For soon-to-be college graduates in data science deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree or enter their field full-time, the MassMutual Data Science Development Program (DSDP) makes it possible to have their cake and eat it too.
The Amherst-based program develops promising data scientists by supporting their pursuit of a master’s degree while providing hands-on training from experts in data science informed by over 160 years of data from MassMutual Insurance.
The program follows a three-pronged strategy: recruiting recent graduates to work for three years alongside professionals; offering graduate school tuition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Information and Computer Science’s (CICS) and Center for Data Science (CDS); and offering mentorship and training sessions in the field. After two to three years in DSDP, junior data scientists can advance within the Amherst office, or to extend their impact in Boston or New York City.
At an information session on Feb. 2 at the UMass Amherst Computer Science Building, Program Director Christine Pfeil explained the details of the program, summarized project opportunities, and described a typical day in the office. Junior data scientists take one or two graduate courses at UMass while working full time on real projects alongside senior data scientists at the MassMutual DSDP office on Triangle Street in Amherst.
“The development program was born out of our desire to make sure we had a strong pipeline of talent for this ever-growing data science team,” Pfeil said at the event.
Junior data scientists, accepted into the program after completing their undergraduate degree, choose from a handful of data science domains including finance, operations, marketing, digital initiatives, and risk and product. Typically, they spend a year in their chosen domain, then switch to another, to widen everyone’s experience and avoid creating “carbon copy data scientists,” Pfeil said.
“We’re not just trying to develop technicians, we’re trying to develop leaders for the company,” Pfeil said.
To Pfeil, this is a team that drives improvements in the accuracy and efficiency of decision-making at MassMutual. The opportunity to work creatively with over 160 years of insurance buyer data is one of the most exciting things about the program, she said in an interview.
“The kind of work we’re doing is so interesting. The insurance industry by nature is such a data-driven endeavor,” Pfeil said. “The amount of exploration we can do seems endless at the moment.”
Even though the DSDP works at a distance from the company’s main business office in Springfield, it is closely integrated with the headquarters product implementation activity. Team members in the program will design software, tools and interfaces that directly affect MassMutual insurance providers and buyers. The goal is to make the process of purchasing insurance faster, easier and more accurate.
Pfeil and her team work tirelessly to advance a program that is prolific, innovative and impactful to communities. She emphasized that they are passionate about data and passionate about making the program the best it can be.
“At the end of the day if we can run a program or launch an initiative that is training more high talent, high potential, students in data science, that benefits everyone and we want to be a part of that,” she said.
This summer, the program will recruit and select the fifth cohort of five junior data scientists.
Pfeil said the program looks for candidates with a can-do attitude and a knack for multitasking, able to handle “all the conflicting responsibilities that come with being a full-time employee and a student at the same time.” Ideally, they should also be willing to “dive right in” with their highly collaborative team.
Junior data scientists Hayley Carlotto, DSDP class of 2018, and Tom Jeon, class of 2020, also attended the event to provide a student’s point of view to prospective applicants. Carlotto and Jeon both completed their undergraduate degree at UMass before jumping right in to DSDP -- Carlotto with mathematics and computer science, and Jeon with a Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration in data science methodology.
Carlotto, like other computer science graduates, was torn between academia and a full-time career. When she heard about the development program through CDS Professor David Jensen, she thought: “This experience seemed like it was just made for me.”
Working in the risk and product domain allowed Carlotto to work collaboratively alongside MassMutual doctors, executives, and underwriters utilizing copious amounts of historical data collected from insurance buyers. Entering with a solid theoretical foundation, Carlotto said the hands-on training and mentoring provided by senior data scientists at DSDP has made her feel prepared to tackle anything that comes her way.
“At the end of the three years, I will have a graduate degree in computer science and three years under my belt of working on full scale impactful projects for the company,” Carlotto said. “I’m feeling ready for more independence and more autonomy. I’m totally prepared for whatever comes by way.”
Carlotto’s classes at UMass provided her with the theoretical understanding of the machine learning concepts she applies every day in practice. She added that the appeal of the Center for Data Science keeps the Amherst area flourishing with data science talent and opportunity.
“With CDS being here, it draws more data science talent to the area, whether that’s faculty or visiting professors giving talks. Having access to these cutting edge, state of the art talks and having access to some of the best of the best talent in computer science and statistics right in town places the program in an ideal location,” she said.
Jeon, who works in the investments domain, emphasized the reality of professional data science work is different than in the academic environment.
“I've learned that data science is very different in the industry setting than it is in the classroom setting,” he said. “In the real world, there are stakeholders who rely on you to get the job done, and legal licenses, and government regulations, and data privacy is a serious concern because the data is about real people who buy insurance policies from MassMutual.”
His work in the program so far has already led him to think more creatively about solving real world problems in data science, he said. The collaborative, empathetic and sky’s-the-limit office culture pushes its data scientists to be their best, Jeon said.
“It's a place that encourages you to push yourself but at the same time, it's a supportive place,” he said. “It's also nice being in a close-knit community of other recent college graduates who are all in similar places in life.”
Carlotto echoed Jeon’s sentiment about the office culture. “The office vibe is a mix of people buckling down and working hard. To counter that we try to incorporate fun things throughout the month,” she said. This includes laser tag, bowling, apple picking, lunch break games of Family Feud and Hawaiian shirt Fridays. “We have such a great team, we’re always looking for new things to make the office culture more productive and fun.”
“You can't force an office to be a fun place to work. It's about people who really care about their work but don’t take themselves too seriously and they are happy to laugh and joke with you throughout the day,” Pfeil said. “I never thought you could have this much fun working in insurance.”
For more information and how to apply to the DSDP, visit their website.
Written by Morgan Hughes