Excellence in Analytics

UPS George D. Smith Prize Winners

IN 2010, THE HASLAM COLLEGE OF BUSINESS made the pioneering decision to start the first master’s program in business analytics. Faculty members, led by professor emeritus Kenneth Gilbert, recognized a global need for data analysts attuned to the needs of industry and equipped to interpret the tremendous amounts of data generated in a digital age.

This year, Haslam’s Master’s of Science in Business Analytics program received the prestigious UPS George D. Smith Prize from INFORMS, the leading international association for operations research and analytics professionals. The program at Haslam was chosen for using innovative curriculum, introducing students to real-world business environments, and preparing them to become effective leaders in the field.

Krista Readout enrolled in the MSBA program after earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics. “I was interested in analytics as a career, but I didn’t have any practical business experience,” she says. “What excited me most was the focus on business applications and the mandatory internship.”

Following her graduation in 2014, she accepted a data scientist position at the J.M. Smucker Company.

“I was immediately asked to contribute new analyses and present to managers, directors, and vice presidents,” she says. “I was set up for success because of Robert Mee’s statistics course. The projects in that class were similar to real business questions I’ve been asked.”

Since joining the company, Readout has shouldered a wide range of responsibilities. “I do a lot of key analysis here including forecasting, data mining, and consumer segmentation,” she says. “I am looked to as a subject matter expert in analytics and have influenced both the analytics strategy and the types of analytics that we do.”

Readout’s story is a common theme among Haslam’s MSBA graduates, who regularly assume key roles at top corporations such as Boeing, Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Hanesbrands Inc.

“Real world experience is what sets our program apart,” Missie Bowers, associate professor and Beaman Professor in Business, says. “Students are working with real business data and in some cases have executives providing feedback directly to them on their projects.”

REAL WORLD CURRICULUM 

Haslam’s innovative MSBA curriculum has four components: technical elements such as statistics, data mining, and operations research; computing and database management; business fundamentals; and soft skills. “When we developed the curriculum, we basically threw out our old master’s programs in statistics and management science and started with a blank sheet of paper,” says Bowers, who directs the MSBA program. “I remember asking as a litmus test, ‘Would an analytics professional need to know this concept?’ The answers to those questions drove our development.”

The program places a special emphasis on professional communication skills, or the ability to explain data findings in layman’s terms to executives and other stakeholders. Being able to interpret analytics findings to a non-technical audience is key to success in the field, says MSBA graduate Madeleine Beatty (HCB, ’15), now a data scientist at Amazon. “Without that combination of technical and soft skills, you wouldn’t get far,” she says. “All our customers are supply chain people. They speak operations language, not technicality, so you have to be able to bridge that communication gap.”

During their final semester in the program, students participate in a capstone project, interpreting data to solve a real business problem for a company. A faculty member mentors each team, but students drive the project. Teams have worked with a number of large brands, including Delta Air Lines, Procter & Gamble, Caterpillar, and Hanesbrands Inc.

“We’ve sponsored seven capstone projects with UT’s MSBA program,” says Ben Martin, chief global planning and advanced analytics officer at Hanesbrands Inc. “These projects range from work with our sales and marketing group to supply chain, taking a look at impact of particular promotional activities on brand switching.” Every project has resulted in insights the company was able to use. “It’s been impressive to us that the students are able to come in and tackle problems that require a very broad set of analytical skills.”

VALUABLE INTERNSHIPS

MSBA students are required to complete a summer internship during the program. For Victoria Martin (HCB, ’17), that internship was one of the most valuable elements of her education.

“I think the internship opened more doors than even the program did, because I got to apply what I had learned in an impactful sense,” says Martin, who interned at Boeing in Seattle, Washington. “It was the first experience I had that was not just one data-driven analysis, but actually creating a tool that would continue to aid the company after I left.”

Martin values the questions and challenges she received from faculty during classroom projects because they prepared her for the real-world experiences to come. “When I sit in meetings with leadership and they start pitching ideas, I can easily challenge them in ways they could do better, because that’s how we were challenged.”

Many students return from summer internships with full-time job offers from the companies, along with onthe- ground experience that will serve them in future analytics roles. After the internship, students return to campus for one final semester—another element that sets Haslam’s program apart. “Most master’s programs in analytics are only two semesters, but ours is three,” says Bowers. “Giving them the internship in addition to the capstone experience really increases our graduates’ market value.”

UNRIVALED CONNECTIONS

Haslam’s MSBA faculty has worked to build a strong network of corporate connections in analytics, focused around the Business Analytics Forum. The forum, which meets twice a year, draws a group of approximately 100 professionals from 40 different companies to take part in presentations, breakout sessions, and networking receptions. It’s an opportunity for students to meet with industry executives, hear about current issues, and connect with potential employers.

Case competitions, sponsored by industry partners, also prepare MSBA students to face real analytics challenges like tight deadlines. “They are provided gigabytes of data and have a 48-hour turnaround time,” says Bowers. “It’s a phenomenal experience and rite of passage, in terms of certifying them and ensuring future success.”

Industry connections benefit students while they are in the program and continue to bear fruit after graduation in the form of job placements. Haslam’s strong network helped Madeleine Beatty connect with an internship at Amazon that turned into a full-time role. “I know people studying at local universities who can’t get an interview here at Amazon, yet I was able to get one from across the country,” she says. “To me, it’s just mind-boggling.” Beatty is one of six MSBA graduates currently working at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.

Data tells a compelling story of the MSBA degree program’s success: a record of 100 percent employment within six months of graduation, with a median starting base salary of $80,000 per year.

“Our mission from the beginning was to make Haslam and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the center of the universe in analytics,” says professor emeritus Kenneth Gilbert. “We’re well on our way to achieving that goal.”

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