New graduate Kristen McDonald lands on right career path with degrees in data science and analysis, economics

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New graduate Kristen McDonald lands on right career path with degrees in data science and analysis, economics

Kristin McDonald

Kristen McDonald graduated cum laude with bachelor’s degrees in data science and analysis and economics. She is on track to finish her master’s degree in economics next spring. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Kristen McDonald wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to study when she moved back home to St. Louis in December of 2021.

McDonald had been majoring in nursing at the University of Missouri–Columbia and was about a year and a half from graduation when she realized her intended career path wasn’t really for her.

She’d applied to the University of Missouri–St. Louis ahead of the spring semester, figuring it’d be easy to transfer her credits within the University of Missouri System and that she could save money on rent living at home and commuting to campus. But once she got her acceptance, she still had the little problem of choosing a new major.

“I pulled up UMSL’s website, and I scrolled down on the page with the available majors,” McDonald said.

Data science and analysis immediately caught her attention.

“I track all my finances on Excel and stuff, and I’m really interested in the data aspect of it,” she said. “I thought it could be a great major for me.”

The interdisciplinary degree program launched in 2021 was created to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to understand and analyze data in their chosen field. They can choose emphasis areas in biology, computer science, mathematics, social science, supply chain analytics or, as McDonald did, economics.

The website listed potential careers, including database administrator, data scientist, market research analyst, data engineer or financial analyst, all with strong earning potential, so she decided to give it a try.

“All of this research was in one day,” McDonald said. “When I look back at it, I’m like, ‘What was I doing?’ Really, I just pulled up the list and randomly chose something. I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting. I’ll do that.’”

Two and a half years later, McDonald is confident she landed on the right choice. Last weekend, she walked across the commencement stage at the Mark Twain Athletic Center after graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in data science and analysis and a second bachelor’s in economics. She’s also halfway toward earning her master’s in economics, something she expects to finish next spring at UMSL.

McDonald – who received a Chancellor’s Transfer Scholarship and a Promise and Opportunity Scholarship to help support her education at UMSL –  feels fortunate things turned out so well.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I had gotten into this major and then I hated it,” she said. “That would’ve been awful. But I think there are multiple things that happened.”

The first that McDonald credits was her decision to choose economics as her emphasis area. She started taking economics classes to meet the emphasis requirement and that put her in contact with the department’s tightknit group of students, with whom she became fast friends as she got acclimated to her new campus environment.

“There are a lot of group projects in economics, so you’re forced to work with people, and everybody’s super nice,” she said. “I just thought, ‘You know, this is a cool place.’”

She found herself gravitating toward the Sharon G. Levin Economic Resource Center during breaks between classes. The computer lab is a popular studying and gathering space for students in the department.

“I’ve spent so much time in the ERC,” McDonald said. “It’s just a great space to hunker down, do your homework. You’re not as confined by the time requirements in class and can understand things or work on projects with other people.”

She was also captivated by the subject matter in her classes, both in computer science and in economics. She’s particularly enjoyed learning different programming languages, especially C++ but also Java, R and Python.

McDonald has also found helpful and supportive faculty members, whether it was Donald Kridel, an associate professor of economics, who taught her course in applied econometrics; Brian Lawton, a senior lecturer in the Department of Information Systems and Technology, from whom she took a course in Java; or Nazire Koc, an associate teaching professor of computer science, who taught her C++.

McDonald never took a class with Economics Professor Anne Winkler, but Winkler filled in one day for Teaching Professor Mike Allison, and McDonald managed to make an impression on her.

“She was remarkably attentive and engaged in the topic I chose to cover – causal research design in economics,” Winkler said. “We briefly chatted after class as well.”

It was only a few weeks later that alum Michael Moorhem, the senior director of engineered solutions at Reliable Parts Ltd., reached out to Winkler to let her know about internship opportunities at the parts supply company should she know of any qualified students who might be interested.

Winkler said McDonald immediately popped into her mind.

“She emailed me, and she’s like, ‘I have an internship for you,’” McDonald said. “I was like, ‘That’s amazing.’”

“It is a good reminder to all students that even a brief positive interaction with a professor can make a real difference,” Winkler said. “You never know when or how.”

McDonald started working as an intern at Reliable Parts in April 2023 and has continued over the past 14 months. She’s gained a lot of hands-on experience during that time.

“I’ve learned so much,” McDonald said. “I thought I was a master at Excel before that, but now I really am. I’ve learned a lot of critical thinking skills and more on the business side of things. I’ve learned things I wouldn’t learn necessarily in economics like what is the cost to serve or what’s margin? What’s the inventory costs related to storing things in one area compared to a different area?”

Her plan is to continue the internship over the next year as she completes her graduate work.

She’s also been juggling a part-time job she’s had for years at a sandwich shop, working an average of 30 hours each week on top of her coursework. But McDonald believes it’s all been worth it.

“I think it’s really rewarding because I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I feel like I’m a lot more prepared to go into a role that is not an internship but an actual job.”

She’ll likely be waiting another year to find out what that role will be. She has a dream of one day going to work for Red Bull because she’s a fan of the energy drink, but she’s open to a number of possibilities.

McDonald hopes future students can take something from her experience.

“If you don’t know what you want to do, go on UMSL’s website and just spend half a day perusing through and looking stuff up,” she said. “You might just find what you’re passionate about.”

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