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“Big Data” is one of those terms that gets thrown around that we all pretend to understand, but probably couldn’t really talk about in detail. When we hear in the news about hackers stealing credit card data, or investigators requesting phone records, or a corporation selling information, we know vaguely that we’re talking about Big Data.

But what you may not realize is that Big Data is also a job market. And it’s a massive, growing one. Big Data experts, analysts, and professionals are needed in every employment sector, in every region of the country, and in every part of the world.

If you’re stuck at a level in your career where you’re not satisfied, and you’re looking to make a change, consider a career related to Big Data. It’s changing every day, but it’s definitely not going away.

In this guide, Value Colleges explores the value of a Master’s degree in Big Data.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Big Data

There’s a good chance you’ve never thought about a career in Big Data. It’s possible you’re not even clear on what Big Data is, and didn’t know there were jobs in Big Data. “Isn’t Big Data just lots and lots of computers grabbing information from everywhere? I’m not a computer.”

Sure, it is. And no, it isn’t.

It’s hard to really define Big Data, if not impossible. The problem is, it’s just so – well, so BIG. We can understand what “Big Data” is, basically: in the simplest possible terms, Big Data is the way we make sense and use of the most information humanity has ever generated – more information each day than in the entirety of human history.

But the term Big Data, in a lot of ways, seems to be all things to all people.

For the tech faithful, it’s the next frontier – part of a vast, interconnected virtual world where information is as real as real life, and can be used to solve every problem, whether it means eradicating disease and hunger or making life more efficient, freeing humanity to pursue their dreams, passions, and enthusiasms without fear.

For marketers, businesspeople, and bankers, Big Data means Big Money – all the information that helps them know who buys what, who wants what, and what they’re going to want next. When Netflix already knows what you want to watch, that’s Big Data. When Facebook shows you an ad for something you just made a joke about, that’s Big Data. And one day, when Amazon sends you what you were going to order before you even order it, that will be Big Data too.

For conspiracy theorists and tinfoil-hat paranoiacs, it’s the greatest threat to freedom, the ultimate weapon against human rights, and the most fearful assault on humanity that has ever been conceived, and for many, the only safety or defense is exiting the system altogether, living off the grid and outside of society.

For Homeland Security, defense, intelligence, and law enforcement, it’s the newest front in the War Against Terror, a way to tame the most dangerous Wild West of the modern age, and a new space for law-breaking, as well as the most powerful new tool for catching law-breakers.

All of those perspectives are right, and all are wrong. Because “Big Data” isn’t a thing – it’s just a term we use, a sort of vague catch-all that helps us feel like we have a handle on more information than we can get our minds around.

What gets lost in the talk about Big Data is the reality that Big Data isn’t just computers – it’s people. Big Data is people working in corporate office parks and government buildings, on university campuses and in metropolitan high-rises, in hospitals and in their bedrooms. They’re wearing suits and jeans and pajamas. And each one of those people is a small piece of a big puzzle, and each one is working to make their piece fit into the whole. And the whole puzzle – that’s all the information in the world. Pretty big.

What You Can Do With a Big Data Master’s

Often, when we think of computerization, we think of computers as increasing efficiency and reducing the need for human workers, but that’s a gross misunderstanding. Computerization does cut out certain kinds of jobs (not many switchboard operators in the world today) but the Big Data boom has produced an unprecedented level of need for programmers, analysts, and technicians.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US workforce has a labor gap of more than half a million people in the tech industry. That’s not all Big Data work – it includes technicians, programmers, engineers, and other computer-related jobs – but a big part of the labor deficit is in skilled analysts who can handle the systems that make sense of Big Data.

After all, Big Data isn’t just computers gathering and processing data magically, all on their own. Computers are useless without people to analyze, translate, and interpret the data they collect, and computers can’t function without the people who design the systems, write the software, and organize the projects and teams that make it all happen.

In fact, Big Data has created a demand for human workers that the current job market’s can’t even support. There are possible positions for all kinds of people with all sorts of experience: programmers, project managers, mathematicians and statisticians, marketers, designers, and all-around creatives are all part of making Big Data useful.

Big-picture people find Big Data careers attractive, but Big Data also has its place for micro-focused, super-specialized experts. In its own way, Big Data is the most democratic of all tech fields, because it is so ubiquitous. You may not know programming language from Turkish, but there’s a place for you in Big Data.

But will you really benefit from a master’s degree in Big Data or a data-related specialty? After all, there are so many educational alternatives now, from online certification courses, workshops, and boot camps, to good old-fashioned trial and error, that surely a master’s degree is outdated.

It’s true that much of the tech industry is more entrepreneurial than traditional business, and in many settings, experience and talent is more valued than formal degrees. Heck, a graduate degree might get you laughed out of a lot of Silicon Valley startups.

