Like a lot of areas of study, “operations research” can sound a little nebulous on its face. And like a lot of other important fields, the vague-sounding name belies the expansive reach of an industry that touches large swaths of modern life. Put simply, operations research (OR) uses advanced analytical methods for better decision making, particularly within complex systems. What kind of advanced analytical methods? MIT has a short list: optimization, statistics, machine learning, and probability. “The strength and versatility of OR stems from its diagnostic power through observation and modeling, as well as from its prescriptive power through analysis and synthesis,” says North Carolina State. Because of that, adds Kansas State, OR models are used “in nearly every sector of society because people recognize that inferior solutions waste money, time, and effort.” “Nearly every sector” is correct – operations research is particularly useful for the air-travel industry, telecommunications, banking and financial companies, manufacturing, government agencies, consulting… the list goes on and on. The bigger and more complex the system, the more it needs skilled people to crunch data to make good decisions.
A simple Google News search about operations research returns stories about video game engagement, ridesharing, transit, and Facebook comment moderation, for example. OR is just about everywhere, and its reach will only expand: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 109,700 operations research analyst jobs in the U.S. in 2018, and it expects 28,100 more to be added by 2028. That’s a growth rate of 26%, “much faster than average,” as the BLS puts it. In fact, it’s more than five times the national average for all occupations. The bulk of these jobs can be found in California, Texas, and Virginia, with Virginia having the most operations research analysts (not surprising, considering its proximity to Washington, DC).
All of that growth and opportunity has universities moving quickly to keep up with demand, but this isn’t a new phenomenon; MIT’s OR program, for example, goes back 60 years. Ditto Carnegie Mellon’s. In those days, using the nascent power of computing, along with advanced mathematics, to solve complex problems was a revolutionary concept. Now it’s de rigueur, long since enmeshed with how things get done. The approaches of OR programs can vary a bit, but in general they are built on coursework involving highly technical mathematics, statistics, and probability, usually in courses with long, intimidating names: Discrete Probability and Stochastic Processes (MIT), Integer Programming and Combinatorial Optimization (Kansas State), Algorithmic Methods in Nonlinear Programming (North Carolina State), Optimization Theory and Algorithms: Numerical Optimization (USC). People allergic to math should probably consider a different degree.
COMMON APPLICATION AND ADMISSION QUESTIONS
As a field that uses high-level mathematics, nearly all graduate operations research programs require a BS in mathematics, computer science, or something similar, and some schools get even more specific by requiring a certain number of undergraduate hours in statistics, algebra, and that kind of thing. In some cases, students may earn admission without checking those boxes, but only if they complete low-level coursework to get up to speed – and those classes won’t count toward the master’s degree. Most graduate OR programs require about 30 hours of coursework, and the balance of required courses and electives can vary significantly by school. Many require a thesis, presentation, or final project at the conclusion of the program. Most also require the GRE, though few specify a minimum score for admission, usually employing inscrutable descriptors such as “satisfactory” when discussing test-score requirements. Prospective students also typically need to include references or letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose with their applications, and a couple of schools go a step further, interviewing applicants as part of the admissions process.
A few schools offer their programs online, or some portion of them online, so distance learning is an option. The programs last anywhere from one to three years – or longer if students are part-time, though several schools have rules that the degree must be completed within five years or so. Universities vary their approach with operations research as well. Among our top 10 is the MBA-based, entrepreneurship focus of Carnegie Mellon vs. the highly technical, “math über alles” regimen of MIT. Other schools lie between these ends of the spectrum, mixing hardcore math with less technical courses, such as Enterprise Fundamentals and Management of Information Technologies, at Southern Methodist University. Several universities offer specializations within operations research, like at Georgia Tech, where students can drill down into optimization, statistics, stochastics, computational science, and many other areas within the framework of operations research. SMU has at least eight concentrations in its program.
Again, operations research comprises a lot of things, so any number of discrete focuses lie underneath its big umbrella. Few, if any, of the OR programs in our top 10 allow students to begin their studies at any other time than the fall semester; in the case of Kansas State, it only offers certain courses every two years. Timing can be of great importance, so make sure to check application deadlines to ensure everything lines up correctly. All schools offer resources for prospective students, including online chats; interactions with current faculty and students; or – in the case of Carnegie Mellon – more than 100 “student ambassadors,” each with their own profile like a dating site, ready and willing to provide inside information to people considering the university.
