Choosing Between an Online vs. In-Person Master of Data Science Degree

Looking to pursue a Master of Data Science, but not sure if an online or in-person program would be best for you? Learn more about these two options with Rice.

Graduate student taking online courses on iPhone at local library

As a student in the Master’s of Data Science program, you have multiple options when it comes to pursuing your degree, such as going to class in person vs. taking courses online. When weighing your options, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of online learning, and how traditional, in-person programs compare. We’ll compare the advantages and drawbacks of both options so that you can make a more confident decision about which type of program is right for you.

Perhaps the most pressing question you may ask yourself is, is it better to take classes online or in-person? The answer depends on what you’re looking for in a program and what criteria are most important to you. For example, online programs simultaneously make it more convenient and more affordable to attend classes and earn your degree—especially if you’re already busy working full-time or raising a family. Additionally, an online program may enable you to earn your degree faster than a traditional program, so that you can become qualified for your dream career sooner.

Earning your Master of Data Science degree can advance your career regardless of whether you choose an online or in-person program. The Rice online MDS program offers the flexibility that many busy professionals require. You can attend classes from anywhere in the world and study part-time while continuing to work. The Rice in-person MDS program is a more intense experience that requires your full-time attention. You may want to earn your Master of Data Science in person if you have the ability to put your work life on hold and focus exclusively on your education for one to two years.

Online MDS Programs

Deciding on in-person or online learning starts with understanding the advantages and considerations of each. Individuals who are self-motivated tend to excel in online learning situations while others may thrive on the interaction between teachers and students in a traditional classroom experience.

While those are just two aspects of a much larger set of considerations, here is a much more exhaustive list of the pros and cons of online learning to help you better frame your own decision:

Benefits of Pursuing a Master of Data Science Online

Online MDS programs make learning at this advanced level more accessible, especially to busy professionals who may not live near campus. The online program can be individualized to meet your specific scheduling and learning needs.

Flexibility to Learn at Your Own Pace

You may work during the day and attend online classes at night, or your work and family schedule might be so full that you have to wait until the weekend to catch up on your classwork. In the OMDS@Rice program, the student experience allows you to watch pre-recorded lectures or access course materials at a time that is most convenient for you. Additionally, online learning provides ample opportunity for cooperation with peers and faculty with screen-sharing, video conferencing and document collaboration.

Networking Opportunities

Attendance in an online MDS program is not limited to people in one geographic area, which could increase your networking opportunities compared to a traditional in-person program. Online programs attract a more diverse group of students from greater distances. The OMDS@Rice program also offers robust career networking advantages, as well. Rice online career fairs typically draw employers from New York, Arizona, Illinois and other states around the country.

Ability to Earn a Degree While Keeping a Job

Most online degree programs offer the flexibility you need to earn your degree and work at the same time. The Rice's online Master of Data Science program is specifically designed for working professionals. Database administrators, business data analysts and data engineers, among others, can work and attend OMDS@Rice at the same time and get a career boost when they graduate.

No Commute

Online MDS programs save you time and money. You can go from work to school in the time it takes to open a new browser window. Additionally, the price of gas, tolls and parking will not impact your educational budget.

Human Engagement and Interaction are Still Available

Earning a degree online can be a solitary pursuit if you decide that’s the best way for you to learn. However, interaction and engagement with educators and other students is still available if you want it to be. Many career choices at a master’s level require certain soft skills, especially if you plan to move into management. Engaging with other professionals and students can help you to develop those skills. Interaction and feedback can reinforce learning and help prepare you for your next career move.

Equitable and Accessible Learning

Another advantage of online classes is that they can open up more learning opportunities for students with disabilities, making a master’s level education more accessible and inclusive. Online courses allow students to learn at their own pace on their own schedule, which is an approach to studying known as asynchronous learning. This format empowers students to take notes, review lectures, and go over other course materials in a way that works best for them.

Potential Drawbacks of Pursuing a Master of Data Science Online

Online MDS programs might save you time and money, but there may be some drawbacks to consider. Online programs may be more flexible in terms of structure compared to traditional in-person programs.

Higher Risk of Distractions

While commuting to your master’s program can be an unwanted expense of time and money, attending classes online can present other challenges. For some, it’s easy to get distracted when you attend classes remotely from home or the office. Job and family situations can arise at any moment, breaking your concentration and pulling you away from full absorption in your studies.

Greater Self-Motivation and Drive Needed

If one of your personal strengths is a high degree of self-discipline, the flexibility of an online program may be beneficial. However, online courses can prove challenging for people who require structure and a more rigid schedule to stay on track.

Limited Interaction with Peers and Professors

Online programs often consist of modular lessons you can access and work through on your own schedule and at your own pace. While the OMDS@Rice offers a high degree of interaction between peers and professors, that is not necessarily true for programs offered by other universities. Learning in most online programs can be rather independent.

Missing Out on the Campus Experience

There are other aspects to campus life that can enrich your educational experience in addition to interacting with peers and professors in class. Even in online programs where there is significant virtual interaction, you may still miss the rest of the campus experience. Examples include in-person club meetings, study groups, or even meeting up for coffee to discuss the midterm.

Are Online Master’s Degrees Respected?

Yes, according to a 2022 study conducted by research and polling firm Morning Consult, positive perception of online learning among employers and students has continued to gain traction post-pandemic. Three in four survey respondents -- or 75% -- now have a favorable view of online degrees, thanks in large part to learner flexibility, convenience, and the ability to complete a degree part-time while retaining a full-time job.

