Data science is for people with an open and curious mind

Data science combines computer science and statistics to solve exciting data-intensive problems from climate research to machine learning. This means there is a high demand for experts like the ones graduating from the Master’s Programme in Data Science.

We talked to two alumni from the programme, Marlon Tobaben and Andrés Huertas, about their study experiences and why they decided to stay in Finland after graduating. Marlon Tobaben is from Germany and is now pursuing a PhD and Andrés Huertas is from Columbia and working as a data scientist.

What was it like to study in the Master’s Programme in Data Science?

Marlon Tobaben: The programme is very diverse and international. It's a good mix of international students from all over the world and Finnish students. There are some compulsory courses you must take but a lot of freedom too. The challenge was to be able to choose between many interesting options.

I liked the assignments and exercise sessions compared to the German way of having one final exam. We had some courses where we read research papers and discussed them. It was fascinating to reflect on a topic and hear others' opinions.

Andrés Huertas: The academic year is divided differently from what I was used to. In Colombia, you have two semesters, and here four periods. I think it makes things and learning move at a faster pace.

Studying here is more flexible, and you can adapt the courses and schedule to your needs. I really liked the dynamic of the courses. In connection with a course, you have a weekly session with a teaching assistant who helps you go through the exercises. I also liked that you could have retakes of exams instead of just one chance to pass the final exam. It takes away a lot of pressure from the studies.

Finnish university studies require a lot of independence. You build your own study plan, but you will always have help close by. You never have to feel alone in the process. The threshold to ask is low because people are willing to help and guide you through the process.

There is also a sense of community and student culture that I haven't seen anywhere else. I took part in university events and the student community created a sense of belonging. It can be challenging for an international student: you cannot avoid feeling lonely at times and missing home. But the positive things far outweigh the negative things. Finland has many things to offer, and I believe I will also be here for the foreseeable future.

What kind of career path has the programme enabled for you?

Marlon Tobaben: During my studies, I worked for two research groups, where I also completed my master's thesis. Now I am pursuing a Ph.D. full time – I've got funding from the Finnish Centre for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI) for four years.

Andrés Huertas: My first degree-related job was a summer internship for the Megasense project. Summer internships are crucial for getting your foot in the door. I think there are enough internships for international students and even more opportunities if you're actively looking for them.  

After my internship, I decided to stay on the project. After I finished my studies, I worked as a research assistant at the university. I did this for a year. Back then, I was undecided about whether I wanted to continue in research or move to the industry, so I sent applications to a handful of places. There are a lot of opportunities in the field of data science. The process took a fair bit of time, with two and a half months between the first interview and the offer. But in the end, I landed a data scientist job at Accenture.

Who is the programme and career opportunities suited for?

Marlon Tobaben: I had multiple offers for a study place and looked at the University of Helsinki’s programme pages. I really liked what I read: it was very clear on the structure of the studies and an emphasis that you also have a lot of freedom to concentrate on what interests you. So, if you like this, the programme is a good choice. I was pleased to see that what was on the website reflected reality as well. I also liked that the staff was easy to reach, and I could always ask questions and get help.

Andrés Huertas: I think the programme is suited for curious, open-minded people ready to engage in different kinds of problems. Some very cool topics include machine learning and artificial intelligence. But outside of those, there are many other topics where you can contribute meaningfully and use creative thinking. For me, the choice was clear. I applied to no other university than University of Helsinki.

Did you know from the beginning what you wanted to do after graduation?

Andrés Huertas: I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I'm still unsure if this is what I want to do. The good thing with data science is that you have many paths: you can do research or industry easily. Data is everywhere, and that's why the skills this programme provides you with many opportunities. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to study data science. I knew that I wanted to stay in Finland after graduation: I wanted a change in my life. I have no regrets. This has been the right choice for me.

Marlon Tobaben: Before my master's thesis, I told myself I didn't want to stay at the university. But it turned out that I found the research very interesting during my master's thesis. Furthermore, the environment played a big role: I knew my supervisor and research group. I don't think I would have applied to another university for a PhD.

Why did you choose to work in Finland?

Marlon Tobaben: My plan was not to stay in the country, but I liked it here so much that I decided to stay. I never planned on two things: staying in Finland and doing a PhD – and now I'm doing both! It's a nice place to live in, and most of my friends here are Finnish. I come from the northern part of Germany, and I feel there are not so many cultural differences, so it has been easy for me to adapt.

Andrés Huertas: When I was looking for study abroad opportunities, I wanted to move to Finland or another Nordic country. I'd heard and read about the quality of life and a functioning society, which was important to me. So for me, it was clear that I would stay after graduation.

Have you experienced any surprises when moving from student life to work life?

Andrés Huertas: The hierarchy at the university was very flat, and I was happy to see that the same applies to work life outside the university. 

Do you have any plans for the future?

Andrés Huertas: I would like to found a company at a later point. I need to gain more experiences right now, but I consider myself to be a creative person and would like to monetize on my ideas: maybe game development, design, or new technologies.

Marlon Tobaben: I'm now committed to the PhD for the next four years. I plan to do a part of my PhD abroad. I'm unsure if I want to stay in academia. I can see myself working for a big company sometime in the future. Having a solid background in research is not a disadvantage in Data Science as the field is changing so rapidly. We will see what the future brings.

The Master's Programme in Data Science

In the interdisciplinary Master's Programme in Data Science, you are trained to work in data-intensive areas of industry and science, with the skills and knowledge needed to construct solutions to complex data analysis problems.

You can specialise either in the core areas of data science -- machine learning and algorithms, infrastructure and statistics -- or in its applications. This means that you can focus on the development of new models and methods in data science, supported by the data science research carried out at the University of Helsinki; or you can become a data science specialist in an application field by incorporating studies in another subject.