WHAT ABOUT FINANCIAL AID & SCHOLARSHIPS?
Wait, you don’t have thousands and thousands of dollars burning a hole in your pocket for an advanced degree? The programs on our top 10 list start at $11,693 and top out at $38,562 per academic year. We calculate that number using the base tuition as a starting point and factor in financial aid opportunities. The average cost for our top 10 is $22,663, and the median is $18,487. While some of the operations research master’s programs on this list last only a year, most go for two, so it doesn’t take long for the expenses to rack up. Financial aid is a necessity, and it comes in a variety of forms: grants (usually based on need), scholarships (usually based on merit), student loans, work-study programs, and specific university programs (such as assistantships). One caveat: Scholarships and grants for graduate study number fewer than their undergraduate counterparts, simply because far more students pursue undergrad degrees than continue on to grad school. However, plenty of options exist for people earning advanced degrees; sites like GoGrad.org specialize in finding them. It helps that operations research is a STEM field, and because diversity has become a major goal in STEM, there are more opportunities than ever. Check organizations like the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering and the Institute for Broadening Participation, which aim to increase diversity. Cornell highly recommends its female students apply for its WiTNY (Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York) fellowship, though at Cornell, all students accepted into the master’s program are eligible for potential merit-based scholarships. Also for everyone: stemgradstudents.science.gov, from the White House National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM and the Science.gov Alliance, which provides a long list of federal opportunities for graduate students. Among them is the Computational Sciences Graduate Fellowship, which looks for master’s and Ph.D. students in “fields that use high-performance computing to solve complex science and engineering problems” – a bull’s eye for operations research. Ditto the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which goes to “outstanding” graduate students studying STEM degrees. Universities will have their own scholarship programs, too, including ones specific to fields of study and, in the case of Kansas State, how the courses are taken – it has scholarships specifically for distance learners. Schools usually have a limited number of assistantship opportunities for graduate students studying on campus, but in some cases, those may be limited to doctoral candidates. The U.S. Department of Education’s Work-Study Program provides part-time jobs on- and off-campus for students in need, and often in jobs related to their degree programs. The Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website offers a wealth of good info, including the different types of aid that are available, tips for finding the right student loan, then best practices for repayment. With all of the attention student loans have received the past few years, it’s become easier to avoid the predatory ones that have grabbed so many headlines.
HOW MUCH CAN I MAKE WITH A MASTER’S IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for all workers in the U.S. is $38,640. Operations research analysts, on the other hand, earn a median salary of $83,390 – a difference of nearly $50,000. And that’s just the median for all types of OR jobs; the BLS further breaks it down by category within the field, noting that operations research analysts working for the federal government earn a median wage of $113,920, followed by manufacturing, where it’s $92,170. The only subdivision of operations research that makes less than the national median is finance and insurance, but barely: $82,340. Obviously, take these numbers with a grain or two of salt, as they’re medians, and a lot of factors play into how much a person makes. Location is a big factor: The Washington, DC/Arlington, VA/Alexandria, VA metropolitan area has 8,500 operations research jobs, thanks to its proximity to the federal government, with an average salary of $107,690. The other biggies? The NYC/Newark/Jersey City, NJ area, followed by Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington, TX, which have lower average salaries than the DC area, but still lots of jobs. The types of jobs vary, of course, because operations research is a large field. Georgia Tech offers five potential titles for people with a master’s in OR: operations research analyst, modeler, data scientist, business analyst, and – one of these is not like the other – instructor at the United States Military Academy. According to the BLS, 30% of operations research jobs are in finance and insurance, with 23% in professional, scientific, and technical services. The management of companies and enterprises has 9%; manufacturing 6%; and interestingly, the federal government is in last place, with 5%. All those jobs in the DC area aren’t necessarily with the government, but instead with the many cottage industries that work with the government. As the BLS notes, “Some operations research analysts in the federal government work for the Department of Defense, which also employs a large number of analysts through private consulting firms.” Ding ding. All of this is a long way of saying that operations research jobs are plentiful, pay well, and will only become more numerous as time goes on. U.S. News & World Report notes that operations research analysts have an unemployment rate of only 1.7%, and the field ranks No. 34 in its list of 100 Best Jobs – ahead of diagnostic medical sonographer, but below actuary – and No. 7 in Best Business Jobs and No. 15 in Best STEM Jobs. As far as job satisfaction goes, U.S. News ranks operations research as “above average” for upward mobility and stress level and “average” for flexibility. Those are enviable numbers for any field, which makes an advanced degree in operations research a pretty easy thing to justify.
