The 2017-18 academic year started early for a handful of students at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
While many of their first-year classmates were wrapping up their previous careers or enjoying a short vacation before the onset of the Darden core experience, the seven students in the first cohort of the MBA/Master of Data Science, or MSDS, dual degree were already on Grounds this summer, taking courses in programming, systems and statistical computing at the UVA Data Science Institute as part of the first term of their Master of Science in Data Science degree.
It was a whirlwind introduction for the seven students, who came into the program with different backgrounds and varying degrees of technical prowess but a common goal of earning both top-flight business skills and cutting-edge technical know-how over the course of a two-year span.
Members of the first cohort, all members of the Class of 2019, arrived with backgrounds that span industries and the globe:
• Mike Christison came to Darden after working with a startup focused on marketing research in the Washington, D.C. area.
• Steve Mortensen was a consultant for a computer software company in Utah.
• Ab Boxley served as the principal for an IT firm in the D.C. area.
• Karen Li was a consultant and app developer in Beijing.
• Ailun Zhu worked in a Shanghai ad agency as a media strategist.
• Ashish Singh was an operations consultant in the Bengaluru area of India.
• Marcelo Costa de Sousa worked in e-commerce for a bank in Brazil.
The dual-degree program launched in early 2017 as what Darden professor and director of the MBA/MSDS program Raj Venkatesan said is the first program of its kind. The seven students were already in the Darden admissions pipeline when offered the opportunity to radically alter their Darden experience by seeking the additional degree. The students said the unknown of the dual workload gave them pause, but the promise of the unparalleled skill set made the leap a risk worth taking.
“It’s perfect for someone on the fence between some sort of engineering higher degree and an MBA,” said Boxley, who came to Darden with an undergraduate liberal arts degree. “At business school, I was initially worried that I was not going to get all of the quantitative components I wanted, so when this program appeared, it was the perfect situation – it’s a unique value-add.”
Indeed, while the students in the first cohort chose Darden to burnish their business skills, all intended to be involved in a data-heavy pursuit in some fashion.
“Every school I talked to, I asked them about what they do in data science,” Mortensen said. “I did not choose Darden for their data program, but in my mind, if they didn’t have a data science club, I was going to start one. It was always my intention coming into school to be involved in some way.”
The cohort entered the program having at least completed four prerequisite courses in subject matters including programming and statistics, and the students emerged from the summer session with a stronger baseline in the field. Some went straight from their summer session to the optional Darden Before Darden pre-matriculation program, then into the first full week of classes.
“That first month was tough,” Singh said. “I had done coding before, but even for me it was intense. We were learning new tools and new languages, but it was fun and we got used to the rigor.”
The group has not yet finalized internships or determined long-term career plans, but each expresses an interest in the technology and consulting areas and believe an assortment of converging forces will make them ideal hires in the future.
Li, for instance, said she’s found it beneficial to be able to note proficiency in programming languages like R and Python in her résumé before even beginning her Darden career in earnest.
Research from groups such as the World Economic Forum suggests that technical literacy will be critical to a wide range of senior positions in the future, but those who truly excel will be able to couple that knowledge with so-called “soft skills,” such as an aptitude for thinking creatively and working collaboratively.
Venkatesan sees the utility of the dual degree in a variety of roles.
“Every aspect of business – including strategic thinking, talent management, operations, finance and marketing – is being affected by data, and MBA graduates are expected to have knowledge of the functional aspects of business and be able to use data effectively to make strategic business decisions,” Venkatesan said. “The dual-degree program with Data Science is designed to help students achieve this. It provides the breadth of a general management program and the depth of a data science degree.”
The UVA Data Science Institute was founded in 2013 with a mission to achieve excellence in data-driven research and education through solving important problems and providing the workforce of tomorrow. In its short life, the institute has drawn national recognition and boasts 100 percent job placement for its master’s program graduates.
“A goal of the DSI is to partner across grounds with all schools to enrich their data science offerings so that UVA as a whole becomes a national leader in data science,” said Data Science Institute Director Phil Bourne. “With the dual MBA/MSDS degree, we have made an excellent start in this direction, engaging graduate students who I have every confidence will go on to be leaders in data science and business.”
Initial conversations with alumni and prospective employers have also convinced the group that they are on a promising track.
“All of the major consulting firms, management consulting firms, strategy consulting firms, have been investing a tremendous amount of money in building out their data science capabilities in the last five years,” Mortensen said.
The students in the program are aware that they are pioneers of the new dual degree and excited about building a sustainable program many hope will expand dramatically in the future. Program architects like Venkatesan and Data Science Institute Director Phil Bourne actively seek their feedback and respond to concerns, adding flexibility where needed.
The cohort said kinks are actively being worked out as they go, and halfway through their first semester, they are confident in their ability to persevere.
“It’s our mission to try to figure out how to manage this,” Li said.
Boxley said he suspects the cohort’s second year at Darden will look a good bit different than their peers.
“Next year we’re not going to be able to do everything that other second-years at Darden are going to be able to do,” he said. “We’ll probably give up some social activities and you may lose electives. Personally, I’m fine with that.”
The tradeoff for the compressed timetable and demanding workload appears to be a worthwhile one, however, given the credentials and skill set the cohort will graduate with.
“One of the risks might be that people are hesitant about the amount of effort, and I think we were all worried coming into this,” Christison said. “But you can get two master’s degrees in two years and that’s amazing.”
The compressed timeline and emphasis on data science – coupled with the 24-month optional practical training for students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields that allows certain students born outside of the U.S. to continue to work in STEM fields for a set period after graduation – may also make the program particularly compelling for students from countries like China and India.
For now, the early adopters are enjoying their decision to enroll in both programs and taking some satisfaction in straddling two worlds.
Said Mortensen, “Darden is known for being really friendly and being a warm, familial place to be. Engineering degrees are known for being cold and mathematical. I wanted that warm experience, but then adding those harder skills to complement it. The Darden experience is what made this really attractive.”