Online master’s degrees from accredited, non-profit institutions are just as respected and trusted as degrees earned in a traditional classroom setting. Accreditation of the institution and the program are both important for your master’s degree to be respected by employers. The online MDS program at Rice is regionally accredited and diplomas from OMDS@Rice do not specify whether the degree was earned online or on-campus.

Furthermore, a recent survey by Carrington Crisp and LinkedIn found that, in an MBA and business analytics degree context, 74% of employers would recognize and respect online learning the same as traditional in-person or on-campus learning:

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of employers either “mostly” or “definitely” agree that online learning is recognized in the same way as traditional face-to-face learning. Just 10% said they disagree that online learning is as legitimate as face-to-face learning.

Source: Poets & Quants, Study: 77% of Employers Want to 'Reinvent' the MBA

In-Person Master of Data Science Programs

Earning your master’s online vs on campus is a decision for you to make based on your unique circumstances and preferences. An in-person MDS program provides the same education as the online program, and it can be a more intense, faster way to earn your degree and further your career. Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks of in-person learning:

Benefits of Pursuing a Master of Data Science In-Person

Pursuing your Master of Data Science degree in person provides several benefits over an online program. You will have personal interactions with peers and professors and be guided through an intense learning experience. Other benefits include:

Access to On-Campus Resources

One key benefit of attending an on-campus program is that you have access to all the resources available on campus. You can use the library, student center and other facilities while you are on campus.

Build Connections Face-to-Face

For some people, networking can be a bit easier when you do it in person, and that is one opportunity that an on-campus program provides. Attending classes on campus allow you to connect with your peers and professors before or after class. Some in-person networking opportunities can include speaking with your professors during office hours or meeting with classmates in the student center.

Participate in On-Campus Events

Most campuses have educational and recreational events geared toward students and their areas of interest. If you attend an on-campus MDS program, you could have the in-person opportunity to see guest speakers or participate in enrichment workshops put on by experts in your field.

Focus on Earning a Degree Full-Time

Giving your area of study your full attention is essential to earning an advanced degree. Attending an on-campus degree program can help you remain focused on your studies. A more traditional, classroom-based experience can help you to prioritize your education, free from outside distractions like a full-time job or in-the-moment household and family responsibilities.

Hands-On Learning

Not every student learns the same way. Some people are visual learners while others learn from first-hand experience. If direct, hands-on learning opportunities are important to you, an on-campus degree program might make the better fit.

Potential Drawbacks of Pursuing a Master of Data Science In-Person

Despite the benefits, attending an in-person degree program has some limitations. Pursuing a Master of Data Science program on campus might not be the right choice for you because of these drawbacks:

Commuting to Class

Driving to campus may be inconvenient for you depending on where you live and work. The rising cost of gasoline, tolls and parking may also add to your expenses, making the cost of attending an on-campus MDS program prohibitive.

Higher Tuition and Fees

Traditional students tend to have higher tuition expenses due to factors like student housing, on-campus meal programs and public transit or gas for commuting. There could also be additional fees related to the in-person experience lab fees and parking.

Less Flexibility with Synchronous Classes

All degree programs require a certain level of coordination between classes. Some classes require prerequisite courses, while others need to be taken simultaneously within the same semester. Coordinating your class schedule for an in-person degree program may sometimes require waiting an extra semester to fulfill some of your academic requirements.

Does Rice University Offer an Online or In-Person Master of Data Science Degree?

Rice University offers a fully accredited online Master of Data Science degree in addition to a traditional on-campus degree program. Rice OMDS also allows enrolled students to take up to 9 credit hours on campus, as their schedules allow. This hybrid student experience provides flexibility at no additional cost for students who prefer to complete some of their coursework on-campus. Whichever way you choose to complete your MDS at Rice, you will earn the same comparable Master of Data Science degree as your online and in-person peers.

Comparing the Online vs. In-Person MDS at Rice University

Online MDS In-Person MDS
Ability to complete from anywhere Yes No
Flexibility to complete on your own time Yes, with some live sessions No
Student Demographics / Class Profile Primarily U.S. students, working professionals earning degrees part- or full-time Primarily international students in U.S. on visa
World-Class Faculty
Access to Career Resources
Real-World Experience via Capstone Project
Specialization Options
Electives in ethics, cybersecurity, and data and privacy

Regardless of whether you attend Rice University’s Master of Data Science program online or on campus, there many similarities. Both offer the same relevant and in-demand core curriculum taught by world-class faculty. You will also have access to Rice's career development resources and gain real-world experience in the D2K Lab's Online MDS Capstone Project, whether you choose to study on campus or online.

Deciding if an Online MDS Program is Right for You

Still wondering if a Master’s in Data Science is worth it? There are several factors to consider when deciding whether an online or in-person MDS program is right for you. If you prefer a more controlled environment in a traditional academic setting, you might perform better in an on-campus program. Conversely, consider the level of focus you can devote to your studies when presented with distractions, as well as your ability to complete tasks independently. An in-person program may be the right choice if you need the structure of a set class schedule to help you remain focused. However, if you need a more flexible schedule to work around your professional or family commitments, you may prefer the online program.

Online degree programs have risen in popularity since 2020. COVID-19 unquestionably accelerated these trends. However, even with the possibility of the pandemic tapering, online learning is here to stay. The demand for online education is growing, according to research from the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which reports that there’s been an “11% increase in total enrollment for [the] largest online universities” — and at the same time, a 3% decrease in higher education enrollment overall. Even with fewer students enrolling in higher education, online enrollment is still trending upward, highlighting a steady shift toward web-based or virtual learning.

Learn More About Rice’s Online MDS Program

If you think earning your Master of Data Science degree online might be a good fit for you, fill out the form below to get more information about OMDS@Rice.

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