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Check out our ranking of the 10 best master’s programs in operations research!
MASTER OF ENGINEERING WITH A SPECIALIZATION IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH
West Lafayette, IN is about 70 miles northwest of Indianapolis in a part of the state not known for much besides the Battle of Tippecanoe and Purdue University. One was a fight between the American Army and a confederacy of Native American tribes that took place in 1811, and the other broke ground exactly 60 years later. These days, Purdue University remains one of the Midwest’s most esteemed universities, ranked by U.S. News & World Report at No. 57 among National Universities and, more specific to its OR program, No. 8 in Best Engineering Schools for graduate studies. Purdue’s College of Engineering has 14 subdepartments, from Aeronautics and Astronautics to Nuclear Engineering; operations research falls under the domain of the School of Industrial Engineering. OR is one of the four specializations offered in the school, which has a long list of graduate courses, including OR-leaning classes like Stochastic Models in Operations Research I and Nonlinear Optimization Algorithms and Models. Almost as long is a list of Purdue’s research in OR by members of its 16-person OR faculty, which serves to underline the rigor of Purdue’s program. While the school says “Admission to the Master’s program is based on total academic and professional achievement,” mostly it welcomes students “with undergraduate preparation” in the worlds of engineering, physical sciences, or mathematics. The admissions site for the School of Industrial Engineering’s master’s program doesn’t specify that prospective students must have a BS to apply – just that students need a 3.2 GPA in their undergrad work – but it has some “recommended” prerequisites: mathematics through multivariate calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra; applied probability and engineering statistics; basic techniques of operations research; and proficiency in computer programming. The site lists equivalent courses offered at Purdue, so students unable to check those boxes can catch up, though only some graduate-level courses can be taken at the same time as the prerequisites (and won’t count toward the master’s). The graduate-level classes aren’t offered every year, either, so students will need to plan accordingly. Beyond these basics, prospective students need to submit GRE scores (no minimum is listed), a statement of purpose, recommendation letters, a résumé, an optional “diversity essay,” and transcripts. The OR specialization offers thesis (research track) and non-thesis (application track) options, each requiring 30 graduate credit hours. Both require 21 credit hours of coursework. In the thesis option, 12 of the hours must come from industrial engineering courses, then nine from master’s thesis research. The non-thesis option specifies three related courses (for a total of nine hours) from within or outside of industrial engineering, in addition to the 21 hours of base coursework. Students need to enlist the help of an advisory committee to create their plan of study during their first semester of coursework, and they’ll have to maintain a 3.0 to earn a master’s degree. At $11,693, Purdue’s program is the least expensive of the schools on this list, making it extra attractive for that No. 1 spot.
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH
Taken exclusively online via Kansas State’s Global Campus, the Master of Science in Operations Research program “explores an interdisciplinary field of applied mathematics [is] used to optimize decision making.” How do you get from math to decisions? The Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering explains it this way: Students develop a mathematical model of a real-world problem that includes an objective that can be maximized or minimized within a set of constraints. They employ existing or new methods to reach optimal/near-optimal results that are usually significantly better than the previous system. Got that? No? Well, that’s why you go to graduate school. K State requires a bachelor’s – with a 3.0 GPA – in industrial engineering, engineering, mathematics, statistics, or business (if it emphasized quantitative techniques). In case the math emphasis wasn’t clear, K State expects all students to have “an advanced mathematical background” in applied mathematics, such as calculus and linear algebra. Still unsure? The program gets even more detailed, saying students need to have completed a calculus-based probability/statistics course, an introductory operations research course, and have some knowledge of computer programming. So, lots of math. Prospective students also need a 750 (old scoring system) or 159 (new one) on the GRE, a statement of objectives, three professional/academic references, and unofficial transcripts from each college attended. Once all of those boxes have been checked and students are in the system, they’ll need 30 credit hours to earn their master’s: nine credits in operations research core courses, six of “other” operations research courses, and 15 elective credits. This is a coursework-only program, so there’s no thesis. Timing is everything: The eight core courses are offered once every two years. While master’s students technically only need to take three of them to earn their nine hours of core credits, the school encourages students to take all six core classes (with the extra credits earned from them applied to those “other” OR course requirements). The core courses are divided into three sections: continuous optimization, discrete optimization, and stochastic processes. Discrete optimization includes a class called Integer Programming and Combinatorial Optimization, which qualifies for the top three longest course names on this list. According to the course description, it covers topics like single and multiple branching, implicit enumeration, polyhedral theory and cutting planes, mixed integer programs, and unimodular matrices and matroids. Sounds easy enough! Students work with the supervisory committee to plan their elective regimen, but expect to take classes with “substantial mathematics,” per the curriculum guide. The coursework concludes with a master’s culminating experience presentation to the supervisory committee, which will test their grasp of the curriculum and their ability to put it to use in their career.
