered through a university's engineering, math, or computer science departments, and some are even offered through business schools. The host department/school tells you quite a bit about the program's focus. There are also MBA programs that allow students to choose operations research as a concentration.
Top schools offering a master's degree in operations research include:
- Cornell University
- Dartmouth College
- Duke University
- Johns Hopkins University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Northwestern University
- Tufts University
- University of Southern California
There are also a number of schools offering an online operations research master's that are worth considering.
Whether you want to study operations research at the bachelor’s degree or master’s degree level, read program outlines carefully. Operations research degree programs at different schools tend to be quite different from one another. That’s because the field is multidisciplinary and programs are trying to prepare students to work in a wide variety of industries.
What else you’ll need to become an operations research analyst
You’ll need more than a degree or three and some work experience to become an operations research analyst. Paul Rubin, former professor emeritus at Michigan State University, told ORMIS Today that what aspiring operations research analysts really, really need are programming skills.
“I’ve met a few people who assumed that they would be able to dump the programming chores on someone else (professional programmers in industry, student programmers in academe)," he says. “That’s not always true, especially when you are in the early investigative stages of research, rather than pumping out a finished product."
What you won’t need is an operations research certification (though Columbia University does offer one). Given the advice above, you might want to look into relevant programming and software certifications. Review job postings for operations research analysts to see what kinds of programming languages and application experience companies want to see in job candidates.
Still reading? Good, because this is a great career. US News & World Report has ranked operations research analyst high up on its lists of the best business jobs (#7), best STEM jobs (#15), and the best jobs overall (#34). You’ll earn about $80,000 annually, but remember that this isn’t a terminal position. The typical advancement path for an operations research analyst can lead to management‚ or even the C-suite, if you think you’d like to become a chief analytics officer someday.
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