Data Studies: High Tech & Big Think = Jobs For Liberal Arts Majors

illustration with data studies written over computer code alongside photo of students sitting behind computers in classroom

About 25 juniors and seniors have a hot new job skill to add to their résumés, thanks to an innovative new program created to address employers’ needs: data analysis.

The students, most of them humanities and social sciences majors, learned techniques for teasing answers from large datasets — and realized the power of asking good questions — during three inaugural courses of the Data Studies Program.

The new courses grew out of conversations held by a UC Davis team last year with executives at more than 20 Northern California companies. Many of those one- to two-hour interviews about what managers are looking for in employees took place at Silicon Valley firms.

“This combination of high tech and big think is what companies are looking for.”

— Tim McCarthy

“They would like to hire graduates of UC Davis who have the critical thinking and the big picture skills of social science and humanities,” said Joe Dumit, director of the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences and professor of anthropology and science and technology studies. “But they also need these graduates to understand their number one problem: data.”

Data used by companies, government agencies and other employers range from demographic facts and figures to information stored on mobile phones, businesses’ customer profiles and social media postings.

“Over and over, businesses told us that they need graduates who want to think about customers as people as well as data, who are willing to work with data scientists to identify problems, interpret findings and ask whether a presentation really shows what it promises,” said alumnus Tim McCarthy who joined the faculty and former dean George “Ron” Mangun in meetings with business leaders. “This combination of high tech and big think is what companies are looking for.”

To help fill that need and improve graduating students’ job prospects, UC Davis piloted the Data Studies Program this summer. The demand was great: 136 students applied for 35 slots. Ultimately, 22 completed the pilot program. Dumit hopes to expand the program, with additional course offerings during the academic year and the possible creation of a new minor.

Widespread Interest

Big Data: Data Science Initiative to Help Harness Big Data

Researchers must collect and crunch massive amounts of data quickly and across diverse disciplines in order to move their research forward.

Known as “big data,” information flooding from projects such as high-energy physics experiments and genome sequencing need lightning fast connections and huge storage capacity. For example, data from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland could fill a billion home computer hard drives in only a year. But the university faces a new challenge with large amounts of digital information generated in disciplines that have traditionally not dealt with it.

To help meet this need at UC Davis, the new Data Science Initiative will support varied fields, from business and biology to linguistics and humanities.

New research techniques are generating a plethora of big data across disciplines, said Duncan Temple Lang, professor of statistics and director of the initiative. For instance, digitized texts in history and the humanities offer new insights but also new challenges for researchers.

“We can collect so much data, but not very many people may know what to do with it,” Temple Lang said. The initiative will train students and faculty on campus who are working with any type of data-related research. “We want people to get enough skills that they know how to ask good questions and interpret the results,” Temple Lang said. In addition to consulting services, the initiative launched three new data science classes this year.

The program is aimed at current and potential students in the College of Letters and Science, including students in political science, history, sociology, Native American studies, theatre, philosophy, economics, art and dozens of other areas that are the core of a liberal arts education.

“The goal is helping liberal arts majors, but we’ve had interest from across campus,” Dumit said.

Ian Heath, a senior anthropology major who returned to school after 15 years in the workforce, said data studies classes were exactly what he needs to complete his education.

“These will provide the skills I need for working in Internet marketing, which is both data and demographics intensive, and give me an edge in being proficient in both,” Heath said. “Without them I wouldn’t be eligible to get a paid internship, which is the primary entry path into that field. As an anthropology major I am already practiced at understanding people’s language use and culture, but now I will also be able to analyze data trends pertaining to how they search the Internet and their online behavior.”

Duncan Temple Lang, a statistics professor and director of the UC Davis Data Science Initiative, Xan Chacko, graduate student in cultural studies, and Carl Stahmer, director of digital scholarship for the university library, helped Dumit teach the courses. McCarthy and representatives from Dropbox and other companies gave guest lectures.

The first two courses, offered during Summer Session 1, provided what Dumit called an “intensive boot camp” in data analysis, with students attending classes from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. three days a week. They learned, among other things, how to query databases, “clean” data for accuracy and use Excel, R and other software to search and organize data. In addition, they practiced methods for interviewing bosses and clients to pinpoint what exactly they hoped to glean from data.

“I feel like the class really trained me in critical thinking,” said Jiaying Maria He, a third-year student double majoring in managerial economics and art history. “This is unlike any other class I’ve taken at UC Davis. You really need to slow down and think about what you want to find.

“Before doing this, we would always go straight to the problem. We never thought about the stakeholders: What do they want and what are their problems and what are their bottom lines? Is [the question they’re asking] the right question?”

To encourage teamwork rather than competition among students, the courses were not graded on a curve. Assignments were sometimes intentionally vague, requiring students to query instructors about the desired goals.

The approach initially unsettled some students. “As a student, I care about my GPA a lot. It was so scary for me at first,” said He, who grew up in Shanghai, graduated from a girls’ boarding school in Maryland and aspires to a job at an art auction house.

During Summer Session 2, students worked in teams on capstone projects they could later use in portfolios to show in job and internship interviews.

For his capstone project, Nic Doyen, a junior majoring in science and technology studies, teamed with classmates to “scrape” data from job search websites to compare keywords that health and Internet companies use in describing similar jobs.

As a former math and computer science major who began programming in the fourth grade, Doyen said he had to resist his first instincts on assignments to jump immediately into writing computer code. “Asking the right questions to me is the most important thing,” he said.

Doyen said he would recommend the program to students regardless of their major. “Everyone can benefit from it. The world is changing very fast. One of the big drivers in this changing world is data. Understanding what data exists out there, what data is being kept on you, is very important for your life in general and definitely for your career.”