By Jim DeLa
The first 14 students who received diplomas at New College of Florida’s Commencement ceremony May 17 were part of a special, tight-knit group who are turning their focus to their promising careers in a demanding field.
New College’s Master’s in Data Science program conferred degrees to 16 students, the third — and largest — graduation cohort in the five-year-old program.
The director of Data Science program, Mathematics Professor Pat McDonald, said the program has fine-tuned its approach and focus in the last five years. “We’ve grown. At the beginning, we said we’d limit classes to eight students and we did. We quickly scaled up to 15.”
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said new grad Lydia Laseur. “It was super challenging, but it was incredibly rewarding. I learned an insane amount in 18 months. And it set me up for a career in data science, which is exactly what I wanted.” Laseur will be staying in Florida, working as a data scientist at Akamai, a global company dealing with web performance and security.
McDonald says that’s the end result the program is looking for. “We work directly with a large number of companies on a state and national level,” he said. “The courses have also evolved to be more project-centered than they were at the outset.”
McDonald says there are good reasons for that. “It’s the single most effective way to prepare students for life in Data Science,” he explained. The program is designed to integrate companies and real-world challenges into the curriculum. “The way to do that is to demonstrate an interest in solving their (companies) problems,” he said. “Companies provide us with data on which to train students and we provide access to the student,” who have the skills to do the work the companies require.
Shane Caldwell studied computer science here as an undergrad before enrolling in the graduate program. “I believed the Data Science program would have the same kind of commitment to teaching the fundamentals. What you learn during this program, you’ll be able to take with you for the rest of your career.” Caldwell has a job lined up doing computer vision work for a St. Louis, Missouri, logistics company.
McDonald said the New College program is unique because of the way students work together. He described the curriculum as “extremely high-touch and face-to-face.” They work on various projects that can last from two weeks to 15 weeks.
The New College program is also deliberate in the way it assembles teams for these various projects. “We recruit some students with a background in software engineering; some in statistics, and others in mathematics and modeling. And we mix them throughout their time at New College, trying to make sure each team has a representative from each recruitment pool,” McDonald said. “They all have direct contact with projects where their skill sets aren’t replicated. They learn to work together as a data science team.” And, he said, “They learn a great deal from each other.”
Student Joe Comer said that concept was a challenge at first. “We all went through that stage where we come from a background where we were used to working independently. Once it clicked to ask the person next to you for a hand on the things you don’t know, that’s when it really stared to come together.
“I think we all came in thinking we knew a little about our separate fields; and for a while we felt like we knew nothing about anything. Now we look back to when we came in … we learned a lot.” Comer is heading to Hughes Research Labs, in Malibu, California, to work on developing computer vision for self-driving cars.
The future is looking bright for all of the 2019 graduates, he added. “All but one has a job offer.” And they’ll start those jobs on sound financial footing. “All of these students had a paid practicum experience,” he said. “It’s fair to say those practicums went a long way to recover the entire cost of the program. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
McDonald said they’ve asked the new graduates what their starting salaries will be. “I haven’t seen the median salary data yet,” he said, but predicted it will be close to $80,000. “It’s looking pretty good.”
— Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.