But that’s what’s unique about Big Data – it’s everywhere. Government agencies, national and international non-profits, colleges and universities, banks and other financial institutions, and businesses that aren’t even remotely related to computers still have a place – in fact, a desperate need – for experts in Big Data. And in almost all those settings, a graduate degree is going to be the standard for managerial positions, if not to get in the door in the first place.

Because Big Data is a new concept, and (as we said before) not a single “thing,” there is no single job in Big Data. There are a variety of positions that take part in Big Data:

  • Research Analysts
  • Computer Systems Analysts
  • Chief Data Officers
  • Information Managers
  • Database Administrators
  • Software Developers
  • Designers

These are just a few. Big Data master’s programs have a place for all of them, depending on the specialization and focus of the program, but until “Big Data Guru” or “Big Data Ninja” are real job titles, the field is going to be have a lot of names to sort out.

There are some very good financial reasons to consider Big Data. The BLS expects jobs in information technology to grow by 12 percent between 2014 and 2024, rather faster than the average for all jobs. But, more specifically, the growth of “cloud computing, the collection and storage of big data […] and the continued demand for mobile computing” is fueling the growth.

Salaries for specialists in these areas are impressive, far above the national median income of $36,000. Database Administrators – the people who keep all this information stored and accessible – made a median income of $81,000 in 2015; Information Security Analysts – who keep it all safe – made $90,000. Research Analysts – $78,000. Computer Systems Analysts – $85,000.

We could go on and on with numbers, but they all add up to one thing – Big Data, and the people who make it happen, get paid.

Where to Go for a Big Data Master’s Degree

First of all, there’s no such thing as a Big Data degree – at least, it’s very rare to find a Big Data degree called Big Data. Some of the more enterprising, marketing-savvy institutions are catching on and changing the names of their degree programs, or tacking Big Data concentrations onto their existing Computer Science or Information Systems degree programs, but the name Big Data is still hard to find.

So what are you looking for when you’re looking for a degree that will get you a Big Data career? It depends on the program. After all, Big Data is a new concept, and even the most technological-focused schools are still catching up on the Big Data train.

If you’re searching for a program, the magic words are usually some combination of Analytics, Data, Systems, Information, and Science. Common degree names include:

Some more specialized degrees include Data Analytics, Business Analytics, or something else paired with “Analytics.”

As for where to find them – these days, nearly anywhere. There are more than 100 colleges and universities in the nation offering online master’s degree programs with some kind of Big Data concentration or specialization, and even more traditional on-campus programs. The list includes Ivy Leagues, top-ranked polytechnics (like Stanford and MIT), top-tier public research universities, small business and technical colleges, and even quaint New England liberal arts colleges.

 

However, where colleges and universities choose to put these programs tends to be a little more complicated. Many Big Data concentrations are actually in business schools, focusing on Business Analytics and the application of Big Data to marketing and commerce. Computer science schools are the other most common home for Big Data programs; unlike the business schools, the computer science schools tend to offer Big Data programs that are more strictly technical, like Systems Analyst, and more applicable to a wider range of fields and sectors, including government, education, and others.

But that still doesn’t cover it all. Some Big Data programs are housed in mathematics departments; others are in social science. Most programs are interdisciplinary in some way. Because of the complexity involved, a Big Data degree requires the right mix of technical skills, statistical analysis, business and marketing theory, and even psychology and user experience/design. Some degree programs are even developed in collaboration between multiple departments.

It’s important, if you’re searching for a Big Data program that is right for you, that you consider who developed the program and in what department. If you really want to go into marketing or business, a program more focused on social science and sociology might not teach you what you need to know. On the other hand, if you just love working with numbers and data, a computer science or mathematics department’s Big Data program could give you the focus and flexibility to use your skills in more places.

You need to be sure to find the kind of delivery format that’s right for you, too. Because Big Data is computer-driven, it’s been a natural for online education. Most online programs are designed specifically for career professionals and other working adults, who already have jobs and can’t take time away from work and family to go away to school.

Many colleges and universities, knowing the demand on the job market, have developed accelerated programs that students can complete in only a year or 18 months, to get out on the job market faster.

And a great many Big Data-related programs have set up their curriculum so that students do not have to have a computer science or business background, so they can come from a broad range of careers to add Big Data to their skill set.

Summing Up: Value Defined

At Value Colleges, we have a clear, simple idea of what value in education means. It means you learn what you set out to learn, and more. It means that tuition is a means to an end, and that end is an education that give you the power to get you where you want to be, in your career and in your life. It means that the return on your investment – of time, energy, and money – is reasonable, sufficient, and fair.

On all those levels, a master’s degree in Big Data is a value. A Big Data Master’s gives you access to one of the most promising, energetic, and booming job markets in our era. It prepares you for positions beyond the lowest entry-level worker, and opens up the opportunity to make a salary well above the national average. And, though there’s no way to put a price tag on this, a master’s in Big Data gives you the potential for a career that is challenging, transformative, and impactful, having a real effect on your life and world you live in.

That’s how Value Colleges defines value.