Although the program is delivered entirely online, students who live within 250 miles of Manhattan, KS will need to travel to the campus for the culminating experience; everyone else can request a conference call. While online class formats vary, they generally include lectures, readings, videos, and chat discussions. Plan to find a proctor via a local library or university, as they may be required come exam time. At $18,002, Kansas State offers one of the less expensive master’s programs in operations research, and it’s one of the few schools that offers scholarships specifically for distance learners. All of that makes K State tough to beat.
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH
Operations research goes back nearly 60 years at NC State, when it began as an introductory course. Then it became a minor across the departments of statistics and electrical engineering, but by 1970, it was a full-blown, independent major. These days, OR remains an interdisciplinary major, as NC State’s College of Engineering and College of Sciences share it. That makes sense, as the program’s website notes, because OR is, by its nature, interdisciplinary, pulling from mathematics, mathematical sciences, engineering, economics, and the physical sciences. Because it draws from those worlds, OR is also highly versatile, and NC State aims to make it graduates as versatile as their field of study. Don’t come to Raleigh – home to the university – without some serious math in your background, though.
To get into NC State’s MS in OR program, students need an undergraduate degree in mathematics, the mathematical sciences (like statistics or economics), or engineering. Unlike others, the school doesn’t specify a GPA requirement, nor does it stipulate a minimum GRE score for admission. (It offers an average on the latter, pulled from a recent class of 20: verbal 491, quantitative 735, analytical 4.0.). Applicants also need an official transcript from all colleges they have attended, three references, and some money – $14,771 per academic year, to be exact, the third-cheapest in our top 10. To earn a master’s, students must complete 31 credit hours: 15 in core courses, three to six from a master’s thesis (with a goal to produce publishable research), and a one-credit seminar. Students can earn another nine credits by choosing three courses in a “minor field of study,” and if they need more to reach the 31-credit threshold, they can draw from a long list of OR coursework. Students map it all out as part of their Plan of Graduate Work, which must be submitted to their Graduate Advisory Committee. That committee will also conduct students’ final oral examination, which is part thesis defense and part test of everything they learned during their studies. Passing it doesn’t mean they’re home free; each member of the advisory committee must also approve the thesis.
NC State’s demanding program seems to produce results: Its site lists 39 publications from its students and faculty in 2016, the most recent year noted, about hot-button topics such as Augmented Immersed Finite Element Methods for Some Elliptic Partial Differential Equations. (You undoubtedly remember hearing about that one on TMZ.) NC State also has a dedicated Military OR group, which helps students prepare for a career in the military by studying real-world issues such as veterans’ health care, expeditionary military logistics and risk analysis, and the fanciest term for 3D printing yet: deployable additive manufacturing. People interested in military OR won’t have to go far to practice it: Seventy miles south of Raleigh is Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the world and home to U.S. special operations forces.
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH
Because operations research is an interdisciplinary field with a wide variety of applications, students have different hopes and goals for what will come from earning a master’s degree in it. Georgia Tech has a simple, macro-level goal for them: to use their advanced analytical and engineering skills to make an immediate impact in industry and governmental/nongovernmental organizations. Headquartered in Atlanta, the school dates to 1885, when it opened to help industrialize and modernize the agrarian South.
