Operations Research Analyst Careers

While businesses have more data than ever available to them, most of the information out there is abstract, disorganized, and not easily understood, and that’s where an operations research analyst comes in. Making sense out of numerical and text-based information, operations research analysts employ data mining, statistical analysis, and mathematical modeling to shape business efforts or identify a solution to an ongoing problem. Especially as businesses seek to expand in a more cost-effective and risk-averse manner without compromising profits, this skill set is a keystone of the decision-making process.

In the past, limited data, acting strictly on instinct, or simply mimicking competitors made such efforts a gamble. At best, a company was left with inefficient department operations, leading to bureaucratic backups and gridlocks that stymied any forward movement. At worst, overestimating returns and market demand meant a new project resulted in significant financial losses. Today, the gray area of estimates is gradually narrowing, thanks to the data-driven insights operations research analysts provide.

What is an Operations Research Analyst?

As an occupation, operations research emerged during World War II as a method for planning efficient supply routes. In the decades following, other organizations based their strategies on these techniques, and today, while the military continues to utilize operations research throughout its divisions and strategies, it’s integral to such diverse fields as logistics, entertainment, business, manufacturing, and healthcare.

Yet, no matter the industry in which you find yourself, operations research analysts are essentially high-level decision-makers that utilize statistics and data tools to draw conclusions from the information available and present solutions. Whether in a small business or corporate environment, you may be:

  • designing systems and processes to ensure an organization operates in the most efficient manner possible;
  • finding ways to economically and strategically allocate resources, be it equipment or finances, amongst multiple teams, divisions, or facilities;
  • tasked with creating a schedule for production or product releases that limits travel and streamlines routes;
  • required to supply data that supports new policies, managerial efforts, or company projects;
  • needing to find ways to keep all developments cost effective without cutting corners; and
  • creating new logistics routes and networks based on real-time information to improve customer experiences.

Doing these tasks often involves a significant amount of technical know-how and business acumen. Instead of making estimates or doing a strict competitive review, these professionals frequently employ common data analysis techniques:

  • designing mathematical models or model simulations that factor in a range of variables, objectives, restrictions, and potential alternatives;
  • utilizing statistical software, data mining, and other analytics tools to examine raw data to forecast and make predictions for potential business outcomes, factoring in seasonal trends, expected sales, and potential uncertainties to produce a cost-benefit analysis; and
  • using quantitative reasoning skills to examine cost effectiveness, labor requirements, and distribution channels in relation to company operations.

Although many of these points and skills seems theoretical, here is what operations research analysis looks like in action:

  • A shipping or logistics company needs someone to plan out distribution routes for drivers to ensure all packages arrive on time, and uses real-time data to anticipate and work around traffic and other interruptions.
  • A major league sports team needs to plan out its schedule for the season, factoring in home and away games with minimal cross-country and international travel.
  • A city planning office needs to time how and when traffic lights operate at a range of intersections to avoid traffic jams.
  • Retail stores covering a regional or national network have to plan out inventory by location to meet customer demands, while avoiding both surplus and under-stocked merchandise.
  • Any website that provides product or profile recommendations often has someone creating formulas that suggest relevant connections or related items, encouraging its users to make meaningful connections or purchases in the process.
  • Especially with more light shed on sustainable business practices, operations research analysts help manufacturing companies streamline their in-house and material acquisition processes to use less and decrease their carbon footprint without driving up costs and reducing output.
  • An airline needs to plan out its routes, schedule its crews, and set prices based on variable travel conditions and competitors’ rates.
  • For troops deployed overseas, the US Military employs operations research to anticipate and plan attacks and find supply routes that won’t be intercepted.
  • In the event of a disaster, humanitarian and relief organizations strategically plan where and how to send food, medicine, and supplies to vulnerable populations.

Skills and Responsibilities

Individuals seeking a career as an operations research analyst should be strong problem solvers and critical thinkers, as you’ll often be presented with an issue and need to utilize several tools and methods to come up with a solution.

At the same time, because these are senior-level positions who report to a department head or management, you’ll be working in a team environment, perhaps overseeing entry-level and mid-career employees. As such, you’re expected to be a strong collaborator and have solid communication skills, particularly when it comes to presenting your ideas and solutions to non-technical employees. Along with writing and speaking, data visualization assists with concisely conveying your results.

Added to this list, computer science and technical knowledge have elevated data analysis professions far above number-crunching roles. Along with industry-specific tools, you’ll be expected to know how to use statistical analysis software, C++ and other programming languages, SQL, and data mining techniques and have a thorough understanding of machine learning.  

With this knowledge, operations research analysts:

  • gather cross-organizational, product, and industry data relevant to a particular problem from a variety of sources;
  • track key company and industry metrics, and regularly report results;
  • find or are presented with problems affecting an organization, and utilize a mix of statistical analysis, predictive modeling, and mathematical modeling to identify a cost-effective solution;
  • establish project schedules and budgets in relation to leadership or client objectives and company resources;
  • are expected to identify multiple courses of action and then research and present their potential outcomes to find the strongest, most efficient solution;
  • routinely test and refine their models, based on updated data or new sources, or develop new models in line with current business objectives;
  • produce reports and present their findings to management; and
  • may need to travel to meet with clients or gather data in the field.

Operations Research Analyst Requirements

No single bachelor’s degree is specifically geared toward operations research analysis. However, math-heavy programs, including those in engineering, computer science, and physics, give someone a leg up, as does a business degree with a math- or analytics-related concentration. Regardless of the course of study, candidates should have completed calculus, statistics, linear algebra, and economics, as well as computer science-related subjects.

A bachelor’s degree, plus an internship, paves the way toward an entry-level role. Experience on the job, along with any industry certifications, then helps you move in a more specialized direction, perhaps toward a data analyst role.

Nevertheless, more and more job descriptions for operations research analysts list a master’s degree among the requirements. Although a Master of Business Administration (MBA) has been an asset in the past, a Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) anticipates the field’s increasingly technical nature and covers software, modeling, machine learning, and analytics methods in greater depth.

Along with these educational credentials, candidates need to keep up with the latest software, hardware, and analytical methods, earning certifications to support their skills.

Employment Outlook

Take the first step toward a career as an operations research analyst by earning an MSBA degree from Wake Forest University. Learn more about our on-ground program, or request additional information today.