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Update | Spring/Summer 2021

New Master’s Program Delivers In-Demand Analytics Skills

By Paul Smirl

Photography by Paul Newby

Two students working together
Graduates of the MS in Business Analytics program have taken their in-demand skills to diverse roles across the globe.

Businesses have data coming at them from everywhere. There are sales leads in a database, web traffic reports from IT, advertising metrics in a half-dozen social media platforms, and data from supply chain, human resources, and finance departments yet to be integrated, analyzed, and made actionable.

The availability of data is growing exponentially, yet most businesses don’t know how to read it, let alone make decisions from it. “There are not enough skilled professionals to handle it,” says Cody Baldwin, program director for WSB’s MS in Business Analytics (MSBA) program. “Data literacy is critical for anyone going into business right now.”

The Wisconsin School of Business launched its MSBA program in 2019, responding to this critical need for data-literate professionals. The one-year STEM designated program gives early career professionals or recent college graduates a portfolio of technical and soft skills needed for career success turning data into decisions. In May, the program graduated its second class, sending 40 young professionals to diverse roles across the globe. These newly minted alumni will join the worlds of technology, consulting, insurance, marketing, manufacturing, and nonprofits, with each graduate prepared to help organizations make sense of data.

“One of the things I appreciate about analytics is there are lots of different career paths,” says Baldwin. “Students can take their existing skills—whether that’s in political science, sociology, math, science, or business—and supplement them with analytics skills.”

The Wisconsin MSBA program focuses on career-readiness and gives students the ability to take on the world’s mess of data, crafting marketable résumés in a short amount of time.

The MSBA program begins in the summer with an intensive bootcamp in which students learn the basics of statistics and programming, getting everyone in lockstep with the foundational skills they’ll need. In the fall, the program dives deep into the tools used in the industry. Students learn how to build machine learning models, analyze large datasets, and create interactive data visualization. In the spring semester students can explore different fields by choosing electives and take a current topics course where industry experts visit weekly to share professional challenges and insights.

The MSBA’s consulting practicum course further highlights the program’s career focus, with teams of students flexing their classroom knowledge through analytically driven projects for real organizations.

The consulting practicum is led by faculty associate and experiential learning lead Mary K. Malone (MBA ’01), who establishes relationships with companies and learns about their business issues. The MSBA program is special to Malone because students don’t just learn analytics skills—they learn business.

“We are trying to train business analysts who understand the context in which they are working, so they understand the tools and how they are applied to solve problems,” says Malone.

During the practicum course, students are treated like trusted consultants and are counted on to understand how their project fits into their partner company’s overall business strategy. Practicum teams meet with the sponsor companies weekly, with some teams providing deliverables at every meeting. The course also includes classroom time where Malone and students work on consulting frameworks and communication skills.

“Across the School’s master’s programs, there is a vision and a plan in place, that you don’t leave the School without experiential learning. We didn’t let COVID-19 interrupt that.”

—Mary K. Malone (MBA ’01) 

This year’s practicum teams worked on everything from helping Exact Sciences understand how to increase compliance with recommended screening protocols for colorectal cancer to using deep learning models to develop an AI solution prototype for Chinese firm Jiangyun AI. Student teams also consulted on projects for the American Heart Association, FedEx, Lands’ End, and Fairbanks Morse, a Wisconsin-based heavy-duty engine manufacturer.

“Mary K. worked some miracles to make our consulting projects happen this year,” says Baldwin. “The practicum flourished even while it was remote.”

“Across the School’s master’s programs, there is a vision and a plan in place, that you don’t leave the School without experiential learning,” says Malone. “We didn’t let COVID-19 interrupt that.”

With hands-on experience on their résumés, MSBA graduates have landed at major companies like Dell, Deloitte, and American Family Insurance, as well as leading analytics firms.

“I talked a lot about my practicum during my interviews, and this experience seemed to be the one that recruiters were most interested in,” says Zihong Lin (MS ’20), a capital market analyst at Cardinal Financial Company.

With its second class joining the alumni ranks, the MSBA program is poised for growth. The incoming class for Fall 2021 will double the program’s size, with two cohorts of 40 students going through the program simultaneously. Tracks are being established to provide students the option to specialize in areas like supply chain, digital marketing, and insurance.

WSB has also boosted its faculty expertise, hiring two professors who specialize in data analytics. The program will continue to work with a variety of employers, many of which are in Wisconsin, and encourage students to take on analytics opportunities that make an impact on their communities. Students have been especially interested in work centered on social good and sustainability. As the MSBA program grows, WSB will prepare even more graduates to take on the world’s explosion of data—delivering in-demand skills and driving smart decisions for businesses.