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‘Transition degree’: Pitt’s new Master of Data Science program offered fully online

Applying to graduate school as a working professional is often a daunting task, which is why Pitt’s new Master of Data Science program wanted to lower the limitations as much as possible, according to Adam Lee. 

“No letters of recommendation, no application, no application fee. We’re doing something called performance-based admissions,” Lee, executive associate dean of Pitt’s department of computer science, said. “If you get a B or higher in the first course, you’re admitted into the full program. If you’re driven to do this, and you want to succeed, then you’re admitted.” 

College graduates without any prior STEM experience have the opportunity to enroll in Pitt’s new MDS program, introduced by the School of Computing and Information. Enrollment begins Feb. 12, and the first classes are scheduled to start on May 13. Tuition for the twenty-month program is just $15,000, which Lee said is “a fairly competitive tuition price.”

“We’re really trying to extend our social mission, reach a broader audience, empower people to advance in their careers, and advance in their lives,” Lee said. 

The program is run through Coursera, an “established online learning platform that delivers many types of learning experiences,” according to Bruce Childers, dean of the School of Computing and Information. 

“We realize how critical providing access to data skills and knowledge inclusive to all learners is,” Childers said. “We’re accomplishing that with this degree.” 

Lee said the department adopted Coursera to keep the initiative fully online and accessible for “working professionals,” regardless of their circumstances. He added that the asynchronous nature of the program allows for people to log on and complete their coursework at any time. 

“We’re not assuming it’s happening at any fixed time,” Lee said. “The key goal is trying to reach the population of folks who are already gainfully employed, or maybe just have other commitments in their life, right? So, we’re looking at this as a transition degree.”

The program will be taught by Pitt’s faculty, even though it’s taking place through the Coursera platform, according to Thais Dias Safe Carneiro, the director of Professional Graduate Programs. She said despite using pre-recorded videos for class, students in MDS will still have the ability to network with peers and attend office hours with professors. 

“Professors from Pitt are delivering exactly the same courses, or similar courses, that are on campus,” Carneiro said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of data scientist jobs to grow by 35% between 2022 and 2032, which is why this initiative targets people of all experiential backgrounds “to use education as an empowering tool,” according to Lee.

“We tend to think that it’s more than natural to have students on campus, but thinking like that, you exclude a huge group of students that are allowed to be here,” Carneiro said.

Women interested in entering a “typically male-dominated sphere,” are given the opportunity to thrive with this program, according to Carneiro. She said the fully online MDS program acts as a “comfort zone” for people who are just getting started. 

“It’s so interesting because a population that you usually don’t see in the STEM area are women, or people working full-time, that want to rescale or upscale,” Carneiro said. “Now, they’re having this opportunity with this program, because it’s an online program. It’s a different modality of delivery, and everything was thought to address the needs of the students.” 

Carneiro said the new program hopes to attract people that might be “intimidated” by the mathematical or statistical elements into the growing field of data science.

“It means more equality, better jobs and everything else that goes into that when you promote equal opportunity. It’s a possibility to bridge a bit of the gender gap that we have in the STEM field,” Carneiro said. 

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people got to experience the flexibility of virtual learning. Carneiro states that “We cannot go back,” which is why the program found a way to incorporate this accessibility through Coursera’s “very high quality course” with “high expectations.”

“I think that Pitt has everything — we have the brand, we have the quality, the great faculty, and the institutional knowledge,” Carneiro said. “Most of all, I don’t think any of us are the same after the pandemic. I think that we realized that we could not go backwards and kind of pretend that the pandemic did not happen. We had to be better. I think that this is an opportunity for Pitt. Pitt realizes that we can deliver high-quality education for online students, and now is the time.”

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