The Best Data Science Master’s Programs of 2023

September 18, 2023

masters in data science

“Who are you? You are data about data,” writes the author Kerry Howley. But who is behind the scenes and inside the cookies collecting all that data? Data scientists, one of the fastest growing professions in the United States. Put quantitatively, that’s about 17,700 jobs opening each year. One of those jobs might become yours, especially after attending one of the best data science master’s programs.

At an incredible 35% growth rate for the next ten years, data science is an interdisciplinary and quickly developing field. As the information that defines the Information Age is increasingly shared (and sold), being a data scientist is also incredibly lucrative. In 2022, the median salary for data scientists was $103,500 per year. (As a prospective data scientist, you do the math for what that could look like on the top end.) For this reason, data has been called “the oil of the digital era”––a metaphor worth serious reflection.

This article will discuss what data scientists do exactly, and what the different applications are within the field. We’ll also talk about the different avenues towards becoming a data scientist, and above all the top data science master’s programs, and how to find the best one for you.

What is Data Science?

Do you ever wonder how, after your friend mentions his struggles with IBS, you start getting targeted ads for Metamucil? How an algorithm can identify a tumor through medical imaging? How global supply chains function so that a mass-harvested pearl in Guanxi can end up at a pearl party in Missouri, or on Timothée Chalamet’s neck?

One answer unites these seemingly disparate questions: data science. Data scientists study data to create meaningful insights. With skills in mathematics and computer science, data scientists know how to wield huge amounts of data into analysis about patterns. They communicate these findings to help with decision-making so that a large, complex system can become more effective.

Like any other kind of science, data science functions in a cycle of steps that echo the scientific method:

  1. Understanding the problem, or asking a question
  2. Data mining, or gathering data for analysis
  3. Data cleaning, or checking values or missing data or inconsistencies
  4. Data exploration, or analyzing visually to form hypotheses
  5. Data modeling, or using the data to model or engineer a new feature
  6. Model deployment, or making your model come to life
  7. Model visualization, or communicating your findings

Best Master’s in Data Science Programs (Continued)

If this sounds abstract, here’s a different way of visualizing what data scientists do. (You’ll notice that visualizing in different ways is in fact a large part of what data scientists do). In a given day, data scientists merge the following 4 skill sets:

  1. DOMAIN (or BUSINESS KNOWLEDGE): Data scientists have business savvy and problem-solving skills. They’re intuitive thinkers who know how to run a system as efficiently as possible. They are highly attuned to expert systems, user experience, and how an organization can be maximally successful.
  2. COMPUTER SCIENCE: No surprises here! A data scientist is agile when it comes to big data technologies and programming. They’re also adept with creating and handling databases, which is the heart and soul of the work.
  3. MATH: As a data scientist, you are using descriptive and inferential statistics to create predictive models. On the computational end, you’ll also regularly use calculus and linear algebra.
  4. COMMUNICATION: Data scientists must be able to communicate their findings clearly enough so that data can be translated into decision-making. This means fluency in using models, visual presentations, charts, and other ways of showing your findings.

Best Master’s in Data Science Programs (Continued)

Still not clear? Here are a few things a data scientist might do in an average day at the office in a spinny chair:

  • optimizing algorithms
  • machine learning problem solving
  • working on a team with data engineers, stakeholders, and domain experts
  • feature engineering
  • exploratory data analysis (EDA)
  • querying databases or web-scraping
  • cleaning data

If “random forests” thrill you, or if you just love applying math to real-world problems, this might just be the field for you. But how do you become a data scientist?

Ways to Become a Data Scientist

It’s recommended that applicants have a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) in math, statistics, computer science, or economics. To be hired as a data scientist–which involves more responsibility than a data analyst–it’s essential to know about:

  1. Programming languages
  2. Big data
  3. Machine learning
  4. Data visualization

These are the kinds of things you can learn at a bootcamp, but employers are especially impressed by applicants with a degree in Data Science, or relevant work experience. There are many positive aspects of boot camps worth thinking about, but a master’s degree in any field comes with many perks.

Master’s programs are a great way of deeply learning about the field, as well as finding a concentration to specialize in. Do you want to be a data engineer or a machine learning engineer? Would you thrive as a database architect? In a master’s program, you’ll be given the tools to rise to the top of a given specialization.

