Every Masters of Data Science Degree in Australia – James Cook University

Over the next couple of months, we’re going to be rolling out the most comprehensive summary of every Masters of Data Science (MDS) offered in Australia.

We are so over reading posts from people who have no idea about the courses. You need to be informed about what career path is best for you, data science is a very broad field. When these sorts of posts flood forums like Whirlpool and Quora, the level of confusion and misinformation makes it difficult for prospective students to figure out what’s real and what isn’t.

Just because your mate’s sister’s boyfriend went there doesn’t mean you know if it’s good or not

– Caitie, every Janurary as she filters through DMs from prospective students.

The other reason is that some MDS (not all) are merely money makers for the universities, and that’s not a good thing for unsuspecting students. With thousands of international students coming to Australia per year to study MDS then finding it won’t help them get PR or even the job they were after, we thought it was time for some transparency. We know that the universities reputation is a critical factor in picking where students do their MDS, but the fact is that rankings don’t necessarily translate into the progressive, rewarding career in Data Science that you are after.

Finally, you need to be comfortable where you are studying. A standard MDS is two years. The University you choose needs to be the right fit for you.

LDS cannot guarantee all details here are up to date and complete. Universities often make changes to their courses and so we strongly encourage seeking clarification from the universities themselves. This article should be taken as an opinion piece.

This first summary focuses on James Cook University (JCU) in Queensland, the Sunshine State. Each article will focus on a different MDS ending in a final summary of all MDS in Australia.

James Cook University

James Cook University (JCU) offers an MDS that seems to be have been created for and with industry in mind. For a quick overview check out the promo video from 2017, when the degree commenced.

JCU MDS promo

Aside from Ron’s top acting skills, he makes it very clear that JCU is heavily aligned with industry. So for those of you who want to go into research, you should probably give this one a miss.

Delivery mode

The JCU is geared toward students who aim to go straight into the industry as well as those already working in the industry. The course is offered 100% online meaning you don’t have to move, you can access the course from anywhere. A great option if you have a family, you are already working or you are looking to start working while studying. We don’t know if that means you can get out of doing assignments though.

It’s not unheard of for students to start getting job offers and internships after their 1st year of study in an MDS. Being able to do your units online provides the flexibility to do this which isn’t possible for those doing a traditional contact-based degree.

JCU online students conduct their work via live chat sessions, recorded lectures and the materials provided on the aptly named JCU learning platform, ‘LearnJCU’. Online students are also are offered the support of a curiously titled ‘success advisor’.

Along with your tutors, your Success Advisor is there for you from your
first day as a student with JCU Online. They are readily available to help you navigate your online degree and keep you motivated throughout the duration of your study.

– JCU MDS brochure

Given it is a data science degree we wonder if the success advisor is a chatbot. You may in-fact prefer a face to face delivery and the company of other students for friendship and comradery throughout your course. If this is the case JCU isn’t for you.

Unit set up

Ok, stay with us here, this bit a little confusing. The JCU MDS is not a normal arrangement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

JCU runs on a ‘carousel’ timetable which means that the units, which JCU formally call subjects, are shorter than the traditional 13-week semester.

Each subject will go for seven weeks and you will complete six subjects a year on a full-time load. These subjects commence in January, March, May, July, September and October.

We are massive fans of this set up as you would only do one subject at a time. This mode of study is far less stressful and avoids the enviable ‘assignment crush’ at the end of the semester followed by the hell that is exams of which there are none.

Yes, it’s true. The JCU MDS has no exams. Most of their subjects have a very similar assessment format:

  • 20% tests or quizzes online
  • 60% assignments
  • 20% computational laboratories/log books

Entry requirements

JCU ha no WAM or GPA requirements. So if you slacked off in your undergrad, this might be the course for you. You will require a Bachelor degree that is equivalent to AQF level 7. Preferably, JCU wants to see evidence of ” high numeracy skills equivalent to senior level mathematics that includes algebra and elementary differential calculus”. We assume the senior level mathematics is a reference to your final year of high school.

If you do not have this (math) you can enter the course as long as you can demonstrate at “least five years of relevant work experience in an IT or Data Science related industry. Industry experience will need to include some background in computing, data analysis or programming.”. This is probably >1% of applicants, and it’s a weird entry requirement alternative.

Now if you don’t come from a STEM background, which many MDS students do not, then you can still pursue the MDS at JCU.

If you have absolutely no mathematics and are petrified of the prospect of learning to code then first you need to ask yourself why you think data science is actually compatible with your life choices, but also be aware that JCU has you somewhat covered.

