A Non-Advanced Introduction to the Institute for Advanced Analytics for Student Support Groups

If I had a nickel for every time a family member, loved one, or friend had a puzzled look on their face after I told them I am spending 10 months at the Institute for Advanced Analytics (IAA), I would probably have enough to buy a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and a drink to go with it.  

After that, I default to explaining it’s a 10-month data analytics master’s program at NC State University.  While that is technically correct, this description ignores the nuance of what makes our program so unique and successful. After all, how is the IAA any different than the traditional trajectory of a master’s program?  In this post, I describe what we do from the perspective of a current student in the program. I hope this blog opens a dialogue between a student and their support group so they can truly understand how they can help us, the students, get through such an intensive program.

What is Data Analytics?

Many people do not know what data analysts do, yet most are affected by their work daily.  Say you have a self-reporting fitness app that tailors workouts to your goals and strengths. Using information taken from former and current gym goers, the app adjusts your workout plan because the past two weeks, you may have been crushing your squats. The app then might suggest that you add 20 pounds next time, and sure enough, the app was right. You feel more confident and more energized based on the decision the app made. The idea behind data analytics is using information, like your workout habits, to communicate actionable insights, like ways to improve them.  

When it is put like this, you can probably start listing examples of other data-driven websites. To name a few, Facebook recommends friends to you by proximity and mutual friends, Netflix refines its recommendations every time you watch a show or movie to completion, and Google optimizes its search and page organization to ensure you have the easiest time gathering necessary information.  Facebook uses your friend network as data to be analyzed, Netflix uses your viewing history as data to be analyzed, and Google uses your keystrokes and past searches as data to be analyzed. Further, the insights of gaining new friends, finding your new favorite show, or finding your answer in just seconds are tangible and helpful.

What is the Institute for Advanced Analytics?

The Institute for Advanced Analytics is an intensive, comprehensive data analytics master’s program founded in 2007 by Dr. Michael Rappa.  It was the first-ever professional master’s degree in data analytics. Fifteen years later, the Institute for Advanced Analytics has graduated over 1200 students with a Master of Science in Analytics, or MSA, degree. Our alumni were hired in countless industries, and their most recent class had perfect job placement after graduation. The application process is selective enough that your student is going to be surrounded by only the best, brightest, and most motivated peers and the most cutting-edge and helpful faculty on campus. Because of this, you should openly communicate how proud you are of the student for such a laudable achievement.

There’s no master’s thesis, and there are no drawn-out theoretical discussions. Also, a student is not assigned a research advisor like in many traditional master’s programs because this is not a research-focused program in the traditional sense. Instead, all faculty and staff are trying to teach us everything they can about the professional applications of data analytics.  They are willing and able to help us with whatever we, the students, might need. This brings community into our education rather than fostering a competitive or individualistic environment.

How does the IAA teach data analytics?

The IAA believes data analytics is a holistic field. Sure, you can write some computer algorithm (that is, a series of steps to solve a problem) that can change the world, but it means nothing if it is not communicated in a way that most of the world can understand it. The IAA teaches computer programming in a variety of languages (think different ways to talk to the computer), statistical foundations, and ways to combine the two to write algorithms that can make data-driven decisions. This is all well and good, but the IAA also prioritizes communicating insights from data through writing and presenting, data ethics, large-scale project management, and professional development such as writing the most effective resumes and working cooperatively in teams.  

To this latter point, just about every homework assignment or project is completed in a team. Data analytics is rarely an individual endeavor in the workplace: supervisors place workers into projects so that a well-rounded and diverse team tackles a highly complex problem. The IAA wants to mirror that as best as possible, in that the material that we learn culminates in our practicum project.

The practicum involves teams of 4 or 5 receiving real industry data and coordinating with a corporate sponsor to find the best and most relevant insights for them over the course of eight months. The company sponsoring the project is chosen carefully, and the options can range from small nonprofits that have never hired data analysts to multinational corporations that want to see what students with an outside perspective can accomplish. My team falls in the latter category, with a project sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. In my limited experience so far, it has not been easy, but I am learning so much by applying the information from the classroom to a large-scale project. That being said, just because the project is difficult doesn’t mean Blue Team 11 can’t have some fun recreating an Ocean’s 11 movie poster (with me at far right).

Two women and two men with sunglasses posing like a movie poster.

Another interesting difference from typical academic curricula is that there are no elective courses at the IAA. On the surface, this decision may seem like one-size-fits-all. However, the scope of the information we learn is so wide-ranging that electives do not really make sense. Through the course of the program, applications of relevant topics come from just about every field: healthcare, retail, technology, finance, sports, consulting, real estate, science, and just about anything else you can imagine. This fulfills Dr. Rappa’s vision of a success-oriented, fast-track master’s program that quickly and thoroughly prepares students for the workforce.

How can I support my student?

If all this information seems overwhelming to you, then you’re not alone. At some point, just about every student here has vocalized their fear about adjusting to the workload.  For example,  in a two-week span in the fall, we had two five-page analytics homework reports (written like a work proposal), two project presentations, four quizzes, and an exam. Yikes! 

Hence, it is common to hear “They weren’t kidding when they said it was intense!” repeated a lot.

I don’t want this to dissuade prospective students who read this. Our curriculum is not so impossibly hard, but in order to cover over 2 years’ worth of material in 10 months, the pace is designed to be fast. That being said, your support group is directly helpful to your success. For me, I organize social events with my peers, volunteer with the Special Olympics of North Carolina, call my long-distance girlfriend to commiserate about our difficulties (she is a first-year medical student), and update my parents on all the important events of my life. 

Taking just a minute to send a text to your student to ask them about their day or encourage them that they’re doing well means more than you can imagine. The IAA website contains a more in-depth description of the finer details of what the MSA program entails, so researching further into the minutiae of the program would help this supportive dialogue be as specific and as helpful as possible. Finally, recognizing that students’ free time will be relatively limited for 10 months is equally important as providing support. If you are someone who spends time with your student on a regular basis, it is entirely possible that time will be cut over the course of the program, and it’s important to acknowledge that and not blame the student. Advancing or shifting your career trajectory is difficult, and balancing homework, presentations, exams, and the practicum project requires time to grind out work. But keep in mind that your student will come out of it so much more polished and adaptable, so please continue to encourage them through the rigor.

We have a saying at the IAA to “Trust the Process,” and this extends to our generalized IAA network, of which the student’s support group plays a significant part.

It may seem weird at times, but being there for your student is an integral part of the MSA curriculum. So, I implore you: trust the process, and your student will be especially prepared for success.

Columnist: Noah Johnson