Is data science becoming the latest higher education marketing hype?

I’ll never forget the delight in my daughter’s voice when she learned that one of her top college choices offered a course based on the incredibly popular CSI television series. The thought that she could learn in one semester the intricacies of solving complex crimes in just 60 minutes for 4 credits was what college was all about.

As I watch the hyper-growth of data sciences in the enterprise I fear that this trendy area of study might be experiencing some of the same CSI-effect in college marketing and recruitment departments.

In the spirit of full disclosure I am a graduate professor at a well-respected university and a global branding practitioner/researcher specializing in the convergence of marketing, IT and data sciences. As what my university administration calls a “scholar-practitioner,” I have become very curious about how the new data science and analytics academic programs are preparing students for real-life, data-driven businesses that I’m consulting for.

One of my pet peeves when working with CIOs is the age-old problem of “oops, I forgot to learn the business.” To be fair, my CMO brethren are not immune from this applied business skills gap. My current students as well as recent and older alumni seem to have been little change in how many universities address that business skills gap.

My experiences with the most talented data scientists tell me that converged technology and business skills are only but a part of the skills set. The new generations of data scientists are a complex brew of psychologist, physicist, behaviorist, sociologist, technologist and storyteller.

As with many complex majors, universities create the illusion that these data sciences skills can be mastered by having students select electives in each of the component subjects. This results in the same success rate as having computer science majors take an organizational management requirement to assure a future understanding of the business.

I use the analogy that taking a biology course and a physics course does not result in a biophysicist. Biophysics is an integrated body of knowledge that cannot be satisfied in an a-la-carte manner. This is the same for creating marketing technologists, data scientists or CIOs for that matter.

To avoid simply being recruitment brochure eye-candy, the data science curriculum of the future cannot settle for this liberal arts approach.

Great pains should be taken by curriculum architects to do the following:

  1. Offer the typical liberal arts electives (psychology, sociology, etc.) in an applied data context. If you find yourself sitting next to an early childhood major, or if there is not a predictive behavior course this is probably not happening at that institution.
  2. Design programs with a heavy co-op or experiential learning component. The best applied data scientists are unlikely to be full-time university professors in much the same way that the best surgical professors in medical schools still innovate in the operating room on real patients. This should happen sooner than later in the coursework.
  1. Apply data science strategies to their own higher ed. marketing and branding strategies to better understand the nuances of the field. Even the most elite universities are notorious for academic compartmentalization and, as such, lose dozens of opportunities for cross-fertilizing scholarly thought with their own internal business processes.

What have been your experiences with recruiting raw data science talent? Have you found any specific academic fishing grounds that teach the skills needed for 21st century data science? Do you have any in-house data science certification programs?




  1. I see a lot of problems with the term “data scientist,” not the least of which is that people are throwing it around without actually knowing anything about basic statistical research. Among higher education leaders I see this as a pervasive problem coupled with the already alarming lack of modern technical knowledge among higher education technology leaders.

    Among academic programs, Data Science does represent a significant share of the emerging marketing trends. My worry is that people are going to get these Data Science degrees and then be employed as Data Scientists, all the while really only serving in an analytical or research capacity. Unfortunately, buzzwords are what people chase in this line of work and as leaders it is our job to sift through the hype to find the true underlying value.

  2. Jesse – Couldn’t agree more. Getting the talent pool to teach undergraduate day classes will also be a challenge given that the most skilled data science practitioners are a very hot commodity and being paid handsomely while working full time. Most adjuncts teach for the love of it and surely not for the money.

  3. In my opinion, Data Science certification courses are a boon to an individuals carrer, I myself went for these courses from Data Science Council of America and was not disappointed at all. Moreover, the service provided by was thorough professional helped me in acheiving the excellence in my line of work.

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