Since launching in 2016, the University of Illinois online MCS-DS program has quickly become one of the top online data science master’s programs in the U.S.

That's not a big surprise. The course comes from the same faculty as the on-campus MCS program, which is a top 5 graduate computer science school, according to U.S. News and World Report. Plus, the program – offered completely online through Coursera – can be pursued part-time, offering an ideal format for working data science professionals.

Today, we're taking a closer look at UIUC's MCS-DS program in order to get an overview of the program, admissions and academic requirements, and the perspective of a UIUC graduate, who now works in the San Francisco Bay Area in data science.

UIUC MCS-DS: At A Glance

  • Cost: $21,440
  • Time: 1-3 years (with up to five years to complete the program)
  • Acceptance Rate: 30%
  • Courses: 32 credit hours (10-12 hours per week)
  • Learning Platform: 100% Online, through Coursera and ProctorU
  • Upcoming Deadlines: October 15 for Spring 2022 Cohort

Key Benefits of the UIUC Program

Here are a few reasons why this is such a popular master's of data science program:

  • Flexible Scheduling - You can enroll as a full- or part-time student, and have up to five years to complete the program.
  • Affordability - The program costs about $670 per credit hour and students pay as they go. It's much more affordable than on-campus alternatives.
  • 100% Online - Complete the course online, and access the course content on any device via Coursera.
One potential drawback is the limited course selection. The data science track focuses in four areas: machine learning, data mining, data visualization and cloud computing. If you're looking for in-depth courses on deep learning or computer vision, you might be underwhelmed.

UIUC Master’s of Data Science: Program Overview

Course requirements include:

Students can pursue the degree full- or part-time. The program can be completed in as little as one year, but students have up to five years to finish all coursework.

Admissions Requirements

Roughly 30% of applicants are admitted into the program, and the requirements are fairly standard for data science programs. You don't have to take the GRE for this program (although it can help you earn admittance). To apply, applicants must have:

  • An eligible bachelor's degree
  • 3.2 GPA or better (from the last two years of undergraduate coursework)
  • A strong background in object-oriented programming, data structures and algorithms. Note: If you don't have prerequisite coursework in these areas, but have professional experience, there are accelerated computer science courses you can complete.

How Are Courses Taught?

The UIUC program is 100% virtual, with courses based on the Coursera platform. Each course is made up of modules that feature video lectures, as well as supplementary readings, video lectures, assignments and discussion forums. This isn't a self-paced course; rather, modules are unlocked throughout the semester.

There are also live classroom sessions and live office hours. Exams are conducted through the ProctorU platform. Students are admitted into Slack groups to connect with their peers, and Zoom is also used for communication.

Interview with a UIUC MCS-DS Graduate

We talked with Apurva Hari, a San Francisco-based AI consultant currently working on the chatbot team for a large national bank. Apurva was a part of the first UIUC cohort in 2016, and graduated from the program in 2018.

What Was Your Background Before Starting the Program?

I graduated from a college in India with a degree in computer science, and my first job was with a company called Franklin Templeton Investments. I was a part of the security and customer experience/networks teams. I was an analyst on that team. I moved to the Bay Area in 2015. I took up a certification course at UC Berkeley Extension, Big Data Analysis, and took courses in Python programming and the fundamentals of machine learning. When I joined the master's program, I was working at Silicon Valley Bank as a lead data analyst on the data governance team.

What Made You Want to Pursue the MCS-DS program? How Did You Apply?

It was online and part-time. I applied to a few on-campus programs before that and was admitted, but this program allowed me to continue working while I studied.

When I applied, I had to take a GRE and TOEFL exam, since I'm not a U.S. citizen. I had applied to other programs, so I already had those credentials. I also had to submit a statement of purpose, transcripts, letters of recommendation and certificates.

Note: The GRE is no longer required for the UIUC program.

What Was the Student Experience Like?

There were many ways to connect with professors, TAs and fellow students. We had a Slack community, as there are students all over the world in the program.

Our professors also conducted live office hours. You could connect via video, but those sessions were also recorded, which you could access later. The office hours were great. You could discuss concepts, get more insight into concepts that weren’t clear from the videos.

Like a typical master’s program, there was flexibility. As long as you were communicating with your professors, they were usually happy to work with you on deadlines.

What UIUC Courses Have Been Most Helpful in Your Career?

My coursework was primarily focused around statistics and data science. I was taking courses in statistics at a basic level, advanced stats, Bayesian statistics, applied machine learning, data visualization, and data cleaning.

One course that is very close to the work that I do now was Text Information Systems (see a sample syllabus). This covered the basics of text mining, all the way to advanced concepts like building classifiers and text retrieval algorithms.

Another course that was helpful was Data Visualization. I do a lot of data visualization at work, and in this course, I learned how to connect databases with the D3 JavaScript library and also worked with Tableau, which I had prior experience with. These concepts have been really, really helpful. The course gave me a theoretical perspective on data visualization, as we covered things like building better dashboards, design fundamentals and color theory.

How Did the Program Help with Your Career?

When I had completed about 75% of the program, I started applying for jobs. And I joined Wells Fargo, initially on the AI team. I think part of why they hired me was this degree and my background in data science from the program.

Any Drawbacks to the Program?

I really enjoyed the program, but if someone is going down this path, I’d say that it’s a lot of work, especially if they’re not from a technical background. Also, if you’re working, you really have to know how to manage your time well.

At the time, there were some technical issues like with the videos and exams, but typically those were resolved.

Another drawback was that, at the time, they didn’t really have any location-based career services. As I was based in the Bay Area, I had to navigate the job market myself.

I would also say that the course selection was limited. There’s a lot of helpful machine learning content, but deep learning was only touched on in a few courses.

What Other Benefits Did You Enjoy from the Program?

I had all the typical benefits of an on-campus master’s student, but they were all virtual. I had access to recorded seminars and, access to the e-library, and one great benefit was that I received discounts for conferences. I was able to attend several conferences in the Bay Area.

Would You Recommend the Program to Others in the Field?

I would definitely recommend this program. The degree has helped me successfully transition to a career in data science. Plus, I got the opportunity to interact and learn from a talented, motivated, and extremely supportive team of peers and staff (professors, TAs). And the most special reason: I graduated with advanced degree from one of the top universities for computer science (which has been a dream) despite having a baby around that time.