What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming an Operations Research Analyst?

operational research degree

If you’re a math enthusiast and great with numbers, an operations research analyst career can help you put your statistics skills to work in the business world. The only thing left to do is get a college degree. Studying computers and mathematics in college is a major decision, but also a potentially lucrative one, since these subjects have one of the highest work-life earnings.

What an Operations Research Analyst Does

In every industry, organizations—from huge corporate conglomerates to small businesses and nonprofit charities—want to handle the routine of their daily operations with as little wasted productivity, time, and money as possible. Operations research analysts are professionals with an extensive mathematics background who analyze data to help organizations solve problems like how to use resources, set prices, and develop production or distribution schedules.

First, operations research analysts identify problems using both quantitative research (based on data and numbers) and qualitative research (interviews with clients, managers, and employees). They assess the data, using statistical analysis software and modeling software, to find solutions to those problems and the likely consequences—good and bad—of making certain changes. They report their findings to management and influence the decisions the organization makes and the policies it adopts.

How to Become an Operations Research Analyst

The first step to a career as an operations research analyst is to earn an undergraduate college degree. Majoring in operations research isn’t a bad idea, if you happen to attend one of the relatively few schools that offer this highly specialized degree program. However, many operations research analysts get an education in mathematics, computer science, physics, or engineering. These majors help students gain knowledge in the area of study while honing analytical, critical, and technological skills. Also, since these majors are built on a foundation of mathematics, students graduate prepared to embark on a career that requires both math and statistics skills. Regardless of the degree path, aspiring operations research analysts need to cultivate strong mathematics skills in advanced areas like calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. They also need technical skills to use statistical, database, and modeling computer software.

Holding a bachelor’s degree can be sufficient for securing entry-level operations research analyst positions, but it’s not enough for high-level roles, which many operations research analyst jobs are. To have more employment options or to move up in your career, you will need a master’s degree in a subject like operations research, analytics and management science, computer science, or engineering, according to U.S. News & World Report. At the graduate level, students will study advanced mathematics and computer science extensively. Once you graduate from one of these programs, you will be a strong candidate for a job as an operations research analyst.

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Other Experience and Important Qualities

Continuing education is important for operations research analysts. The job requires analysts to keep up with advances in technology and stay up to date with software tools. Also, keeping analytical methods sharp is vital to the career. Operations research analysts seeking advancement may enroll in a course or pursue certification in an area that benefits their career goals.

Certain positions as operations research analysts require security clearance. This is especially true for government positions. For these roles, applicants must undergo extensive background checks. Some government roles ask that their operations research analysts be veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Certain skills and qualities are not always gained in the classroom. Soft skills, such as being able to communicate effectively or critically think, are often honed through work experience, internships, or volunteer positions. Some important qualities that will enrich your time as an operations research analyst and make you more successful on the job are as follows:

Analytical skills – The role of an operations research analyst depends on using a wide range of analytical methods, such as data mining, forecasting, and statistical analysis. The job requires examination and interpretation of data. To be able to synthesize information and data, research analysts must have strong analytical skills. Additionally, research analysts use programming languages and software to design and develop models and new techniques. Again, analytical skills are critical for this occupation.

Critical thinking skills – Similar to the importance of having analytical skills, an operations research analyst must have strong critical thinking skills since the job requires figuring out information relevant to their work. Research analysts must be able to evaluate benefits and costs of solutions before making recommendations to administrative leaders or clients. Having strong critical thinking skills are important for this role.

Effective communication skills – Conveying technical information to individuals without a technical background demands effective communication skills. As an operations research analyst, you will often present data and findings to managers and administrative leaders. Being able to communicate effectively helps promote strong working relationships.

Good interpersonal skills – As with communication skills, interpersonal skills are important for the work of an operations research analyst, as the job requires extensive teamwork and team building.

Mathematical and statistics skills – An advanced understanding of math and statistics is required for work as an operations research analyst. Many of the models and methods used in this occupation are grounded in advanced mathematical disciplines like calculus, linear algebra, and statistics.

Problem-solving skills – The ability to solve problems is necessary for the role of an operations research analyst. Diagnosing problems and analyzing information to resolve issues requires strong problem-solving skills.

Writing skills – The day-to-day work as an operations research analyst requires the completion of memos, reports, and other documents that explain findings and recommendations. Therefore, it is important for an operations research analyst to have strong writing skills.

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Earnings Potential for an Operations Research Analyst

Operations research analysts earn a median salary of $86,200 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), although earnings vary by industry and geographic location. The career offers advantages in addition to pay, such as upward mobility. In fact, the advantages led U.S. News & World Report to rank operations research analyst occupations highly on the lists of best business jobs, best STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs, and the 100 best jobs.

According to BLS, the lowest-paid 10 percent of individuals employed as operations research analysts earned less than $48,050, while the highest 10 percent of earners made over $144,330. However, certain factors, including industry type and geographic location, impact earnings potential.

In May 2021, BLS released earnings information in their Occupational Outlook Handbook for operations research analysts. In this publication, top-paying industries for the occupation were reported. According to the most recent information by BLS, the federal government is the top-paying industry for operations research analysts. Research analysts working in the federal government earned a median annual wage of $119,720. Research analysts working in the manufacturing industry earned a median annual wage of $94,340 and those working in the management of companies and enterprises earned $91,000. Another high-paying industry for operations research analysts is finance and insurance. In this industry, operations research analysts made a median annual wage of $86,280. All four of the top-paying industries offered higher earnings than the median annual wage paid for all operations research analysts.

Geographic location also impacts earnings for operations research analysts. Certain states and cities pay higher wages than others. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics published by BLS, the top-paying areas for operations research analysts are the District of Columbia: $116,700, New Jersey: $114,410, California: $108,350, Virginia: $108,090, and New York: $107,620.

Top-paying metropolitan areas for operations research analysts include San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, California. In this metro area, research analysts earn an annual mean wage of $146,830. While the cost of living and state tax rates impact net earnings, this area of California pays the highest wage for individuals in this occupation. Other high-paying metro areas include Salinas, California ($124,950 annual mean wage); Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, California ($123,370); Trenton, New Jersey ($116,730); and the New York, Newark, and Jersey City area, New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania ($115,250).

While nonmetropolitan areas typically pay less than metro areas, the cost of living is generally lower. Net earnings may be higher in nonmetro locations. According to BLS, there are five top-paying nonmetropolitan areas for operations research analysts. These locations include Northern and Northeastern Ohio, Central Missouri, Western and Northwestern Ohio, Southern Indiana, and South-Central Kentucky. The Northern and Northeastern Ohio area is the top-paying nonmetro area for operations research analysts. Here, research analysts can expect an annual mean wage of $109,450. In Central Missouri, operations research analysts see an annual mean wage of $90,170. In Western and Northwestern Ohio, individuals in this occupation earn an annual mean wage of $88,720. The nonmetro area of Southern Indiana reports an annual mean wage of $85,460 for operations research analysts. The fifth-highest-paying nonmetropolitan area for operations research analysts is South-Central Kentucky. Here, research analysts earn an annual mean wage of $78,140.

Additional information collected from the BLS Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics reveals the states with the highest employment level for operations research analysts. Estimates do not include self-employed workers, but are rather estimates of the number of jobs available in this occupation. According to BLS, California employs the highest number of operations research analysts. In California there are 8,940 operations research analyst jobs. Texas offers the next-highest employment level for operations research analysts. In Texas, there are 8,880 operations research analyst jobs. Virginia employs the third-highest number of operations research analysts. In Virginia, there are 7,350 operations research analyst occupations. New York is the next-highest employer of operations research analysts. In New York, there are 6,600 operations research analysts employed. Florida is the fifth-highest employer of individuals in this occupation. According to BLS, 5,570 operations research analysts are employed in Florida.

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As geographic location and industry impact the earnings potential for individuals working as operations research analysts, so does education. Since employers seek qualified candidates to fill their research analyst jobs, the most qualified candidate will stand out among competition. To ensure your application stands out, you should plan to acquire the necessary education. In addition to a degree in operations research analytics, or a closely related discipline, you should acquire experience. Experience may be gained through an internship or an entry-level analyst role.

Job Outlook for an Operations Research Analyst

Opportunities in this field should grow rapidly, with the BLS anticipating a 25 percent increase in operations research analyst jobs over the next decade. The staggering projection offers one of the highest employment growths for all occupations. As new technologies emerge and current ones evolve, and as companies seek ways to cut costs and increase efficiency, the demand for operations research analysts should continue to rise.

The increasing demand for operations research analysts, according to BLS, will continue as long as companies and businesses seek ways to improve their planning and decision-making. In order to keep up with technological advances, and acquiring data faster and easier, organizations rely on the expertise of operations research analysts. From the armed forces to hospitals, research analysts will be needed in order to provide support and assist in the development and implementation of programs and policies, especially in government and healthcare.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program reports that 26,100 new operations research analyst jobs will be added to the industry by 2029. Currently, approximately 105,000 jobs are offered in this occupation, but by 2029, BLS projects there will be 131,300 jobs. Since competition is expected, applicants must stand out. Individuals with business experience, in addition to soft skills like good analytical and communication skills, should see the best job prospects. Also, BLS reports that individuals with advanced degrees, such as a master’s or Ph.D. in operations research or a related discipline should expect the best job opportunities.

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BDP Staff
June 2021

This concludes our article on the best degree path for becoming an operations research analyst.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris