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Programs Interested in operations research, help choosing a major?

  1. Apr 30, 2017 #1
    I'm a high school junior trying to figure out what I may want to major in. I know that a lot of students change their majors, but I think I should at least have some idea, as it's relevant for deciding where to apply. One of my top choices is Cal Poly SLO, which requires applicants to declare a major. And I can't change to a major that the school doesn't offer.

    I just learned what operations research is, and it's very appealing to me. What majors will set me up for a career in OR, but still leave some "wiggle room" if I change my mind? I know if I still want to be an OR then I'll probably have to get a masters, so is a more general undergrad degree a good idea? But I'd like to take some OR courses during undergrad if I can, to see if I like it.

    Right now I'm thinking about majoring in applied math with a CS minor. I've also looked at industrial engineering, systems engineering, statistics, CS, data science, and OR majors. Would those other majors be better? Is the CS minor worth it? Many of the colleges on my list don't have a CS minor, is that too trivial of a reason to take them off? Can adding minors actually increase my job opportunities?

    Any and all guidance is appreciated, thanks
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 30, 2017 #2


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    Some Engineering departments have OR majors. I went through one in an Industrial Engineering department. Google of Cal Poly shows it in the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering department (see http://catalog.calpoly.edu/coursesaz/ime/ ). OR has components of statistics, mathematical optimization, and computer science. That combination already gives you a lot of "wiggle room". In my experience, a Math degree is not as good for job hunting as an Engineering degree.
  4. Apr 30, 2017 #3
    Thanks, I saw that Cal Poly has OR courses but it's not a full major, they just have the two courses. At Cal Poly specifically the IE major will be much more difficult for me than the applied math + CS minor combo. It's a lot more classes and probably harder. I feel like I am much stronger in math than science so that's a concern for me as far as engineering goes. Right now I'm in AP Calc BC, and it's pretty easy. I'm also in physics (IB SL) and it's honestly probably the hardest class I've ever taken, might be my first B. Granted I'm not trying as hard as I probably should, but it definitely doesn't come naturally to me, and my favorite units are the ones with the most math and the fewest concepts.

    Next year I'll be taking an engineering class (at my high school) if it's offered. So that might help me figure out if engineering is for me. I think it's a manufacturing emphasis. I'm also going to take a python course this summer, which will be my first exposure to programming (right now I enjoy making extremely basic programs-- essentially formulas with if/then statements-- but that's all I know how to do).

    ETA: I can probably start in one and switch to the other without taking extra classes with some very careful course planning, but since Cal Poly requires you to declare your major ahead of time they really discourage people from switching.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2017
  5. May 1, 2017 #4
    Walker23, you also should check out OR job postings to see what the market is currently looking for. May give you an idea of what classes and thus major may help you develop more job relevant skills if that is a concern for you. I don't really know what OR job titles are but searching "operations research" at Glassdoor netted a bunch of analyst, engineer, and scientist positions. You should spend some time looking over those. I'm not in OR so I can't speak from my own personal experience.

    I only briefly glanced over but what saw in the top hits suggest MS degrees are desired (PhD for the scientist positions), applied math majors are specifically listed so I think that route is fine, CS skills are sought after so your CS minor sounds like a good idea, data science/stats are also sought after, and some business know-how (I even saw one wanting an MBA in addition to the MS). Whatever the applied math/engineering/whatever you go with doesn't cover, you ought to be able to take individual courses for.
  6. May 1, 2017 #5
    Thanks, I've been looking at them. I agree with your assessment, typically they want an MS (though a PhD is even better). CS skills seem to be a must, though the language varies. SQL skills are typically indicated-- I'll look into Cal Poly courses that cover it. IE barely includes any CS and the IE major + CS minor would be a lot more work than an applied math major + CS minor.

    Cal Poly has a "cross disciplinary" data science minor. It's 80 units, and much of it is stats or CS. By overlapping the data science minor with applied math as much as possible, it work out to an extra 36 units. This is without a CS minor, although I'd end up with 28 units of CS (the minor is 32 units). Adding the CS minor would add an extra 12 units. They both have a lot of overlap with an applied math major but relatively little overlap with each other.

    Math major alone = 145 units
    Math major + data sci minor = 181 units
    Math major + CS minor = 161 units
    Math major + data sci minor + CS minor = 193 units

    Taking the OR courses adds 4 units each.

