February 25, 2021

Problem Solvers Wanted

A new UMass Amherst master’s degree program, available in person or online, brings data analytics and social sciences together

As a public opinion and survey research analyst, Audrey Kearney ’18, ’19G is looking at the public’s attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines and soon she’ll be analyzing their vaccine experiences. Her work for KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) in San Francisco couldn’t be timelier. Kearney learned the skills she needs for this job through the new Data Analytics and Computational Social Science (DACSS) program offered at UMass Amherst.

 “I use my DACSS knowledge in everything that I do, including the more innovative and problem-solving aspects of my job and the actual data analysis,” she says.

Kearney earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science with a letter of specialization from DACSS. This fall semester, UMass Amherst launched a DACSS master’s degree program. It offers intensive training in advanced data science skills from a social science perspective. Students will graduate knowing how to collect, analyze, and make sense of data for government, business, and nonprofit organizations.

“Our focus is to teach students how to do things with the massive amounts of data that we have today,” says Associate Professor of Political Science Meredith Rolfe, DACSS program director. 
 

 “I use my DACSS knowledge in everything that I do, including the more innovative and problem-solving aspects of my job and the actual data analysis.”

Audrey Kearney ’18, ’19G

The DACSS program includes courses using the same computational methods taught in a computer science program, but from a more applied perspective with an emphasis on applying data science approaches to fix real-world problems. At KFF, for example, Kearney has looked at attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act and Medicare for All.

DACCS students don’t need math or computer science backgrounds—they can come from psychology, political science, economics, sociology, and other fields. “The range of our students’ knowledge and experience is a feature, not a bug,” says Rolfe. “We’ve designed the curriculum to make advanced training in programming and statistics meaningful and accessible for students with many strengths.”

Current DACCS graduate student Grace Anderson ’20, a political science major, avoided math and science courses as an undergraduate. But in DACCS, she says, “I’m looking at math through a social science lens. It shifted the whole dynamic for me. The statistics represent real concepts that are important to me, such as ‘What is the role of information in voting behavior and social inequality?’” 

Anderson’s final project for this semester focuses on fake news and censorship on social media. Upon completing an accelerated DACSS program in the spring, she’ll look for work in politics or government or—having discovered a new interest through the graduate program—she may pursue employment in market research analysis for a nonprofit.

Data analytics is a booming field and DACSS alumni have already gone on to work for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Facebook, for research and consulting firms, and as a customer analyst for a tech start-up. Several are working toward PhDs. Reports Rolfe, “They are out there looking in innovative ways at problems that are vital to our society.”