Many problems in the world can be solved by applying mathematical concepts. People with an innate knack for solving complex math problems and who are computer savvy are well-suited for a career as an operations research analyst.
Operations research analysts observe business practices and fine-tune every minute detail of a corporation to provide solutions on operating in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. Companies make significant investments to acquire data, but need specialists to transform the data into actionable steps. These analysts save businesses time and money.
What is an Operations Research Analyst?
Operations research analysts can be employed within a wide range of fields, including business, logistics, healthcare, and insurance companies. Military veterans might work for the Department of Defense. Common job titles include data or applied scientists, research engineers, and derivative dealers.
Some uses of operations research include scheduling tv programs to maximize viewers, product placement in grocery stores, pricing airline tickets, creating routes for delivery companies or truck drivers, and managing financial portfolios to reduce risk of loss. Tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google depend heavily upon operations research. These companies gather large quantities of information about their users and and their day-to-day logistics to offer more personalized and efficient services and products.
Operations research analysts must be adept at analyzing data utilizing a variety of mediums, such as analytical software programs, simulations, and predictive modeling. Data is then used to create algorithms to predict behavior patterns.
Job responsibilities that fall under the operations research umbrella include setting up price points to maximize profits, inventory management, and supply chain logistics. The operations research analyst typically works in an office setting, and commonly collaborates with the sales and engineering departments. Operations research analysts may also spend time in the field observing work processes, interviewing individuals involved in every step of a job process, as well as gain insight into solving problems from experts.
The median salary in 2019 for operations research analysts was $84,810. The top 10 percent earned an annual salary exceeding $140,790, and the bottom 10 percent earned wages less than $48,670. Operations research analysts working for the government sector were amongst the highest earners and also had the greatest job security. In contrast, those employed in the finance and insurance sector yielded lower median wages.
Beyond a higher than average salary, there are numerous other advantages of being an operations research analyst. U.S. News and World Report ranks operations research analysts 4th among Best Business Jobs, based on factors such as anticipated career growth, stress level, and the ability to maintain a work-life balance. Additionally, operations research analyst positions were ranked amongst the Best STEM Jobs and the Best 100 Jobs.
Many decisions are made in a single day at a large corporation. Making rash or emotion-driven decisions could be very costly to a company, but operations research analysts prevent these mistakes from happening. An operations research analysts will carefully evaluate the positive and negative implications of each possible choice while considering available resources, the cost of adding manpower, and purchasing additional materials.
In order to achieve these goals, mathematical equations are used to predict the desired outcome. For example, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants have updated their menus to offer healthier choices for consumers, such as smoothies and salads. The expanded menu selections required packaging for salads and special smoothie blenders.
Leading up to these changes, the operations research analysts might be tasked with researching the cost of these materials, holding focus groups to determine the likelihood consumers would purchase these items, conduct tastings, and price items according to similar competitors on the market. They would research how long the salads will stay fresh and might test them in a handful of sample stores throughout the nation to predict inventory needs. The test run can cut down on waste caused by overstocking and needing to throw away expired products.
McDonald’s also offers the option of ordering through an automated machine in the restaurant’s lobby. This cut the need for some employees, but the machines had to be purchased and have to undergo routine maintenance and occasionally need repairs. The operations research analyst would create mathematical formulas analyzing cost versus savings. It is important for operations research analysts to be confident and persuasive presenters, because they will present findings to clients or the corporation’s executive decision-makers.
Most positions are full-time roles, but some consulting projects are also available. Employees typically work traditional office hours from 9 AM-5 PM, but overtime may be needed when approaching deadlines or if a client requires a quick turnaround for a project. Travel may also be required to meet with clients or to ensure work processes are handled the same at multiple branches of a company. After gaining sufficient experience, professionals may open a consulting firm, leading to a more flexible schedule and greater control over which projects to accept.
What is the History of Operations Research Analysis?
During World War I, the term “operations research” was coined by the British military. With shortages during war times, it was critical to track and ration food and supplies, and strategically place medics and troops. The British assigned these roles to scientists. Shortly after, the private sector also recognized a need for operations research. Car manufacturers such as Ford and other corporations utilizing assembly lines began to see the value of OR.
Operations research was introduced as a field of academic study by universities in the 1940s. Advanced math courses began to emphasize practical applications to solve complex problems, and courses would emphasize the use of machinery. In fact, Harvard taught courses on the use of milling machines.
In the 1960s, courses shifted to service management and service operations, as banks and electrical companies began to employ operations research analysts. Classes in the 1980s and 1990s were concentrated on digital technology and prepared students for innovative new roles at Yahoo and Microsoft. The curriculum has evolved and expanded over the years in order to remain relevant as new industries have recognized the prominence of OR.
How do Students Prepare to Become an Operations Research Analyst?
With the proper education, your future as an operations research analyst could take you anywhere. Companies are viewing their budgets from a much more strategic viewpoint and seeking ways to effectively cut non-essential costs. Since operations research analysts are needed in virtually every industry, there will continue to be a demand for this occupation in the foreseeable future. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2018 and 2028, approximately 28,100 jobs will be added. This 26% increase is much higher than most careers.
