University of San Francisco: A Leading University that Transforms Students into Data Science Leaders

With the motto ‘Change the World from Here’, the University of San Francisco (USF) is one of the leading programs offering a Master of Science in Data Science, delivering a rigorous curriculum focused on mathematical and computational techniques in big data. The Master of Science in Data Science program’s curriculum covers the spectrum of tools and techniques which are being adopted by enterprises to tackle data challenges, and its students gain insight about the different roles that data specialists can fill in today’s forward-thinking organizations.


The Data Science Program

Over the past 7 years, USF’s Data Science education programs have rapidly grown into national leaders, both academically and collaboratively. These programs model how an academic institution should interface with industry. The USF Data Institute (DI) supports a rapidly growing undergraduate data science major population, a class of over 80 graduate students in the MS in Data Science program, and a portfolio of evening certificate courses that range from the basics of data science such as SQL and Data Science for Product Managers to Deep Learning Part I and II, taught by Jeremy Howard. Together, USF and the DI are at the center of growth and transformation of Data Science education.

In addition to offering state-of-the-art education, USF is transforming the data science community as a whole. In broadening the representation of the Data Science community, the goals of the DI align with the Jesuit Mission of USF. In a field that has been estimated at approximately 75% male and less than 15% underrepresented minorities (including African-American and Latinx), USF’s graduate Data Science student body has been gender balanced for the last 4 years and the DI’s recent Diversity Fellows initiative has helped fund over 60 students from non-traditional backgrounds to take USF’s certificate coursework.


Enthralling Leadership Driving Analytics Pedagogy

David Uminsky is the Director of MS in Data Science and Executive Director of the Data Institute, University of San Francisco. He has been the graduate director for the MS in Data Science program for the past five years and was recently appointed as the Executive Director of the Data Institute. David’s journey began by earning a BS in Mathematics from Harvey Mudd College and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Boston University. Before joining USF, David was a combined National Science Foundation and UC President’s Fellow at UCLA, where he was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for post-doctoral research. David was selected in 2015 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) as a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow. Each year, 100 researchers under the age of 45 are selected by the academy, and 20% of the current NAS were previous Kavli Fellows.

David’s research interests are in applied mathematics and began first in dynamical systems and partial differential equations and have since moved into the area of mathematical data science, a shift which really happened more out of the curiosity of how mathematics can be useful in this new field. David found that mathematics is a powerful tool and he now mostly works in the areas of unsupervised machine learning, data clustering, algebraic signal processing, as well as pattern formation. When David arrived at USF he immediately started the work of founding the B.S. in Data Science degree, which at the time was among four such degrees in the US. Two years later, he was appointed as the graduate director of Data Science.


Bringing an Edge to the Industry

USF has many competitive differentiators that set its Data Science program apart:

1. The integrated relationship with Bay Area Data Science industry through its practicum program: USF’s Data Science program places student outcome as the most important focal point of any discussion around curriculum and co-curricular decisions. From the onset, the program has replaced the traditional thesis requirement with a 9-month, 2-day per week data science practicum experience with a company, non-profit or government entity. Its faculty and staff work to curate a list of industry partners with advanced and serious data science challenges that need to be solved. Recently, the program hosted its Pitch Days, where nearly 60 companies and non-profits pitched projects to its graduate students. The list of participants includes companies like AT&T, Eventbrite, Reddit, Ubisoft, PG&E, General Electric, Mozilla, Schmidt Foundation and many more. These projects have become the basis of turning graduate ML and DS coursework into real-world experience and insight. They also are the singular differentiator for the program’s students on the job market.

2. The program has an outstanding set of multidisciplinary faculty who continuously update its rigorous and technical curriculum: This is undertaken to ensure we are training students to become state-of-the-art data scientists, analysts and ML engineers. The program’s faculty haveDs. in mathematics, statistics, computer science and business and every course in the program is designed only for data science students in a way that each module is built carefully on the previous module’s coursework. The program consults with our industry board several times a year to continually assess the relevance of its coursework and to continue to innovate and improve its curriculum.


Word of Advice and Challenges

On advising aspiring students, David said, “Be curious and don’t be afraid to dive right in. The Data Science program’s philosophy has consistently encouraged not just mathematics and computer science majors to succeed in data science, but also sociologists, business students and even a few literature majors become leading data scientists in industry. I think that underrepresentation and lack of diversity, along with a severe shortage of agreed-upon ethical guidelines for practicing data scientists are the twin, paramount challenges this industry faces today and will continue to struggle with.”


Captivating Achievements

USF’s program is amazing, but it is the students and alumni that the faculty are proud of. The program’s students have consistently achieved outstanding success on the job market. In the early years when the program was small, graduates achieved 100% placement within 3 months of graduation. As the program has grown from 13 students in year one to a graduating class of 80 in year 6, USF has been able to continue to diversify its student body while increasing the incredible depth and strength of admitted students. This has been possible because the applicant pool has grown exponentially from approximately three dozen in the pilot year to over 900 started applications at this time. The program has continued to hold its 3-month full-time offer rate above 90% with students routinely receiving multiple offers and accepting data science positions at Amazon, Google, Facebook, McKinsey, Twitter, and the most elite data science teams in the world.


The Promising Future Ahead

The industry has seen continued demand for very technically trained data scientists. Median salary has climbed year-over-year with major growth in positions in more traditional industries such as banking, consumer goods and energy that are newer to developing data science at their firms. The future holds exciting things for analytics and data science education and professions.