Thinking ahead has long been part of Georgia Tech’s mission, and the Master of Science in Operations Research program follows suit. The curriculum focuses on deterministic and stochastic operations research – that is, fixed variables vs. random ones, to dramatically oversimplify it – supplemented by electives in statistics and data analytics. The idea, says the program’s website, is to make students knowledgeable in the principles and methods essential to operations research so they can go out and make that aforementioned immediate impact. Considering all of this, it may be surprising that Georgia Tech isn’t especially rigorous with its admissions prerequisites. The school’s website states it plainly: “Prior background in operations research is not required,” and students “typically” have a bachelor’s in engineering, mathematics, science, computing, etc., and “have strong quantitative skills,” but there’s not much more to it. OK, a BS is required, and applicants need to take the GRE, but the specifics end there – no degree rules, no minimum scores. Have a BS, take the GRE, write a personal statement (which should include a description of any relevant work experience), and have some “credible” letters of reference. (That phony-baloney one you wrote as Stephen Hawking won’t fool anyone.) Admission is based on how well students performed as undergraduates, their GRE, and those letters of reference. At $16,950 per academic year, Georgia Tech falls below the average and median costs of other programs on this list, and the school says the program can be completed in 12-15 months. Low-key requirements + cheapish tuition = yes. Also yes: not having to write a thesis or complete a final project. That sounds great, but don’t get too comfortable: Georgia Tech describes its coursework as “rigorous,” so it won’t be a cakewalk, and the school generally limits the program to 20 students. Thirty credit hours are required for a master’s, and students can focus on specific applications such as optimization, statistics, stochastics, computational science, and others via a long list of technical electives offered at the university. Beginning every fall, the program includes four required core courses (such as Probabilistic Models and Math Statistics I), one computing elective (maybe Computational Complexity?), and five technical electives. (The Bayesian Statistics elective is described as – wait for it – rigorous.) If this all sounds great except for the “living in Atlanta” part, don’t fret: Georgia Tech’s MS in OR program can be taken online.
MASTER OF ENGINEERING IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH AND INFORMATION ENGINEERING
Cornell University is an Ivy League school in Ithaca, NY, but its Cornell Tech campus lies on Roosevelt Island, just off Manhattan. (It’s the place with the cool tram.) The difference between the locales speaks to their differing missions: Cornell’s campus in Ithaca is home to a storied university full of tradition that dates back to 1865. Cornell Tech’s sleek, ultra-modern, and energy-efficient campus is part of NYC’s tech hub. The school’s year-long ME ORIE program aims to provide students “with the mathematical modeling, large-scale computation, and data analytics skills you need to turn heaps of data into effective business decisions” at major tech companies or startup ventures. Getting in is a matter of having not only “a passion for using data-derived insights to shape business decisions,” but also having completed one course each in linear algebra, “intermediate-level” probability and statistics, and programming. (Cornell’s site notes that “a small percentage” of applicants may be asked to complete a test to gauge their foundation in programming and advanced mathematics.) There’s no requirement for a specific undergraduate degree or a particular GRE score, just a résumé, personal statement, letter of recommendation, and transcripts. “Competitive applicants” may also be asked to record an interview answering personal and professional questions to ensure they understand the curriculum and have goals that align with the master’s program. Candidates who make the cut are also considered for a small number of merit-based scholarships based on the strength of their application; the school also recommends women apply for its WiTNY fellowship.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Cornell’s program is its Studio courses, which students take each semester. These are cross-department collaborations with real-world implications. In the Product Studio, students develop a new tech product or service based on a challenge from tech companies like Uber or Robin Hood. There’s also the Startup Studio, where students build a new startup, and the BigCo Studio, where they apply their skills within an existing company. The idea is that students will graduate with real, marketable experience and a portfolio of completed projects that will help them land jobs. Taking a step back, the ME ORIE program covers two semesters, each with 15-16 credits – 12 from the technical curriculum and three to four from “project and interdisciplinary credits” (such as Product Studio and Becoming a Leader in the Digital World). Before starting, students choose one of two concentrations, either data science or operations analytics, and then use those to guide their course selections. They choose eight core classes from a list of 11, including the Bear Grylls-esque Data Science in the Wild or Modeling Under Uncertainty, and six to eight project and interdisciplinary courses from a list of seven. (Law for Non-Lawyers sounds interesting.) Plan to wrap it all up in two semesters, because Cornell Tech doesn’t offer a third semester. People who’d like one will need to travel to Ithaca for that opportunity, though the program at Cornell HQ isn’t the same: It focuses on building “operations research-related math and engineering skills,” versus Tech’s more entrepreneurial approach of using mathematical modeling to inform business decisions. Multiple versions of the phrase “inform business decisions” appear on Cornell Tech’s website, so let there be no mystery about its approach. The whole process will cost $28,890, pricey, but not the most expensive on this list – especially surprising considering Cornell’s ivy-covered walls.