While there are some entry-level positions for individuals holding a bachelor’s degree, applicants with a master’s or Ph.D. will have the best job prospects. Degrees specifically in operations research are rare but can be found at a handful of elite universities, including Cornell, Columbia, CUNY, Princeton, UC Berkley, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and the Air Force Institute of Technology.
Due to the limited availability of OR programs, it is common for students to earn a degree in Analytics, Computer Science, Mathematics, Business, Management Science, or Engineering. Many high schools also offer a STEM or Business and Industry endorsement, which will lay the groundwork for succeeding in college.
It is also imperative to properly prepare for interviews. Candidates are frequently challenged with brain puzzles during interviews and either given time limits to solve them or points based on how quickly they complete the puzzles. Chess and other analytical games can help candidates sharpen their cognitive skills and increase memory capacity. Candidates should also polish their LinkedIn profiles, and stay connected to the tech community through Twitter and other social media platforms.
Students need a solid grasp on advanced-level math courses and should expect to take Statistics, Calculus, and Linear Algebra. Computer science is also an important part of the curriculum, as much of the data analysis is computed via database software. Some of the other classes undergraduate students commonly take, include Management Science, Sustainable Operations, and Project Contracting and Procurement.
Since operations research analysts work in such diverse fields, it’s also important to be well-rounded by taking courses in accounting, business, political science, economics, communication, and engineering. Candidates with a bachelor’s degree are well prepared to assume positions such as industrial engineers, logisticians, management analysts, market research analysts, and software developers.
Relevant graduate degree options include an MBA or a specialized master’s degree in Management Science, Computer Science, or Applied Statistics. Many of these programs allow students to tailor their degree with a concentration in an industry-specific sector, such as finance, insurance, technology, or science. Applicants to graduate programs are usually required to submit GRE or GMAT scores and have completed undergraduate coursework in quantitative analysis methods.
Courses will be research-heavy, but students who enjoy learning new information and exploring why things work the way they do will thrive. Some of the core courses you might take as a graduate student include Probability Theory, Deterministic Model, Stochastic Model, and Simulation. Electives are also offered in Data Mining, Financial Risk Management, Game Theory, and Pricing Models. Other important skills to develop include cryptography, computer programming, blockchain design, and numerical modeling. Graduates of master’s level programs are eligible for advanced positions as economists, mathematicians, and statisticians.
Ph.D. programs most desirable to operations research analyst recruiters include Computer Science, Physics, and Mathematics. Doctoral graduates are highly sought out for top-tier management positions, and some enter the world of academia.
Doctoral students interested in academia should become a quantitative research intern to learn how to work as part of a research team. SIG Susquehanna, one of the world’s largest quantitative trading firms, offers a 10-week internship for Ph.D. students. Key features of this robust internship include hands-on, proprietary trading practice under the guidance of a mentor, finance courses, small group breakout sessions, and industry lectures.
Right now, COVID has affected OR programs at colleges and made online courses a necessity. Coursework will be delivered via interactive apps, simulation tools, and online projects. Since operations research analytics is a very specific niche, there are few options for earning a degree in that major online. By broadening your degree options to those in computer science, math, and management science programs, students can find suitable choices.
Columbia University, rated by U.S. News and World Report among Best Value Schools, offers an OR program with an active alumni group. The University of Southern California offers a flexible M.S. in Operations Research Engineering, which allows students to participate in real-time lectures, or students have the option to watch prerecorded lessons at a time convenient for their schedule. Carnegie Mellon University features an online, hybrid MBA with a concentration in Operations Research through the Tepper School of Business. This MBA requires six on-campus weekend residencies per year, so it’s best for students who already live in Pennsylvania or a nearby state.
INFORMS has been providing guidance to operations research analysts to save lives, money, and solve problems for 25 years. This prestigious organization offers networking and learning opportunities through an annual four-day seminar-style INFORMS meeting and the INFORMS Business Analytics Conference, both of which feature a career fair.
Throughout the year, there are also numerous webinars, with topics ranging from business analytics initiatives to home buying using data-driven decisions.
Students and practitioners are invited to join and contribute to this vibrant professional community. Students can work in small groups to tackle a real-world problem utilizing data software in the INFORMS OR and Analytics Student Team Competitions. These teams present their projects to a panel of professional judges. Students can also be mentored by seasoned professionals. Professionals can distinguish themselves by earning a premier CAP certification and can give back to the community by providing pro bono analytics services to non-profit organizations.
Another great organization to join is the American Production and Inventory Control Society. College chapters can be found spanning the nation, but professionals are encouraged to get involved too.
Professionals can bolster their career path by becoming Certified in Production and Inventory Management, Supply Chain Professional, Supply Chain Operations Reference, or Logistics, Transportation, and Distribution. Further learning enrichment includes virtual and in-person workshops on Sales and Operations Planning, Inventory Control, and Principles of Material Requirements Planning. This non-profit organization also offers volunteer opportunities, monthly social events, and a job database.
