Sunday, June 7, 2009

Starting up in Operational Research: Should I be a generalist or a specialist?

This is the part 2 of 3 of the mini-series on "Starting up in Operational Research".

Question 1: What programming languages should I learn?

Question 2: Should I be a generalist or a specialist as an Operational Research professional?
"As an Operational Research professional, are you usually viewed as a "jack of all trades" or do you usually have to specialize in one area like marketing, government, military, logistics, etc.?"

The short answer is:
First of all, there are two different types of "specializations" in Operational Research: industry specialization, and OR technique specialization. When you are a student at the master's level, you cannot afford to specialize in either industry or technique, because there is so much to learn, and it is all somewhat important. However, once you start working as an OR professional, because of the nature of your work / organization, you will almost be forced to specialize in an industry, such as marketing, healthcare, defense, logistics, mining, energy, etc. However, personally, I would not corner myself into specializing in an OR technique, such as optimization, forecasting, simulation, etc., unless I were an academia. This is because of 'what-if' scenarios for your career. As an OR professional, if you specialize in a technique, you may pigeon-hole yourself into one type of job, which will be difficult to change from if you ever want to. For example, what if you wanted a change from doing simulation models? Personally, specializing in one OR technique could quickly get boring, but that may not be the case for everybody.

Now, let me elaborate a bit more on the above:
As a student of Operational Research (a.k.a. "Operations Research" in North America), there simply isn't time enough to specialize in one field of OR during the studies. At least that was the case for me. My program, Master of Management in Operations Research, run by the Centre for Operations Excellence in the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, is 15 months long. It included 8 months of intensive, mandatory, foundational courses to build up the skills and tools necessary for an Operational Research professional, including but not limited to: optimization, simulation, forecasting, statistical methodology, stochastic processes, decision analysis, operations management and logistics, consulting practices, as well as operations research and management sciences best practices. These are our tools to be a "jack of all trades", and must not be neglected. Then the program included a crucial 4-month (typically) hands-on project, where the student acts as the main consultant on behalf of the school to work with a private or public organization on a relatively high importance OR project, charged with real deliverables to the client. This makes it a "professional degree", instead of a M.Sc. (Master of Science) where the student is expected to do research and produce an academic thesis paper. After the project, the entire program wraps up with another 4 months of courses, but to be chosen by the student. This is the opportunity to specialize if you wish. However, I don't believe 4 months of studies can make anyone a "specialist" in anything. It is the future work that you do that will shape you into whatever specialist you may choose to be.

As a professional working in OR, one will be forced into specializing in an industry or a field of business, such as healthcare, unless you go with a large consulting firm that deals with more than just one type of industry. With the big consulting firms, you may get the chance to be exposed to different industries, but you may have to insist. That experience could be invaluable. From my current job hunting experience in the UK, many industries are rather incestuous, such as energy, finance, insurance, and healthcare. Many jobs will require you to have experience in an industry before they would consider you a worthy candidate. I do not agree with it entirely. Even though there is much to be said about prior industry experience, a good management consultant can transcend industries, because his/her expertise is in the problem solving aspect. Industry knowledge can be picked up quickly by a good consultant, not to be an expert, but enough to solve the problem efficiently. Not mentioning, if an industry keeps hiring from within, not to be cliche, but it just doesn't have the new blood or the out-of-the-box fresh thinking to approach problems from a different angle. I understand if the hiring manager prefers a candidate with prior industry experience over one that does not, but to list it as an essential criteria is over the top and short-sighted.

To learn more about the fields that Operational Research plays a major role in, check this out.


Tim said...

Great article. Some programs allow to concentrate on specific industries. So, I would like to know how you chosen yours?


Dawen said...

Thank you, Tim.

Would you be able to share with us what programs you know that allow the students to concentrate on specific industries? Personally, I'm not aware of any. I have the impression that certain schools have more connections with a particular industry, such as healthcare, supply chain, or logistics. They may give you more opportunities to those industries once you graduate. I suppose one could find out such connections between schools and industries through reading the school's research publications and articles.

I chose my program because of the university's good reputation, especially in the OR field in Canada. Its location was also another major factor for me. It was in my hometown, Vancouver, Canada. Nothing is like home. :)

Tim said...

