Meet the Statistics Teacher Who's Going Back to School for Data Science

Written by Amanda Wicks • Updated on

Earning an advanced degree can be a valuable way to transition careers. Learn more about high school stats teacher Brendan McKiernan’s decision to go back to school.

[Featured image] Brendan McKiernan stands smiling in front of a classroom whiteboard.

Changing careers—as opposed to changing jobs—can often involve a larger investment thanks to the additional education you may need to make the pivot. But it’s become an increasingly popular choice in recent years. In the United States, 53 percent of Americans who quit their job in 2021 ended up pursuing a new path [1]. 

Brendan McKiernan, an AP Statistics teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, found himself evaluating his professional life just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think it’s a natural part of anybody’s evolution where we start to wonder, ‘Is this it? Is there more out there for me?’” he explained. 

McKiernan didn’t have any immediate answers about what transitioning involved or the kind of career he could transition to. After first graduating with his bachelor’s degree in engineering, he earned his master’s degree in education and spent the next 16 years teaching at the high school level. To help get a handle on his options, he started conducting research. “One of the things that kept popping up was trying to get an extra degree to show you have the training,” he said.  

Attending an on-campus program felt out of reach between his full-time job and his responsibilities as a husband and father. “There was no way I was going to be able to take time off work or make it to campus in the evenings,” he said. “It was important to me to find a program in a situation for me where it was flexible enough so I could take on more or scale back. That led me to online learning.” 

McKiernan eventually came across the University of Colorado Boulder’s Master of Science in Data Science program on Coursera. The performance-based admission, which required him to take and pass three pathway courses in order to gain entrance to the full program, seemed especially appealing. With that kind of accessibility, McKiernan wouldn’t have to pull together letters of recommendation or take the GRE. Instead, he could prove his knowledge and jump right in. 

Before he officially embarked on his second master’s degree in May 2021, however, he wanted to strengthen certain skills. Coming from a stats background, McKiernan wasn’t worried about the math coursework, but he knew programming factored heavily into data science. “I had a little bit of experience with R and minor experience with Python, but I definitely needed to improve my skills,” he said. He enrolled in courses on Coursera to set himself up for success.  

That groundwork helped McKiernan move through CU Boulder’s MS in Data Science program with more confidence. “I’ve gotten a lot out of it,” he said. “It’s been very well structured. It’s been just the right amount of guidance with what I feel is the requirement to do a fair amount of learning on your own. I personally think online learning works if you’re intrinsically motivated and interested in the subject matter.” 

It’s not just online learners who need to be motivated. Thanks to his experience as a student, McKiernan has found greater clarity in his teaching process. “The biggest thing I’ve taken away is being able to encourage students to be learners themselves,” he said. “A lot of times, a teacher can guide you but ultimately the big harbinger of success is the motivation to find the answers on your own. That’s something that’s really pushed me in this program.” 

As far as what he wants to do after graduation, McKiernan hasn’t settled on an outcome just yet, but he’s taking advantage of CU Boulder’s graduate resources to explore his options. He met with an academic advisor to get a better sense of those resources and now plans to meet with the career services department. “The prospect of making a big career change is pretty daunting, so having as much help navigating that process is important to me,” he said. “I got this degree because I wanted to learn more and I wanted to use these skills. My goal is to use my degree to some fulfilling end.”  

Article sources

1. CNBC. "53% of Americans Who Quit Their Job Last Year Made a Career Change," Accessed October 9, 2023.

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