Students are offered a subject called MA5801:03 Essential Mathematics for Data Scientists – which they take before they even start the course! While it seems obvious, this is revolutionary. Time and time again MDS students come into these degrees and fall over straight away in their first mathematics, statistics or programming unit. Failing a unit can be devastating. Aside from the blow to your self-esteem, a fail can be a hard hit to your bank account, job prospects and for international students, your visa status.

Offering an elementary mathematics course is really quite unique and should, in our opinion be adopted by all universities offering an MDS to non-cognate (not form computer science or mathematics backgrounds) students.

JCU allows you to build your qualifications as you go. So if you don’t meet the entry requirements or only some of them then you start off with the subjects built into the Graduate Certificate or Graduate Diploma then continue to the MDS subjects. No, you can only exit with one qualification, not all three.

JCU qualification progression

If you had to start at the beginning, your MDS would take you 32 months instead of the advertised 24. Sneaky JCU. Always speak to your enrolment advisor before you start your classes about what’s most appropriate for you.

Be aware though, just because you can get away without doing a unit, doesn’t mean you should. Often those approving credit for prior learning, aren’t data scientists (what? no way). Frankly, you could lie through your teeth and say you have three years of programming experience. We know a lot of people who get fake reference letters from their former ‘managers’ and buff up their CVs to get out of one unit. I mean, who’s going to check? The problem though is that these students fail. Oh, how they fail, it is spectacular. If they finally graduate, their rock WAM is going to hinder their chances of getting a decent job.

What you will study

So the first downside to the JCU degree is that it’s quite rigid. There are no electives and you would be required to pass every subject to graduate on time. But unlike traditional semester-based units, if every unit is offered in every teaching block, then you should only be delayed by a few months due to the short teaching periods. Have a look at the handbook here.

JCU MDS students will gain membership of the SAS Academy of Data Science if they complete additional subjects. There appear to be two streams of the JCU-SAS Joint Certificate.

JCU-SAS Joint Certificate in Introductory Data Science JCU-SAS Joint Certificate in Advanced Data Science
MA5800 – Foundations of Data ScienceMA5821 – Advanced Statistical Methods for Data Scientists
MA5820 – Statistical Methods for Data ScienceCP5806 – Data and Information: Management, Security, Privacy and Ethics
CP5804 – Database SystemsMA5831 – Advanced Data Processing and Analysis using SAS
MA5830 – Data Visualisation MA5851 – Big Data: Processing and Analysis

It’s a bit confusing, but it looks like the certification is built into the degree. Be aware that the Data Science master classes and projects are not offered in 2019. This makes sense since the JCU-SAS joint certificate has now been implemented.

SAS is a dominant industry analytics platform and employers highly prize proficiency with it. Many graduates have reported that they are required to use it despite knowing other programming languages. In fact, a couple of us have been asked in interviews if we are ‘whizz bang with SAS’, yes that actually happened. So experience with SAS is great but since the material is can be accessed directly through SAS at a cost of $420 AUD per month (more than enough to get familiar with it), it hardly seems worth giving up valuable units that could have been spent on interesting electives.

As fancy as this all sounds, we are still a little sceptical.

Another reason being the level to which teaching staff are proficient with SAS. Most tutors and lecturers you will have are researchers. We know very few Data Scientists who lecture or tutor who are experts with SAS. This could prove problematic for the new JCU program.

Looking at the unit themselves, we see that they are all run out of the college of engineering. They foundations units are fairly standard and nothing here looks very different from other MDS courses. There is a mixture of Python, R and SQL at this level. It’s difficult to tell due to the carousel timetable, but it looks like students will be exposed to R before they take their foundation programming unit CP5805 – Programming and Data Analytics using Python. Although we hope, JCU hasn’t made this common mistake, those who have had no exposure to programming should consider doing a MOOC or two so they don’t find the experience to jarring.

Looking into MA5810- Introduction to Data Mining we read “Software packages will be adopted for hands-on data mining in real data sets.” Since there is no specific programming language mentioned, we wonder if this means that you would be using SAS rather than coding your own algorithms. After reading through all of the subject outlines we couldn’t see any more mention of programming languages other than SAS. This is not to say that there are no further programming requirements but it is safe to say that SAS is the core ‘language of this degree’. After getting our hands on some of the lectures and tutorial exercises for JCU MDS units we were interested to see just how much this degree is catered for industry. 110%. To new and commitment to SAS, it seems, is integrated seamlessly then into these materials.

Costs

Good news if you are a domestic student then you are going to love this. Full fees for domestic students are $52,800 AU which is on the lower end for domestic MDS fees but the best news is that JCU has CSP places. If you are awarded a CSP then you will only contribute $18,704 AU making it amongst the cheapest MDS in Australia.