#6. CARNEGIE MELLON
MASTER OF BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION WITH OPERATIONS RESEARCH CONCENTRATION
Carnegie Mellon’s website employs a lot of dramatic language to describe the history of the Tepper School of Business – home to its OR program – including the unironic use of the phrase “ivory towers.” It describes other schools as being too caught up in business orthodoxy back in 1949, when Carnegie Mellon’s business school debuted in Pittsburgh. When that happened, the site says, “the way the game was played changed in an instant.” Tepper did not – wait for it – “play by the rules.” This was a business school with attitude, baby – or at least an idea for a different kind of curriculum. In the ’50s, the Carnegie Mellon researchers pioneered what became known as “management science,” a way of using “analytical, quantitative decision-making techniques via complex methods and modeling to management principles,” which has since scaled the ivory towers of business schools around the country. Tepper’s OR program draws from that history, training students to take on complex business problems and formulate strategic solutions for them. As part of Tepper, the OR program is an area of concentration within the MBA program; Carnegie Mellon offers four OR-specific courses (Applications of Operations Research; Optimization for Interactive Marketing; The Art and Science of Predictions; and Operations Research Implementations), along with a project credit in business analytics. If that seems a little light on the mathematics compared to other programs on the list, know that analytics plays a big part in Carnegie Mellon’s overall curriculum. In fact, the school touts that its devotion to analytics and leadership sets its MBA program apart from all others, boasting that it trains students to have a “true command of analytics” that goes beyond mathematical modeling. Among its analytics courses are Probability and Statistics, Optimization, and Statistical Decision Making. But Carnegie Mellon aims to give students a well-rounded business education, and it crams in a lot: The school operates on what it calls a “mini-semester” system, or what everyone else would call the quarter system. The academic year includes four quarters that last 6.5 weeks each, effectively doubling the number of courses in a semester. The idea is to speed up the learning process and cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. That also means all OR coursework can be completed pretty quickly in a program that lasts two years for full-time students. Tepper also offers part-time and hybrid programs (half online, half on campus) for professionals looking to earn degrees while working. Students need 192 units to graduate, and the school helpfully breaks down a sample track on its website, so it’s easier to understand. The coursework allows for a lot of electives, immersion workshops, and networking opportunities. It culminates with a capstone project, which comes in three forms: Study Abroad (a four-week trip to Germany, Hong Kong, or Mainland China that concludes with a summary presentation), Management Game (a computer simulation of a multinational company), and Strategic Management of the Enterprise (consulting for real companies). The program costs $14,760 per academic year, and Carnegie Mellon has pretty accommodating admissions prerequisites. Describing the process as “holistic,” the school doesn’t “assign specific weights to the various parts of the application,” which include a résumé, GMAT (preferred) or GRE (accepted), essay, a single professional recommendation, and unofficial transcripts. Candidates who seem promising will be invited for an on-campus interview. Unsurprising, considering the school’s approach, there’s no requirement for a specific type of undergraduate degree, and the school has 111 “MBA Ambassadors” to answer questions from prospective students.
