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Can This Sloan Program Overtake The MBA?

Sloan's Dimitris Bertsimas is director of the new master's in business analytics program at MIT

Sloan’s Dimitris Bertsimas is director of the new master’s in business analytics program at MIT

Everyone knows that data analytics is hot. One busness school after another has launched master’s degree programs in the field and the placement rates for students with a graduate degree in data analytics is at or near 100%.

But could a specialized master’s in the subject actually attract more applicants than a full-time MBA program at one of the world’s elite schools? Dimitris Bertsimas, a long-time professor of operations research who is director of the new business analytics program at Sloan, thinks so.

In fact, he is boldly predicting that his new tiny program—which will only have a first cohort of 16 students this September—will overtake Sloan’s MBA program in applications within five years. “In the years to come the program in business analytics will have more applications than our core MBA program,” he says flatly.


Bertsimas points out that the major employers of MBAs are often the same companies that need deeper expertise in analytics. “The significance of business analytics has grown exponentially and many companies have invested in analytics,” says Bertsimas. “Data is not as strong in an MBA education but it is very strong in the real world. As a strategy consulting firm, McKinsey is not necessarily associated with analytics but it has built a group of 200 people in Waltham, Mass., focused on analytics, about 500 in Costa Rica, another 100 people in Dusseldorf, Germany. and hundreds of business analytics people in India. And they are planning on hiring thousands more. IBM has bet its future on analytics and has changed its emphasis from computer systems to consulting to now data analytics as well.”

If anything, MIT Sloan could be a little late to the game with its $75,000 program, the highest price tag for a U.S.-based business analytics offering. Roughly a third of the best 100 business schools in the U.S. already boast a master’s in business analytics program, including the University of Southern California, NYU Stern, Indiana Kelley, and Minnesota’s Carlson School (see P&Q’s Directory of Specialized Master’s Programs). And everywhere they are growing like mad. Carlson, for example, had just 24 students in year one of its program, with a 100% placement rate, graduated 40 in year two, and 83 entrants in the recently started third iteration of the program in early June.

The fast growth of these programs is the result of the explosion of data in electronic form. “We’ve had data before but not at this size and not at this frequency,” says Bertsimas. “Only when the internet started to become a big portion of our lives have we had this gigantic amount of data, in medical records, social media, and financial transactions by the millisecond.”


Yet, MIT brings bold ambition and differentiation to the market. “Our first objective is to really develop the predominant analytics program in the world,” he maintains. “I’m not kidding on this. That is exactly my objective.”

So how is it different from other offerings? “No. 1,” says Bertsimas, “this is a 12-month program in which four of the 12 months are spent with a real world problem in a real company. Three and one-half months are spent on site with the company. So the students come Sept. 1. In January, they spend two weeks at the company. And then they come back, have a capstone project in the spring in which we advise them on how to do it, and then in the summer they spend 10 weeks implementing the project at the company. Roughly a third of the program is applied learning. That is a big difference. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a program of this nature.

“Second, most of the students will have little to no experience. They are zero to two years from undergraduate school. They are very smart but don’t have experience in the real world. So a second component of the program is called from data to action. To invent something in the real world, it’s not enough to do high quality analytical work. You have to understand the organization. You have to communicate your results in a way that other people understand. You have to behave in a way that is conducive to getting things done. So we have modules that teach the subject through the lens of an organization, leadership and ethics.


“Third, we teach in-depth about the matematics of the programs. This is present in other schools, but we think we do it somewhat differently by teaching how to use data visualization, statistical methods in software, and so forth.

“And fourth, this is quite a unique one. In an academic environment, we communicate knowledge by models. We teach them optimization models. We teach them statistical models. In other words, we teach them representations of reality. In our program, we have at least two courses out of five that do not do that. They start with data and it leads to decisions. This is philosophically different because it puts the emphasis on where it is in the real world: from data to decisions.”

The first class has a dozen international students, with four from the U.S. Six of the 16 incoming students are women. He is hoping to reach a stage where half of the students will be from North American and half will be female. “We expect thousands of applicants in the future,” he insists. In the first admissions go-round, Bertsimas says MIT received 250 applications within a mere two-weeks. That translates to nearly 16 applicants for each seat in the first cohort versus the 14 applicants for each seat in the Sloan MBA program.

Bertsimas says he expects the business analytics program to enroll 40 students and in the third year reach a steady state of 60. With Sloan’s MBA program attracting an estimated 5,740 applicants this past year, the professor will have a long way to go for his prediction to come true. “As the world moves into this direction where data analytics assumes greater importance, it is my suspicion that there will be even increased emphasis on it. But it’s a prediction, of course.”