Operations research analysts interested in working for the military should consider joining the Military Operations Research Society. Membership in this organization quickly pays off, with discounts to the annual symposium, special meetings, and Monday tutorials. Students have the opportunity to be mentored and compete at the annual Education and Professional Development Colloquium. Graduate students can earn prizes for their research contributions. Job seekers may land their first post-graduation position by posting their resume to the dynamic database accessible to industry employers. Special events are available for Junior Analysts, who are under 40 years old and have less than ten years of experience. Students can easily stand out amongst their peers by earning a certificate in Critical Skills for Analytical Professionals, Cyber Wargaming, Excel Functions for Data Analysts, or U.S. National Security Risk Analysis. Prior military experience will be helpful for operations research analyst professionals pursuing national defense positions but is not a prerequisite for most jobs.
Graduates of a bachelor’s program can attain entry-level positions and work their way up the ladder. Still, there are also ample opportunities to gain hands-on experience prior to graduation. College students and new employees may initially participate in extensive job shadowing of more experienced analysts before being turned loose with their own responsibilities.
A college capstone course gives students practical experience, and internships allow students to establish a network of professional contacts. Indeed currently has internship positions for a Technology Business Analyst with Warner Media, Data Analyst with Cisco Systems, and a Program Analyst Trainee with the U.S. Department of Justice. Some internships are currently offered in a virtual format.
What are the Future Trends in Operations Research Analysis?
Operations Research has undergone many changes since the beginning of the pandemic, but one thing that’s certain is OR is a stable field that’s here to stay.
It is more important now than ever for businesses to increase revenue and decrease costs, two skills that operations research analysts have mastered. Product demand has swiftly changed. Nobody could have predicted that toilet paper would become such a hot commodity in 2020, but on the other hand, many products are taking up shelf space in warehouses. OR leaders can assess inventory and create models to predict how to adjust production. These adjustments can ensure businesses are prepared for orders, but also able to maintain healthy cash flow.
Customers have cut their spending significantly. Therefore, consumer behavior studies are an important component in understanding current buying habits and strengthening customer relationships. Operations research analysts can stay up-to-date on the latest industry trends by subscribing to Analytics Magazine and OR/MS Today.
In the future, businesses can expect to automate more functions, such as scheduling and reminders. Operations research analysts will contribute to creating effective workplace tools. Social distancing measures associated with COVID have slowed down hands-on training for new hires, but operations research analysts have made virtual training programs accessible to more employees.
Jobs on the horizon include those emphasizing globalization, sustainability, communication, and system designs. The biopharmaceutical industry has also seen a major increase during COVID, and operations research analysts have become one of the most in-demand jobs in the field.
Since technology rapidly changes, it is essential for operations research analysts to stay up-to-date on the latest research platforms, software tools, and analytical methods by attending professional development sessions. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle Corporation, and the Institute for the Certification of Computing Professionals offer professional certificates such as Microsoft Dynamics 365, Oracle Linux and Solaris, and IBM Certified Systems Administrator.
The use of personal technology devices, including cell phones, tablets, and laptops, have hastened the speed of life. Amazon has made next day delivery the norm. Don’t have time to make dinner tonight? Place an order from the Grubhub app, and voila; problem solved in less than an hour! Operations research analysts must continuously find ways to help companies fulfill consumers’ needs more efficiently or face the consequences of losing customers to competitors. Technology has also made it easier to transmit and analyze data, creating a niche for OR.
The COVID pandemic has caused many businesses to have to creatively rethink their approach in order to stay afloat. Operations research analysts have been primed to handle these challenges.
Government and hospital operations research analysts acquired PPE and ventilators during a time when these vital materials were in short supply, and have significantly contributed to analyzing data regarding positivity rates, disease transmission, and effective contact tracing methods. Operations research analysts have also assisted restaurants as they transitioned to primarily take-out or curbside, as state laws reduced dining room capacity. Remote work opportunities have also increased, as employers have seen relatively high productivity levels from employees working from home.
Operations research analysts can maximize their potential career outlooks by learning as much as they can about collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, and G Suites. Meetings will also likely be held through Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts, so knowing how to navigate these systems is essential.
There’s never been a better time to prepare for a career as an operations research analyst. Students should consider pursing degrees and courses in business, operations, industrial engineering, and analytics. Also, expanding their knowledge with classes outside of their major could help them be more well-rounded and increase their marketability during a tough economy. And with the wide array of online degrees and courses available, students are just a click away from furthering their potential.
For recent graduates who are having trouble securing a job, they should continue to perform relevant research and attempt to have it published in professional journals. They can also consider using this time to earn a higher degree, and buff up their resume with certifications and online continuing education courses. Continue applying for jobs, because there will be a resurgence in positions as the economy steadily improves. Those with recent contributions to the OR field will be swept up first by hiring managers.
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