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH ENGINEERING
Maybe avoid any news searches for “University of Southern California” at the moment while the school tries to shake off numerous scandals and just focus on its bona fides, which are considerable: U.S. News & World Report ranks it No. 22 among National Universities, No. 9 in Best Engineering Schools – where its OR program lives – and it takes first place for Best Online Graduate Computer Information Technology Programs. It’s also located near downtown Los Angeles in beautiful Southern California, which enjoys awesome weather nearly year-round, and has lots of incredible places within a short-ish drive. In fact, USC’s campus is adjacent to LA’s large Exposition Park, home to the city’s natural history museum, the LA Memorial Coliseum, and the brand new Banc of California Stadium. None of that will necessarily help you study, but they’re assets nonetheless. USC doesn’t exactly sell the sizzle when describing its OR program: “The MS in Operations Research Engineering trains students in solving business problems with computers and mathematics” – which would take the top spot in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking for Dullest Program Description, if it existed. Maybe the school lets its coursework do the talking, and it has a lot to say. Required courses include Performance Analysis Using Markov Models, Web Technology for Industrial Engineering, and Linear Programming and Extensions. Students need 21 credits in those required courses, along with six from electives, and three from computer science to earn the minimum 30 credits needed for a master’s. There’s no thesis or capstone project – though students need a 3.0 GPA to graduate – just a lot of courses with an army of syllables in their names (i.e., Optimization Theory and Algorithms: Numerical Optimization). The course titles all sound pretty intense, so it’s not surprising that USC requires an undergraduate degree in engineering, mathematics, science, or a related area of study for admission to the OR program. Prospective students also need “satisfactory” GRE scores and a “satisfactory” undergrad GPA, though no minimums are specified. Rounding out the application packet are a résumé, personal statement, three letters of recommendation, and the ability to spend $36,161 per academic year. That makes USC the second-most expensive program on our top 10 (eclipsed only by Southern Methodist University, “the USC of Texas,” a phrase no one has ever said), but private universities aren’t known for their low pricing. Students not wishing to battle Los Angeles traffic will be pleased to know USC offers an online version of the program via DEN@Viterbi, the university’s online learning portal. (It has a hybrid online/on-campus version as well, for those students who want a little bit more human contact.) Everyone else: Allow for extra time commuting time to campus.
MASTER OF SCIENCE WITH A MAJOR IN OPERATIONS RESEARCH
Located in Dallas, SMU sees a lot of opportunities for operations research: management consulting, transportation, telecommunications, aerospace, defense, manufacturing, logistics, and the service industries – all of them need the sort of analytics know-how that a good OR education provides. If price connotes quality, then SMU is the best: At $38,562, it is the most expensive program on our list, well above the average and median of the other schools. (Everything is big in Texas, yada yada, etc.) In order to join SMU’s OR program, students need to have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, computer science, economics, or a similarly technical field, and it doesn’t stop there. They also need to have previous coursework with six credit hours of calculus, three of linear algebra, and three of computer programming in “a high-level language.” Beyond that are the usual things, like GRE scores in the 80th percentile, a statement of purpose, something called a “statement of job responsibility,” transcripts, and a résumé.
The Lyle School of Engineering, which runs the OR program, requires 30 credit hours that it divides among groups: three hours of a probability and statistics course; nine hours of core courses (Analytics for Decision Support, Productions Systems Engineering, Operations Research Models); 15 hours of “in-depth courses” (including Stochastic Models, Integer Programming, and Optimization Models for Decision Support); and nine hours of a concentration. SMU offers numerous options for concentrations, which require advisor approval before studies begin: optimization, systems engineering, engineering management, information engineering, computer science, mathematics, statistics, telecommunications, or even some other engineering discipline. Not sure what that would entail? The OR page has sample course schedules for optimization, systems engineering, engineering management, and information engineering, each with five courses. Expect a fairly small class size; the Lyle School of Engineering’s website notes it has an 11:1 student to faculty ratio, and those faculty stay busy outside of the classroom. The school claims it receives some of the largest research awards in the nation on a “per faculty basis,” and it has some significant research projects underway in decision systems engineering and telecommunications software. The latter is a biggie for operations research, because, as the site notes, “the underlying problems are computationally daunting and of strategic importance for the industry.” Some areas currently being studied at SMU within that field include network management and network design, two areas that directly impact day-to-day life. Life on campus at SMU is also pretty nice, as it spreads across a couple of hundred acres in north-central Dallas, a good mix of urban space with greenery. Just plan for interminable, brutally hot summers, but you can beat the heat by checking out the George W. Bush Presidential Library, which is located on SMU’s campus.
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT
Founded in 1876, Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, was the nation’s first research university. Initially, it only offered graduate programs. Undergrads didn’t arrive until later, but prestige has accompanied the school since its beginnings. That continues, too: In U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 rankings, Johns Hopkins placed No. 10 for National Universities, No. 23 for Most Innovative Schools, and No. 19 for Best Value Schools. (With a cost of $27,868 per academic year for its OR program, it costs more than the average for this list.) The graduate program in engineering took No. 17 for Best Engineering Schools. That’s a long way of saying that Johns Hopkins has pretty much always been good, and that probably won’t change any time soon.
