Education in a new specialization

Faaris Akbar is 22 years old and lives in Amsterdam. He is currently studying the master’s of Econometrics at VU University. He is doing the Financial Econometrics/Econometric Theory specialization combined with some data science courses. Last August, he was one of the first to finish the Econometrics and Data Science bachelor. Furthermore, he is a mentor for the SAM programme for Econometrics, and an active student-ambassador, where he likes to be at Open Days and Taster Days and talks about his experiences with EDS. 

How did you decide you wanted to do the EDS bachelor’s instead of EOR?
Well, initially I planned to do the EOR track, but then one day, I was scrolling through my timeline on Facebook and suddenly I saw an advertisement about studying Econometrics and Data Science at VU. I started reading about it and it piqued my interest. I knew that big data, data analysis and machine learning are hot topics and are becoming more important by the day. I realised that as everything is getting digitalised, we produce more data. Often, companies do not really know how to deal with this data and therefore, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the field of data science and that combined with econometrics would be quite a powerful blend. So, I decided to enroll in the EDS track and I really have never regretted my choice.

Do you think that EOR and EDS are very different?
Hmm, the main difference is that with EDS, you have already chosen your specialization, which is data science, so you really take some courses that are only designed for EDS. EOR allows students to take courses in Operations Research and Mathematical Economics, which are rather more the numerical mathematics courses. At EDS, I feel we have more statistical mathematics, because we need to make assumptions for our (big) data. So, we need to test those assumptions and acquire properties to do our data analyses. Also, you will do slightly more programming in EDS, because programming languages such as R and Python are basically the “calculators” for the data. However, you will not program like how you use programming in Introduction to Programming (Java). You will rather do some data cleaning, estimations of models, plotting and applying machine learning techniques. Furthermore, you will see how econometrics combined with data science is a very interesting combination.
I think EOR has a bit less of these components, because you will mainly focus on topics like how you will go in the fastest way from A to B, or how you can simulate a waiting queue in a supermarket and how decision making can be modelled. At the end of the day, you need to think about which area you like the most. Both are very nice and interesting, you just need to know where your own interests lie.

How did you feel about being one of the first EDS students?
Honestly, I never saw this as an issue, I saw it rather as a nice opportunity to do this track because it is a unique combination of the Econometrics bachelors in the Netherlands. Another big advantage for me was that we were a group of around 20-25 students, so it really felt as continuing in a high school setting but then on a high-paced level. Econometrics is already a relatively small bachelor’s, but EDS was even smaller and I liked that because it allows for more interaction between students and the teacher. This way the teacher could adjust the lectures so everyone could be on the same page.

Did you experience any changes in the curriculum after your study year?
Oh yes definitely, the program curriculum now is almost the same as EOR in the first year. However, in my year we had Calculus 1 and 2 instead of Analysis 1 and 2, Corporate Finance instead of Finance and Linear Algebra in semester 2. Also, macroeconomics used to be taught in Dutch, while the spoken language in our bachelor’s is English, so we even got some lectures separately taught in English. However, I do think that the current curriculum is better because in the first year there is almost no difference between EOR and EDS and that will allow students to still switch to one and another after this year and nowadays, almost all courses at School of Business are taught in English, so there is no language problem anymore either. I always recommend students that are not sure about what EDS exactly is to read up on it and talk to higher year EDS students (or a former student like me). By talking about their experiences, they perhaps find out that this track fits them even better.

What did you like most about the bachelor’s?
I think what I liked the most is really the mix of data science and econometrics and the skills that I have acquired during the bachelor’s degree. The essence of the EDS track is to learn about how we can make sense out of structured and unstructured data. Therefore, we learned about databases, data structures, data science methods and machine learning. Combining this with predictive modelling of econometrics gives a great skill set. Also, we had lots of assignments and case studies and those made me really feel confident about the materials that we learned during the course. It was very nice to learn about data science techniques and directly apply those on datasets and interpret the results.

The essence of the EDS track is to learn about how we can make sense out of structured and unstructured data


Were there things you did not like?
Because we were the first group of EDS students, a lot of courses were taught for the first time, so sometimes it was a bit difficult to expect how courses and exams would look like beforehand. Also, sometimes there were some organisational issues of course, but often those were fixed quite fast. There are not really particular things that I do not like. 

Do you think the demand of data science keeps growing even more?
Definitely! As I said, the world keeps digitalising and we have seen during these Covid times that being digital is important to keep up. We will keep creating more data and companies will eventually need this to make data-driven decisions. We need people that are able to deal with big data and that are able to make sense out of it. Therefore, the demand of data scientists, data engineers, data analysts and software developers will definitely grow the coming years. However, both EOR are EDS will provide you with good analytical skills and these skills can be widely applied in several fields, such as finance, marketing, banking and even in medicine.

We need people that are able to deal with big data and that are able to make sense out of it.

Were there things you did next to your studies?
Basically, the whole first year of the bachelor’s I fully spent on only studying, but after the first year, I did several things next to the bachelor’s. My plan was to actually do an internship in the summer break, but I could not find anything really interesting, so I applied for some jobs. Eventually, I got the opportunity to work at KPMG Meijburg as a junior analyst at the transfer pricing department. Basically, I had to find European companies that are comparable to the client in terms of its financials, services and activities. My daily activities consisted of finding those companies in the database, screening those based on their business descriptions and websites and eventually I had to create a report that went to the client. It may sound complicated, but it was not at all. The job was not study related at all, but I acquired great soft skills, such as professional communication, project time management and I was exposed to an international work environment. Unfortunately, I lost the job in March due to the Covid measures. Next to the bachelor and my job, I was a committee member at an Islamic student organisation SV Idee, where I was part of the IT and acquisition team. It was very nice to meet other students from different studies and work on a greater goal for muslim students. Also, I started tutoring at AthenaStudies and eventually became a faculty manager for Econometrics and Business Analytics at VU and UvA. Basically, my job was to organise these exam trainings and find tutors that would like to teach.

What are your plans for the future?
I am currently combining work and studies, as I recently started a job as a developer trainee at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which is an IT consultancy company. In October, I will work on a risk modelling project at the headquarters of a bank. I am really happy that I got the opportunity to start working at TCS, because the company can provide me a lot of things for my personal growth. TCS might not be that well-known in the Netherlands yet, but we are globally active in 46 countries so the company is able to provide me a lot of international experience. For now, I would like to gain experience in the Banking, Financial Services and Insurance industry in the Netherlands. However, in a few years down the line, it would be nice if I could help companies to digitalise and integrate the latest technologies in their businesses. However, it would be nice if I can eventually start my own consultancy company and provide services on the development of data analytics and software.

it would be nice if I can eventually start my own consultancy company and provide services on the development of data analytics and software.

Do you have any tips or advice for the first-year students?
Definitely enjoy your time as a student. I felt like because of all the things that I did next to my studies that I missed out on enjoying the actual studying. However, I would really advise you to develop yourself outside your studies as well. Companies nowadays always ask about what you did next to your studies, so try to join committees and boards, find relevant jobs and really expand your network. If you are not active yet on LinkedIn, then I would definitely recommend creating a profile and connecting with your fellow students and follow leaders and companies of industries you are interested in. This will make you aware of what companies are looking for and you can stay on top of trends. 

Next up in the SECTOR, we have quite a special article planned. We interviewed Mirjam van Praag, president of the Executive Board of the VU and econometrician, about her diverse endeavours. For example, she has been a crown member of the SER (Social and Economic Council). So keep an eye on the SECTOR page, as this interview is a must-read!

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