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In the fall of 2014, less than two years after the Harvard Business Review first declared “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century,” the VCU School of Business became the first university in Virginia and one of just 35 schools nationwide to offer a master’s degree in data analytics. Today there are more than 300.

Now in its seventh year, the VCU Decision Analytics Professional Track program continues to grow its reputation and students and alumni regularly are rewarded with promising new career opportunities.

“There’s a big demand for people in a data analytics program,” says Steve Custer, director of the VCU DAPT program. “There a continuing shortage of analytics talent.”

Indeed, a recent McKinsey & Company survey states that approximately half of executives across geographies and industries reported greater difficulty recruiting analytical talent than filling any other kind of role.

When Glassdoor published its 25 best jobs for work-life balance in 2015, data scientist not only ranked first but also had the highest median salary. Today, salaries remain high. A 2020 Burtch Works study reports that “for data scientists, median base salaries for individual contributors range from $95,500 at level 1 to $165,000 at level 3. For managers, median base salaries ranged from $150,750 at level 1 to $250,000 at level 3.” 

A program designed for working professionals

The VCU Master of Decision Analytics professional track is a STEM-certified, 16-month program for working professionals. “After the first two semesters, students have all the basic skills to apply for a data science job. In the second year, they learn more advanced skills. Between 50 and 75% of our students get new jobs or promotions while still in the program,” says Custer. 

Promoted just months after starting the program

Such was the case with Christine Holzem. In December, just months after enrolling in the DAPT program, Holzem was promoted to group vice president in information technology for the Federal Reserve Banks.

“I’m confident that committing to the rigors of this program and pursuing the credential is one of the things that helped me stand out,” says Holzem. “What I’m learning will enable me to do a lot more for my employer and, therefore, for the U.S. economy.”

Data analytics had been popping up more and more in Holzem’s work when she first learned of the VCU DAPT program. Holzem then met with Dr. Custer, who invited her to sit in on a class. “I sat in on a supply chain optimization class with Paul Brooks and that clinched it for me,” she says.

Executive relocates to Richmond to enroll in VCU DAPT program

Jeff Taillon had an entirely different journey to the VCU DAPT program. A graduate of Clemson University, Taillon was living and working in South Carolina when he felt compelled to pursue an advanced data analytics degree.

“As a communications and political consultant, I saw the value of data every day,” he explains. “People were using data to do incredible things across a variety of industries, and I was awed by their work and the insights they could derive. I felt almost desperate to get that skill set.”

Before choosing VCU, Taillon compared other data analytics master’s programs in the southeast, both online and in person. “I was drawn to VCU’s cohort approach,” he explains. “I’m not from a traditional data science background and felt it was important to learn with others who had different backgrounds.”

Telling stories with data instead of words

After being accepted into the VCU DAPT program, Taillon relocated to Richmond with the intention of changing careers upon graduation. He got his wish. In December 2020, just months after graduating, he landed the job of senior analyst in strategic planning group for The Martin Agency.

The advertising agency’s homepage declares, “We Fight Invisibility” and Taillon believes data analytics is a powerful tool that helps Martin’s clients do just that. “As a former communicator, I understand the power of a good story. I’m still telling stories today, only I’m using data instead of words,” he explains.

A degree that pay dividends

“This is a program for people who are looking to make a broader difference or to progress into positions of leadership,” says Holzem. “Every company is looking for leaders who understand strategy and ‘the big picture.’ They want analytical thinking and while that’s ‘an art and science,’ it’s becoming more and more science.

“People go on gut intuition for too many important decisions,” she continues. “There are so many ways to get more structured about the data you collect and use it to make better decisions faster. 

“This is not a program to approach lightly,” Taillon cautions. “Prospective students should be prepared to work hard, and they should be ready to grow. It’s a serious program for serious candidates that produces serious perspectives and skills highly sought after in Richmond and throughout the country.

“Graduates also walk out with a cohort of friends and colleagues you can call on, and a world-class group of professors and administrators to support you. These are all tremendous assets.”

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