Offered via the Whiting School of Engineering, the Master of Science in Engineering Management treats operations research as a degree focus. Coursework for the three-semester MSEM program requires five advanced courses, along with a “suite” of management courses taken as a cohort. The cohort idea is a big part of Whiting’s approach, which emphasizes connections (building a network right away) and entrepreneurship (to prepare students to jump in anywhere once they graduate). In the sample degree plan, that “suite” of courses apparently means “seven,” nearly all of which get taken early in the master’s track. There are also two elective requirements. The operations research program gets more specific with its coursework, saying three of those core courses need to be OR focused (such as Mathematical Foundations for Policy & Management Decision Making), as do the two electives (Stochastic Processes, Optimization Algorithms, Network Models, and several others). That said, the program appears to be fairly flexible: Both the required courses and electives allow for substitutions at the discretion of a student’s faculty advisor. Via Johns Hopkins’ Home2Homewood program, up to two courses may be taken online ahead of time before students make the trek to Baltimore to finish out their degree on campus. (Going the online route naturally requires approval from an advisor.) One of the more interesting parts of the Johns Hopkins program is what’s known as an Immersion Experience; this is a January intersession program, also known as the “Practice of Consulting,” where students work as a team on a client problem either in the U.S. or abroad – past sites have included Israel, Honduras, Panama, Portugal, Denmark, and New Zealand. It occurs between the fall and spring semesters, so it doesn’t last a long time, but gives students a good taste of real-world applications of the topics they study at Johns Hopkins. The school has pretty standard entry requirements for its master’s program: a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering, along with “sufficient prerequisite knowledge” to succeed in the program’s advanced technical courses (or a willingness to get up to speed via remedial courses). Johns Hopkins also requires the GRE, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and unofficial transcripts from any other universities where students studied. During the program, students can’t get below a “C” in any class (and they can only receive one “C”) in order to graduate, and they can’t dilly dally. All coursework must be completed within five consecutive academic years.
MASTER OF OPERATIONS RESEARCH
Some schools offer operations research as a specialization of a larger degree. Others bump it up to degree status, usually as part of the engineering department. MIT constructed a massive building for it and called it the Operations Research Center. Top that, everyone else. In fact, MIT can throw down the OR OG card as well, considering that its Operations Research Center started in 1953 and developed the first-of-its-kind OR curriculum, back when applying scientific methods to decision-making and business problems was a revolutionary idea. The MO of the ORC is collaborative investigation. As management science professor Robert Freund puts it, “The ORC has it all: charm, wit, wisdom, and the desire to showcase the very best that operations research offers the world.” He says the place engenders “a fearless sense of ‘I can solve your problem,’” which is basically the motto of operations research. People who want to solve problems will encounter fairly approachable admissions standards: The school doesn’t specify a bachelor’s degree in a technical field, but considering it’s MIT, that probably goes without saying. The GRE is required, as are a statement of objectives, three letters of recommendation, and transcripts. If the admissions standards seem doable, the acceptance rate is much more intimidating. “Is it hard to get into MIT?” asks U.S. News & World Report. The answer is “Yes,” but would be better served by an emoji: 😂 The OR program – which includes master’s, Ph.D., and a related OR degree in business analytics – accepts only about 40 students from hundreds of applicants every year. The silver lining? It “only” costs $18,971 per academic year, well below the average cost of programs on this list – maybe that’s why U.S. News & World Report ranks it No. 4 in Best Value Schools. That’s low for MIT, which ranks No. 3 in national universities, and No. 1 for Best Engineering Schools for graduate degrees.
MIT’s vaunted master’s program emphasizes practical applications of OR through coursework and research. The two-year program requires 66 credit units for completion, 42 of which must come from advanced subjects (as if MIT would offer a class like Statistics: Um, What are They?). The “rigorous” curriculum that’s part of the “challenging” coursework – come to Cambridge ready to buckle down, everybody – includes seven courses spanning topics like optimization techniques, probabilistic modeling, and statistics, as well as courses in advanced OR topics relating to students’ individual interests. MIT separates the OR coursework into eight groups: analytics, statistics and machine learning, operations management, optimization, economics and finance, transportation systems, applied operations research, and probabilistic modeling. The program also includes some writing-competency requirements, including a thesis based on independent research that students present to their ORC colleagues, who sadly aren’t wearing orc costumes while listening to them.