Thank for your fast response. I saw such a program in Edinburgh ( There are some modules like finance, risk, energy or industry (airlines & telecommunications).


Aleksey Nozdryn-Plotnicki said...

Operations Research is certainly too broad of a field to specialize in. To succeed in your career you will need to specialize in something, as this is root of your employability and your productivity.

At the master's level in your education I wouldn't worry too much about specialization. Your project or thesis will be your first, but certainly not your last chance to specialize. The entire OR toolkit takes a lot to cover, and you won't have a lot of time to dig too deep into one methodology. Personally I wouldn't worry about industry at this stage as people in industry won't put much value in "industry" experience you gain in the white towers.

As for choosing programs, taking a look at research put out by a school/group/division will certainly give you clues as to how it is connected. If you took a look at projects taken on in my program, for instance, you would get a good picture. I personally chose the MM for a number of reasons. For one it was offered at a school I knew, I respected, and is respected. Additionally, the MMinOR is a professional, practice-oriented degree which appealed to me. Other schools offer more academic degrees in OR. That said, graduates from my program do follow immediately into PHd studies sometimes.

Hope all or some of that was helpful. This was a long comment.

Robert said...

These are great articles for beginning students, and have answered a lot of questions I had. I'm about to start a MSc Operations Research program, and one thing I'm wondering about is if there's a good way to get practical experience while in school other than a summer internship. Or is that something that I shouldn't even worry about yet?


Dawen said...

"Is there a good way to get practical experience while in school other than a summer internship?"

Well, Robert, I think that will depend on what the internship quality is like. Technically, the 4-6 months of work that my master's program offers each student is an 'internship'. However, we were all treated as consultants to the companies that we worked for, and it was a real world experience with a lot of high expectations for delivering real results. It went way beyond the academic internships. Therefore, my suggestion would be, yes, worry about the work experience, but worry about it by choosing a program that offers such working programs that will give you the experience as part of your education.

I did some part time work while in school as well (not the summer internship). It was very good, but I did it at the very end of my master's degree when the course work was much lower. If you want my honest opinion, I would say enjoy your schooling time while you can, because the work will come.

p.s. Sorry for replying so late. I've only acquired steady internet at my new home this week.

Dan Kim said...

Thank you for informative articles. I have found your website of great value.

I am planning to work in food production company (mostly meat production)as an analyst and it seems that OR has significant applications in this field. Do you know of any programs that teach (apart from mathematics, statistics and programming courses) supply chain management, logistics, food processing etc. at bachelor's level? Should I study a standard more mathematically inclined OR and get the knowledge of food and beverage through experience later?

Aleksey Nozdryn-Plotnicki said...

Hi Dan,

Without question Operations Research and related disciplines will serve you in your career. But, if you are extremely focused on food processing and on getting it at the undergraduate level, this will be difficult.

"Analyst" is a pretty generic term, so it's not clear to me what you will be doing at this food production company. My guess is that it is a family business. If "analyst" means something very broad to you, then a quantitative degree or a business/commerce degree will serve you well. If you're focused on production processes, then you may want to look into Industrial Engineering programs. I bet you'll find one that emphasizes food processing.


Dan Kim said...

Than you, Aleksey, for your reply,

Your guess is correct. It is a family business. ))

Industrial Engineering has too many subjects to cover, in my opinion: physics, math, social sciences, engineering etc. I will, most probably, start with grounding in mathematics and then move on into something specific.

Anonymous said...

I am an international student and
I want to pursue MM in OR from sauder school of business in British columbia.
What is the career opportunity after completing the course. What will be the salary range after completing the course. If anybody can provide me this info. it will be helpful.


Dawen said...

Hi Ramesh, the career outlook is very positive for analytics in general, in many different industries. There hasn't been a better time to be in the analytics field. It's what you make of it. As for the salary range, you should contact the admission office / the school, as they may have survey info to share with you regarding that.

Anonymous said...

Hello, thank you for the article. I have a PhD in applied math (my thesis was in probability) and am looking for jobs in OR. I am familiar and comfortable with using many of the tools and techniques you mentioned, but lack any knowledge/experience with business in any industry. Do you have any advice as to how someone with my background (well developed analytic and problem solving skills and knowledge of the necessary tools, but without any industry experience) should present myself when applying for OR jobs, or how I could gain some basic industry knowledge before applying? Thanks!