International student fees are moderate at $63,000 AU. By comparison, Monash University domestic students pay $64,000 AU and international students at The University of Queensland pay $88,102 AU for a two year MDS degree.

English Language Requirements

English language requirements are standard at all universities and vary within a few points of each other dependent on the exam.

Academic IELTS – 6.5 (no component lower than 6.0)
TOEFL (paper-based) – 570 (with a minimum Test of Written English score of 4.5)
TOEFL (internet-based) – 90 (minimum writing score of 21)
Pearson (PTE Academic) – 64.

University standing

Full disclosure, we don’t really buy into rankings. While it’s true that Australian universities do vary in quality, financial ‘freedom’, facilities and research output, these characteristics are not correlated. Our editor has attended and worked for six universities and says

The worst teaching I ever received was at a Go8 university, the cruellest of research environments was too. The most supportive was at a private university and the most disorganised was a rural one.

LDS editor

Key statistics

JCU has 15.2k students of which 20% are international and 38% are postgraduate. JCU does have a gender imbalance, with 63 women studying for every 37 men. The staff to student ratio is 22.3 students to every staff member. We take these stats from the QS rankings.

The World University Rankings

JCU scores in the 201-250 band for the top 1000 universities in the world as ranked by The World University Rankings. Let’s look at that in detail. JCU is in 20.1% – 25% of universities ranked. JCU is considered a ‘young university’ it was established in 1961 university and ranks 28th in the world when compared to other universities of the same level of maturity. Why is this important? Well, older universities have more money.

More money, better everything.

It’s all relative. But when we look at what is relevant to MDS we can see a different story and not a good one.

The rankings are roughly worked out based on teaching, research, citations, industry income and international outlook. See our post on University Rankings for an explainer.

Based on Teaching, which we think is the most important score, JCU receives 23.5 which is not great. Their Industry income is modest at 41.9 and their international outlook is very good at 75.4

Looking at the rankings for Engineering and technology specifically. Teaching received an abysmal score of 19.9, an okay Industry income at 32.8 and a reasonable international outlook at 72.7.

However, their ranking here has slipped into the 301-400 band, down from the 251-300 band in 2018. Not a good sign.

QS Top Universities

Again JCU has slipped from equal 367th to equal 369th place. However, they rank 43rd in the top 50 universities under 50 years old. JCU is ranked 18th in Australia (out of 43rd). Unfortunately, we can’t give more granulated statistics here as they aren’t available.

Affiliations and accreditations

JCU is a member of the Innovative Research Universities Network which is a group of seven universities that undertake advocacy on issues related to higher education, research and university students.

Because we always get asked, no, JCU is not ACS accredited.

Summary

We feel that JCU is not actually offering an MDS. A better title would be business analytics. This is frustrating because it will produce students who are not equipt for data science roles and may either miss out on graduate opportunities or fail when they enter industry.

With so much focus on SAS students will miss out on other languages. Learning different languages is hard but over two years you become adaptable and with practice become proficient. Practice means every day for several hours. But it seems that JCU will not offer this.

We are impressed by the pre-degree mathematics unit but did not see enough probability and statistics throughout the course. The structure, however, is fantastic. Having one unit over seven weeks will allow students to fully concentrate on that unit. The traditional four units per 13 semesters are out of date and make it hard for working students to study, particularly when unit assessments overlap to an unreasonable extent.

Although the lack of exams seems appealing, we question their absence for units that are theory based such as those concerning ethics and policy.

However, hands-on units work better without exams, so scrapping them all together is the lesser of two evils. Practice is more important than an examination where you have to smash out as much as you can remember. Exams don’t have StackOverflow and so are not a reflection of working life. JCU has replaced exams with log books for programming, lab time and exercises.

The organisation of the website is a bit confusing. Changing unit names and not updating them uniformly is the number one way to irritate and confuse new students. Get it together JCU marketing team.

Oh and just a note on the JCU MDS webpage “One of the fastest Masters degree in this field in Australia” isn’t accurate, two years is standard and other MDS offer early exit based on credit.

Pros

  • Accessible to non-cognate students
  • 100% Online delivery
  • CSP places for domestic students. Low fees in general
  • No-exams
  • 7-week teaching blocks of one unit only

Cons

  • Minimal programming and statistics
  • Overreliance on SAS
  • Possibly not reflective of required industry skills
  • No research stream
  • Poor teaching reputation

And there you have it. JCU MDS may or may not be the right fit for you but that is now for you to make yo your mind about.

Retweet this article for happy enrolment vibes @data_little

Thanks to Nicole Honeywill for providing the feature image for LDS to use. Find Nicole on Unsplash.