Best Programs in Data Science 2023

1) University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign

With a top-ranking in-person AND online program, U of Illinois has got all its bases covered. The faculty is renowned for its research in Big Data analytics, and the partnership with State Farm Insurance allows students a prestigious internship opportunity during the program.

2) University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

The Master’s of Applied Data Science (MADS) program at the #1-ranked public university brings leaders in the field in contact with students through a joint program between four different departments. They also have an impeccable, and flexible online program to fit your work schedule.

3) Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Tech’s Master’s of Science in Analytics is a sharp blade of a degree. It’s a hybrid degree in analytics and data science, ranked number 1 and number 3 respectively in the nation, as well as third in business analytics. They’ve got a terrific online program, a campus in China, and the advantage of being Atlanta, a growing tech hub.

Best Master’s in Data Science Programs (Continued)

4) University of California – Irvine

This highly-respected program will prepare you for working with high-tech industries, business, or government in a mere 15 months. This is the Times New Roman of programs: no-frills and highly ranked by US World & News Report and Best Computer Science Schools (BCSS).

5) Purdue University

Purdue’s Master’s of Science in Computational Data Science is the best cost-benefit option. This program has a low tuition rate, yet a 100% job placement rate. It’s also a great mixture of academic and industry learning, suitable for all students.

6) Harvard University

Harvard’s Master’s in Data Sciences merges the might of their #3 ranked Statistics program and their no-less-shabby Computer Science program. Needless to say, the resources available to students are impressive, and the program can be finished in only 12 courses.

Best Master’s in Data Science Programs (Continued)

7) North Carolina State University

This program is highly regarded, with a special focus on research and results. The facilities are unequaled, and out of the faculty 31 are recipients of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, 12 received NC State Academy of Outstanding Teacher Awards, 10 are IEEE fellows, and one is even a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

8) University of Rochester

Rochester is cold, but this program is hot right now. At a STEM powerhouse university, they’ve got a specialized track in Genomics and an incredible internship placement record. They also offer bridge courses to humanities majors looking to radically change career tracks.

9) University of Maryland, College Park

This Master’s of Professional Studies and Analytics (MPS) is another top-rated program that can be completed in under two years. With the benefits of a strong research university, an MPS is unique in that it focuses particularly on research and professional experience. Extra points for stellar, diverse faculty.

Best Master’s in Data Science Programs (Continued)

10) Northwestern University

This program is entirely online, and can be completed in twelve courses. Although it’s competitive to gain acceptance, once you’re in you can focus on one of five interesting specializations, from decision analytics to how to build your own innovation-driven startup.

11) Syracuse University

Another stellar option with degrees offered both in-person and online (through Syracuse’s iSchool). This student-friendly program offers consultations for prospective students without data science backgrounds, and are welcoming to accommodating students (and have an 80% acceptance rate). This by no means compromises quality: this program is lauded both for its online and in-person degrees.

12) University of Minnesota

This relatively new program has the merit of 15 collaborating departments and an incredible student-faculty ratio that’s nearly 1:1. Students complete a capstone project at the end of the degree. Best of all? This public school program recently lowered its data science master’s tuition to be even more accessible.

13) DePaul University

The only thing better than a Chicago hot dog? DePaul’s renowned data science program, which is available both online and in person. For in-person students, there is unparalleled access to over 30 labs with advanced technology and tools (not to mention unparalleled access to the above-mentioned hot dogs). The program also has a range of partnerships with industry and nonprofit organizations.

Best Master’s in Data Science Programs (Continued)

14) Johns Hopkins University 

Besides the prestige of a degree from one of the nation’s best universities, this online program allows part-time learning, so that you can study at your own pace (potentially while balancing a job). The faculty includes top-level data scientists and engineers, ensuring cutting edge knowledge from the field.

15) Indiana University

This program has everything you want: it’s one of the most affordable data science degrees out there, offers core courses as well as 4 concentration tracks, and is especially focused on hands-on learning, so that students can enter the workforce with experience and internships already under their belts.

Best Master’s in Data Science Programs – Additional Resources

In conclusion, we hope you found our list of the best master’s in data science online programs to be helpful in your research. You may also wish to check out the following grad school admissions-related blogs from College Transitions: