Big data courses

Dan Mason, Editorial manager
September, 2017

Choosing a career in big data puts you at the cutting edge of the IT sector, and there are a range of postgraduate courses available to help you achieve that goal

What is big data?

Private and public sector organisations have access to vast amounts of data that they collect from users, customers and suppliers - much more than ever before. In fact, an astonishing 90% of all the data in existence was created in the last two years, according to the June 2017 Big Data Market Update from Experis.

Big data is about sorting, understanding and gaining knowledge from this mass of facts and figures. It can then be used to inform decision-making, find cost savings, and improve products and services. In addition, all of this data - which can include personal records - must be kept safe if an organisation wants to retain public trust.

Most definitions of big data emphasise the so-called 'three Vs':

  • the enormous volume of data that can now be stored and analysed
  • the incredible velocity with which data is gathered and must be processed
  • the variety of different types of data available.

Whether their data is collected through traditional methods (such as point-of-sale and call centre records) or digital sources (for example tracking web behaviour and social media interactions) employers are increasingly aware of the opportunities and risks it presents.

This means they need graduates with the right skills and qualifications to work with data securely and effectively.

Why study big data?

The Experis Big Data Market Update found that demand for big data professionals grew 50% between 2016 and 2017, and a talent shortage in this area is costing UK organisations about £2billion per year.

Not only that, but jobs are available in all sectors because big data is used by every type of employer, from retail and banking to healthcare and manufacturing. It's a growing industry and looks set to get bigger - in 2014 Tech Partnership, the sector skills council, described big data as the 'new oil to power the digital economy'.

Meanwhile a techUK report published in October 2016 said the 'big data revolution' had the potential to add £241billion to the UK economy by 2020 and create 157,000 new jobs - as long as the existing skills gap is closed.

There are many different jobs in big data, including:

Employers also require cyber security professionals to keep all this data secure. Read about cyber security and GCHQ certified degrees, the information security specialist job profile and the cyber security section of IT training to discover more about these roles.

Since there are currently too few people with relevant qualifications, if you take a postgraduate course in this field you'll be in a great position to start your career.

What do big data courses involve?

A growing number of UK universities offer postgraduate courses in big data as they respond to the increased demand for the subject. Most are designed to lead directly to a career in data science.

You'll learn about key concepts, practices and methodologies, essential coding skills, web analytics, machine learning, advanced database skills, and how to analyse, visualise and interpret data. You'll also be trained in the use of tools such as Hadoop, a software framework for storing and processing big data.

The University of Stirling's MSc Big Data, Edge Hill University's MSc Big Data Analytics and Birmingham City University's MSc Big Data Analytics are among your options.

Some institutions - for example the University of Derby, Salford University and Sheffield Hallam University - have partnerships with leading analytics software provider SAS and give you the chance to gain industry-standard certifications during your study.

Similarly, Queen Mary University of London's MSc Big Data Science is run in partnership with technology company IBM.

As well as taking a series of required and optional modules, to complete a big data Masters you'll usually be required to produce a major project integrating all the theory and practice you've learned throughout the year.

Other courses are available that have a slightly different focus, such as on the cyber security implications of big data, the role of cloud computing, or how big data impacts on business leadership. King's College London even runs an MA Big Data in Culture & Society, which looks at the subject from an arts and humanities perspective.

Masters courses last one year if studied full time, and entry requirements typically include at least a 2:1 degree in a computing-related or other quantitative subject. However, this varies so you should always check with your chosen institution.

To find courses that suit you, search for postgraduate courses in big data.