Love for Math Prompts Students to Consider Tech-Driven Business Analytics

Technological advancements are making business analytics accessible to companies and paving the way for graduate students to enter the field.

by / August 15, 2014 0
Students who love math have another career choice in the fast-growing field of business analytics. Pink Sherbet Photography | C.C. 2.0 license

High school counselors typically tell students who love math that they should be math teachers or engineers. But the rising field of business analytics is giving students another career option that's driven by technology.

In high school, Amy McLaughlin would choose to do her math homework first because she loved it. Her advisors steered her toward a career as a math teacher, and when she told them she didn't want to do that, they encouraged her to get a math degree. So she pursued a math degree at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn., and took science classes alongside her math classes so she could become a pharmacist.

Then she hit a roadblock.

"I took three days of organic chemistry and decided that wasn't for me," McLaughlin said.

So she dropped the class, started taking more business classes and looked for careers that involved math. Business analytics and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Master's in Business Analytics program kept coming up, so after she graduated with her math degree, she went straight into that program.  

Because business analytics is an emerging career field, not many high school counselors know about it, and that needs to change, said Melissa Bowers, director of the Master's in Business Analytics program, associate professor and Beaman professor of business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This career field is providing another math-oriented option for students who don't want to teach math or become an engineer. And it's growing quickly because today's technology is powerful enough to handle large amounts of data.

"It's all been precipitated by advancements in technology hardware systems that have allowed companies to collect massive volumes of data, and the processing technology has caught up with the data storage technology," Bowers said.

These technological advancements are making business analytics more accessible to companies who didn't have the knowledge or data to drive decisions in this field before, said DJ Rose, who will be graduating in December with a Master's in Business Analytics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. And students who have skills sets in business analytics don't have much trouble finding a job. The classes of 2012 and 2013 had 100 percent job placement within three months of graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's program. 

"It seems like everyone's kind of rushing into the data science and data analytics space right now, and really there's no end to the diversity of companies that are recruiting these days," Rose said. 

Rose came out of Brigham Young University in 2010 with an accounting degree and landed a job at a large CPA firm. But as he started thinking about getting a Master of Business Administration degree, the direction of his career changed.

After he took the GMAT test required to get into graduate programs, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, contacted him and wanted him to join the business analytics program. The hands-on learning opportunities, growing career field and math-based career grabbed his attention, and he plans to graduate this December from the three semester program.

"I don't know that I really found business analytics and data analysis as much as it found me," Rose said.

And more students are entering business analytics and dual-degree programs in business analytics and administration. When the program in Knoxville started in 2010, 16 students registered. The following year, six dual students and 12 analytics students entered the program. Fast forward to 2014, and 11 students are going through the dual program, while 38 students are focusing on business analytics.

The dual degree gives students the business know-how to operate within an organization while targeting analytics to problems that different departments face. And the regular degree prepares students to work with a long list of software programs that they can use in the workplace to gather insights from data. 

For example, grocery stores are interested in how to increase throughput, the rate that customers come into the store, find items and buy them. If customers have limited time and walk into a store where they see long grocery lines, they might just walk out without buying anything, and that won't be good for business, Bowers said.

With sensors around the store, they can track how many customers are coming into their store at any given time, where they are in the buying process and how quickly they leave the store. Let's say they don't want customers to wait more than two minutes in a checkout line. Using the data from the sensors, business analysts can come up with a queuing theory model that determines how many more checkout stands to open in the next 30 minutes.

Business analytics adds value to the work that companies do and gives them more tools than their intuition to figure out whether they're making good decisions, McLaughlin said.

"It's easy to go with your gut," McLaughlin said. "If you've worked in an industry for so long, your gut is probably right a lot of the time, but with analytics, you're able to have data to support those decisions and you can be more confident in the outcomes or predict the outcomes with more accuracy."

In her mandatory 10-week internship this summer, McLaughlin worked in an analytics group at Regal Entertainment Group on their customer loyalty program. With the team, she worked at redefining what loyalty meant by learning who Regal's customers were, what their shopping patterns were and what loyalty would look like for them.  

Rose interned at the political firm Catalist this summer, and he was impressed the most by the amount of information that's available today. Because so much data is made public on the Internet every day, analysts can do a lot without having to have too much proprietary data, and he thinks that's why this industry is taking off so quickly. 

This fall, students in the analytics program will finish their third and final semester working on real projects. Four or five students including Rose will work on a project with Catalist employees and university faculty to assign a walkability score to each voter. Because political candidates have people canvas neighborhoods, they need to know how walkable their neighborhoods are, and the scores will help them pick the best places to target voters. 

As business analytics continues to grow, more university graduate programs are popping up at places such as the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and University of Maryland College Park so that students can have the business savvy and technical know-how to fill a growing demand for data analysts. And in December, the next crop of graduates will be ready to take data analytics head on in the marketplace.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.