Ab Boxley studied history and international relations as an undergraduate at Boston University. Upon graduation, though, he knew he wanted to carve a career path that would not only put the skills he learned in the liberal arts to use, but utilize his quantitative and technical skills as well.

When Boxley was admitted to the first cohort of the University of Virginia’s MBA/MSDS dual-degree program, it was an easy fork in the road to follow.

"I very much appreciate the opportunity to play in both sandboxes."  

The MBA/MSDS dual-degree program at the University of Virginia is matriculating its first cohort this year, and those seven students will graduate in May 2019 with a Master of Science in Data Science degree from UVA’s Data Science Institute and an MBA from the Darden School of Business. In just 24 months, students are immersed in the DSI’s rigorous academic and applied research program and Darden’s top-ranked general management program, graduating with two advanced degrees from one of the top universities in the world.

“From my perspective the MSDS is about focused academic development,” Boxley said. “Darden is an excellent institution, but as a general management curriculum it's inherently - you guessed it - general.

“The MSDS gives me the opportunity to focus on an area that matters to me and hopefully makes sure that my post-MBA/MSDS job entails building PowerPoints and writing code. Most importantly it means that I bring a unique set of qualifications that I really enjoy engaging, so I will be better aligned to do the kind of work I want to be doing.”

The first seven students came into the program with different backgrounds and varying degrees of technical prowess but a common goal to position themselves for future success with a unique skill set that will be highly valued for years to come.

Members of the first cohort, all Class of 2019, arrived with backgrounds that span industries and the globe:

  • Mike Christison came to Darden after working with a startup focused on marketing research in the Washington, D.C., area.

  • Steve Mortensen was a consultant for a computer software company in Utah.

  • Ab Boxley served as the principal for an IT firm in the D.C. area.

  • Karen Li was a consultant and app developer in Beijing.

  • Ailun Zhu worked in an ad agency as a media strategist in Shanghai.

  • Ashish Singh was an operations consultant in the Bengaluru area of India.

  • Marcelo Costa de Sousa was in e-commerce for a bank in Brazil.

The students are aware that they are pioneers of a new dual degree that began the year they were admitted, and they are excited about building a sustainable program many hope will expand dramatically in the future. Program architects like Darden professor Raj Venkatesan and DSI Director Phil Bourne actively seek their feedback and respond to concerns, adding flexibility where needed.

The cohort entered the program having at least completed four prerequisite courses in subject matters including programming and statistics. After completing the data science intensive summer session that starts both programs, the students begin both DSI and Darden courses in the fall with a stronger baseline in the field. 

Darden Professor Raj Venkatesan, who helps lead the program, sees the utility of the dual degree in a variety of roles.

“Every aspect of business including strategic thinking, talent management, operations, finance and marketing is being affected by data, and MBA graduates are expected to have knowledge of the functional aspects of business and be able to use data effectively to make strategic business decisions,” said Venkatesan. “The dual-degree program with the Data Science Institute is designed to help students achieve this. It provides the breadth of a general management program and the depth of a data science degree.”

Research from groups such as the World Economic Forum suggests that technical literacy will be critical to a wide range of senior positions in the future, but those that truly excel will be able to couple that knowledge with so-called soft skills such as an aptitude for thinking creatively and working collaboratively.

"A goal of the DSI is to partner across grounds with all Schools so that UVA as a whole becomes a national leader in data science,” said DSI Director Phil Bourne. “With the dual MBA/MSDS degree, we have made an excellent start in this direction engaging graduate students who I have every confidence will go on to be leaders in data science and business.”

The compressed timeline and emphasis on data science, coupled with the 24-month optional practical training for students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, which allows certain students born outside of the U.S. to continue to work in STEM fields for a set period after graduation, may also make the program particularly compelling for students from countries like China and India.

For now, the early adopters are enjoying their decision to enroll in both programs and taking some satisfaction in straddling two worlds. The program plans to expand to matriculate a full cohort of about 40 MBA/MSDS students in 2018, in addition to the 40 regular MSDS students at the DSI.

“A big part of the value so far has been the diversity of experience that MSDS students bring to the program,” Boxley said. “Sure there are a lot of engineers, but all sorts of different engineers, with different backgrounds and levels of professional experience.

“It's a very different group than the Darden crowd, and I very much appreciate the opportunity to play in both sandboxes.

"I can't wait for year two.”