    I definitely need the CS knowledge, but maybe not the CS minor title.

    CS courses in the CS minor but not the data science minor: Data structures, Intro to Computer Organization, Systems Programming, 3 CS electives
    CS courses in the data science minor but not the CS minor: Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Intro to Database Systems, Intro to Distributed Computing, Knowledge Discovery from Data
    Both: Fundamentals of CS, Data Structures, Project-Based Object-Oriented Programming and Design

    Virtually all of the job openings want experience (of course). Cal Poly seems good about helping students get internships, so getting summer internships would definitely be a priority for me.

    Of course, Cal Poly isn't the only school on my list...time to weed through the majors/minors/courses for some of the rest, I suppose.

    Thoughts on the CS minor vs Data Sci minor?
  7. May 1, 2017 #6
    Yes, what programming languages companies look for varies. You can't really do anything about what language you'll learn in your programming class, whatever they teach in that fundamentals course at Cal Poly is what you're going to get (python?). But learning one language well prep you well to learn another. From the languages I recall seeing on the job posts, they're all fairly similar.

    You seem to have some typo there with "data structures" listed in CS minor only and both lists. I assume you meant for it to go in "both" since data structs is pretty fundamental to CS. The data science minor is probably more useful for you. The database systems course should cover SQL. That's the standard way to query a database! The data sci minor does sound more on target. But the CS does feature 3 electives which you could use to make it very close to the data sci (at least from the CS courses) if the required CS minor courses sound interesting to you.

    Intro to Computer Org sounds like it'll be a course about the basics of computer hardware architecture and perhaps some low-level programming in some assembly language. I don't recall seeing that being desired in the OR positions I surveyed. Systems programming sounds like you'll learn the C programming language and learn about some of the internals of UNIX. It is not uncommon in data science situations to have to use a UNIX-based system. But knowing how to use is very different from knowing how it works at a deeper level. You can learn basic commands from tutorials online and I don't really think OR jobs require you know the internal workings of UNIX. Though you can check if knowledge of C is something OR positions desire.
  8. May 1, 2017 #7
    You're right, I miscopied something, thanks for catching that. Data Structures is in both. The CS minor is only an extra 8 units, not 12, then. "Intro to Database Systems" i covers SQL.

    Intro to Computer Org is "Introduction to computer systems. Simple instruction set architecture and the computer hardware needed to implement that architecture. Machine and assembly language programming"

    You're exactly on mark for Systems programming, it's "C programming language from a system programming perspective. Standard C language including operators, I/O functions, and data types in the context of system functions. Unix commands, shell scripting, file system, editors."

    If I minored in CS only and not Data Science then there would be some electives that overlap with my math courses, I wouldn't have to take those but that would be the most efficient. Basically, I would choose 3 courses from a cluster (stats, CS, Econ, Mech. E, or Physics). For a Data Sci minor, I get the most overlap by choosing the Stats cluster. For a CS minor, obviously the most overlap is from the CS cluster.

    Looking at some other schools, UC Davis offers a major in Mathematical Analysis and Operations Research. But it seems very slim in the way of CS-- it appears to require only one CS course for the major? A quarter long course too, it looks like (Cal Poly is also quarters). Looks like more of an economics focus. Based on those job postings, CS skills are more in demand than economic skills. So that would have to be supplemented with a CS minor or something.

    UC Berkeley has a whole mess of options. They have an Operations Research and Management Science major, but it's difficult to get into. Alternatively, they offer an applied math major with an OR concentration. It looks like the applied math w/ an OR concentration doesn't have any CS. For the OR/MS major I could choose a "cluster" focusing on CS. They also have a simultaneous degree program that gets you an IE degree and the OR/MS degree. And they also have minors in OR/MS and CS. So I'll probably go through those in detail when I get a chance.

