The Florida Board of Governors approved a long-sought-after master’s program in data science early November, paving the way for the Fall 2015 semester to offer a place for graduate students at New College.
The program will be small and selective, admitting a cap of 15 students per year. “People with the raw technical skills for data analysis are in enormous demand,” said New College Professor Patrick McDonald, current director of the data science program. “These students are extremely valuable, and companies are looking for methods to bring those people on board.”
The construction of a master’s program for New College had been on President Donal O’Shea’s radar for some time. Even in the first draft of his four-year plan for New College released in June of 2013, O’Shea announced a goal to “explore offering some terminal master’s programs that would build on current faculty strengths, significantly enhance starting salaries of graduates and serve the region, state and nation.”
The new program is expected to bring in a significant revenue stream to New College, as well as earn the school greater prestige. $1.2mil in recurring revenue has already been granted to the school in order to fund data science and data analytics programs, and an estimated $300,000 is expected to be accrued from tuition.
Professor McDonald explained the reasoning behind the choice of data science for a master’s program in financial terms: according to him, there is a limited supply of people trained in data science compared to demand, meaning that the few that are available are “highly mobile”, and leave companies easily. Instead of hiring someone who has little interest in staying with the company for very long, McDonald explained, companies are interested in someone who will come on-board for the long haul. “People get paid a lot for these skills,” said McDonald.
What makes the New College program unique, according to McDonald, is that it will be data science taught through a liberal arts curriculum. Students involved in the program will get thorough knowledge on several different aspects of data science, including statistics, computer science and mathematics. They will also have a course in ethics and policy, taught by Professor of Philosophy April Flakne.
“Employers want people who know how to mitigate risk,” McDonald said. “Oftentimes someone working in data science is working with very sensitive data … Even if employers aren’t interested in making sure someone is well-rounded, they want employees who can understand ethical issues.”
The program is slated to be a two-year program: The first year will have a mandatory set of eight classes that every graduate student must take, including classes that teach skills such as statistics and computer science as well as ethics and teamwork, a skill highly valued among big companies looking for employees (“Every person has their own strength,” McDonald explained. “It’s important to these companies that people can work together and match their strengths.”). The third semester is when the partnership with corporations comes into play: Students will work in teams with a set of data from a certain company to create a product that would benefit said company and present it for review. The fourth semester will be spent off-campus gaining hands-on experience in the field with one of the corporate partners for the program.
“We don’t want to change the undergraduate nature of the school,” McDonald stressed. “We’ll never want more than 50 grad students at a time on campus.”
Recruitment for the program has been fairly robust, particularly for the competitively small size of admissions. Although applications have not yet been created (McDonald is expecting one to be ready by early January), there are already more serious applicants than the program is able to accept.
One of the eager applicants, New College alum Graham Tanner Robart (‘09), who studied Neuroscience with a slash in Computer Science while attending the school, is excited by the prospect of being able to attend New College again for a graduate program. “I was first motivated to join it because there was still a lot of Computer Sciences and Statistics I felt I could learn at New College,” Robart said, “But didn’t have time to take them before I graduated. I’m excited to have an avenue to continue my education with New College and receive accreditation for it.
A lot of work still needs to go into the program. Aside from the creation of an application, the school plans on hiring four new faculty members (two in Computer Science and two in Statistics) to divide their time between the graduate and undergraduate programs, which McDonald hopes will make a Computer Science AOC legitimate at New College, and make Statistics a more robust slash option.
Along with new faculty hires, a new director for the program must be hired, as McDonald has only temporarily taken the role. The school will also need to make significant purchases in hardware and support training, as well as admissions programs and materials and multiple legal structural placements, including intellectual property contracts, which McDonald hopes to be a significant source of funds for the school.
“A lot of work has gone into making this program,” McDonald said. Professor Gillman was reportedly instrumental in the initial idealization of the program and much of its startup work. “A lot of faculty worked over the summer and handled potential roadblocks,” McDonald added.
“We wish there had been a manual for how to start a master’s program,” he joked. “There is not. We learned a lot about what goes into a graduate program at the state level. But now the political roadblocks have been lifted … the real work of beginning a program can begin.”