Alumni in Action: Emily Burnett

Meet Emily (“Emmy”) Burnett ‘17. She entered the MSA program immediately following her undergraduate studies in statistics, business, and sociology at Rice University. Upon completion of the MSA, Burnett joined Red Hat in its Raleigh headquarters and is currently working as a Principal Business Data Scientist. We talked with Burnett about how she came to realize data analytics would be a good professional path for her, and how she decided to pursue her master’s at NC State.
How did you first become interested in the field of data analytics?
Burnett: My best subject in school was always math. I loved that there was always one right answer and that you had to keep track of so many complex details to get to that answer. When I went to college, I chose to major in statistics because it seemed to be closer to the applied side of math that I enjoyed than the proof-heavy, conceptual math major. I was a little intimidated that I would have to learn to code for this major, but it turned out that I loved that too, for the same reasons.
However, I also had a strong interest in people — being around them, working with them, and studying their lives, histories, and motivations. Because of this, I picked up minors in both business and sociology during my time in college. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do with my degree, but I quickly realized that I was not interested in a career where I sat alone at a desk all day solving math problems. 
I had read an article about data science being the “sexiest” job of the 21st century, but the field of analytics really came alive for me when I attended an on-campus information session from a Master’s in Analytics program my junior year. This type of program fit my interests and skills perfectly, combining quantitative and coding work with teamwork and business knowledge. I remember being so excited that day that I had found my path after college. Later I found out that NC State invented the whole concept of the one year Master’s in Analytics, so I decided to learn straight from the source and get my education there.
What was your greatest highlight during your time as an MSA student? 
Burnett: The greatest highlights were definitely all the memories I made with my classmates. Even though we worked hard academically, people were always coming up with creative leisure activities and inviting the whole class in our Slack channel. I remember our camping trip to Mount Mitchell, Halloween party (where the best costume was the impending “Fall 3” module), and evenings spent exploring downtown. I enjoyed getting to know my classmates better in between classes and during late nights studying together in Hunt Library. I think we all connected almost instantly over our shared experience, even though we came from such diverse backgrounds, and genuinely enjoyed being around each other for those ten months.
If I can pick a second highlight, it would be the immense personal growth I experienced that year, both through the coaching process and the mentorship of my practicum team lead. I learned so much about carrying myself with confidence, sharing my ideas, giving and receiving feedback. Many of these lessons have shaped my early career and my life.
How did MSA prepare you to enter the workforce as a data scientist at Red Hat? 
Burnett: One of the IAA’s missions is to prepare students to be productive at their jobs on day one, and I really feel like that was the case with my job. I got to jump right into a major project during my first month and make valuable contributions to how we set up the data and the model. I’m still a part of that project today and it has been so cool to see how deep you can go on an analytics project when you have a longer time frame than school allows. In this way I have been able to continue to build on my degree.
The “soft skills” I learned and practiced during the MSA are also extremely important in my job. Teamwork and communication are skills I use every single day. I also create a lot of presentations for stakeholders and for that I get to apply the data visualization best practices to create polished slides.
The MSA is designed to cover a wide range of topics related to analytics and we hit so many concepts during those ten months, so I certainly don’t use every single thing that we learned every day. However, I now have access to all these different tools and know what they are, how they work, and when they are applicable. Any one of them could come up in future situations. Even though the main project I work on is a machine learning classification model, I have been in meetings where the perfect business context comes up for simulation, optimization, text analysis, etc. and I am able to suggest that approach based on what I learned at the IAA.
What advice can you offer to prospective MSA students?
Burnett: When you’re making your decision on where to attend graduate school, consider the things that set the IAA apart from other programs. For example, the coaching is not something I saw in any of the other programs I was considering. All the classes are hand-picked to contribute to the education and they are all in-house; none of them are combined with any other programs on campus. The career services offer individual attention — Dr. Rappa himself sat down with me when I was making my job decision to offer his advice. I know I would not have been able to find or land a job that I love as much as this one without the connections and instruction that the Institute provided me. The IAA has been running their program for a long time, longer than any other program, and it really shows in every hand-picked detail. I know that every faculty and staff member cared about my individual success during my time there.
The website is a great resource with so many details about the MSA, but I would also recommend trying to talk to a staff member, faculty member, or alumnus. They can bring the program to life and offer great perspective. This was helpful for me as I was making my own decisions.
What do you enjoy doing for fun outside of your analytics work?
Burnett: After living in Raleigh for three years, I’ve set up a new home here and have made some great friends (many from the IAA), so my favorite thing to do is spend time with them. We enjoy trying new restaurants or activities around the city. I love hiking/walking in the beautiful nature of North Carolina (I’m from Texas so I’m not used to experiencing all four seasons), cooking, reading, and taking exercise classes. I’ve also gotten to use my PTO to take some wonderful trips. Most recently I had the amazing opportunity to go to Greece and take a sailboat around some of the islands.