    (sorry for the long posts, I'm sort of typing as I figure things out, it helps me keep everything straight-- thank you so much for the help!)
  9. May 2, 2017 #8


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    To the OP:

    If your primary interest in operations research (OR), then any of the following undergraduate degrees would be useful:

    1. math
    2. applied math
    3. computer science (CS)
    4. statistics
    5. industrial engineering
    6. systems engineering
    7. operations research (some schools offer OR as an undergrad degree)

    The key to a successful work in OR is having a solid quantitative education with a good background in programming (since computers and programming is an important component in OR). A CS minor should give you that background.
  10. May 4, 2017 #9
    At bachelors level, one should remain in a field as broad as possible, to figure out what topics you like or dislike. I would suggest to get into industrial engineering, and then later on pick anything like systems engineering, data science, statistics for masters. That should give you a broader picture of what is the suitable path.
  11. May 5, 2017 #10
    The best Operations Researcher I know got his Bachelor of Electrical Engineering Degree. (majored in electrical engineering),, but that was a long time ago
    I think engineering would be better preparation for the math than computer science, or economics.
  12. May 6, 2017 #11
    Cal Poly's undergrad industrial engineering degree doesn't include any CS, so that's sort of a concern for me there. Adding a CS minor to the IE degree would probably mean taking an extra semester to graduate or having a very tough course load.

    I'm worried that I don't have the science ability to go into engineering. IE seems to be relatively light on science but that seems to be the exception. In physics right now I really don't get the concepts, I only have a decent grade because I know how to do the math. I guess I could probably understand more if I tried harder, but it's not particularly interesting to me.
  13. May 7, 2017 #12


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    Most people that I know who work in Operations Research have math, applied math, or statistics degrees (with a couple who have backgrounds in industrial engineeing). In general (at least in Canada), the math that is taught in most engineering programs generally lack the type of rigour or the variety of different mathematical models that is typically required for operations research.
  14. May 9, 2017 #13
    I know that you all can't make the decision for me, but what should I think about to help me decide if I'd rather study IE or applied math at cal poly? The CS minor would be pretty difficult with the IE degree, there's no overlap so it's an extra 8 quarter-long classes, which might delay graduation. The CS minor is pretty doable with the applied math degree though, about half overlaps. Or the data science degree, which I definitely can't do with the IE degree unless I want to be there for another year (would that be worth it?)

    It's also harder to get into Cal Poly's engineering department than the math department. I'm an academically competitive student so I think I can most likely get into the engineering program, but it's less certain.
  15. May 9, 2017 #14
    You asked an interesting question regarding minors in university. Please take this comment in the context because I had 13 job interviews before landing a job in the mid 1980s, and 2 professional job interviews after 2010, and 4 teaching interviews since 2010.

    The comment I am about to say may be controverted by other posters in this forum, who have had different experiences. However...

    In all the job interviews (and about 6 interviews at job fairs), no one (potential employer) ever asked a question about a minor. They all talked about the major, but there was no evidence that they put any weight to the minor at all. They did mention favorably about a GPA progression upward on my resume, and other details. My own view is minors are given little weight.

    You probably should not cross particular universities off the list because they do not have a CS minor. Your selection process will be wider and may be harder, but you might find a better fit to your goals and abilities.
  16. May 9, 2017 #15
    That's a good point, I guess I should clarify a little-- I know that the title of CS minor doesn't mean much, but it seems like many jobs that are heavy in math require programming skills. So I guess I'm not really worried about whether I have something I can call a CS minor, but I feel like I need the knowledge. I know I can self-study but I'm not sure I'd learn enough, especially since programming is so broad. Although, I strongly suspect I'll really like programming once I start so maybe self-studying will be relatively easy since I'll want to work on it.
  17. May 9, 2017 #16
    My comment above may not be well-founded. I never had a job interview after my Bachelors, just my masters and higher degrees. By that time, potential employers are not going to ask about undergraduate minors. Sorry, for the inaccuracy.
  18. May 9, 2017 #17
    I agree that one shouldn't cross out a university due to lack of a CS minor. I imagine all the schools you're looking it have CS courses and you can simply take relevant (or just out of self interest) courses to get CS skills. I doubt a recruiter will screen out your resume due to lack of CS or whatever minor. The important thing is getting the skills. Having interesting projects from CS courses or from your own interests to talk about can demonstrate those skills.

    I did have an interviewer in my last round of job searching ask about my math minor, but that was more of an aside since the interviewer had a PhD in math. This did spin-off into a discussion of a more abstract mathematical project I worked on, leading to a favorable impression to the interviewer. So again, it's more about what you've done with what you learned than the minor itself.
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