What is an Operations Research Degree?

Operations research (OR) analysts, also known as operations researchers, use advanced analytical methods to help organizations make better decisions. The basic OR process consists of identifying and formulating a problem that needs to be solved, constructing a model of the problem that simulates the real world and the variables in it, using the model to derive solutions to the problem, testing each solution and analyzing its effectiveness, and implementing the optimal solution to the actual problem.

The core of operations research is mathematical methods. Therefore, courses in mathematics, probability and statistics, data structures and algorithms, numerical analysis, and computer programming are prominent in OR degree programs.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Operations Research – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, the operations research program is heavily weighted in foundational courses in probability, statistics, applied mathematics, simulation, and optimization. The following is a sample curriculum:

  • Introduction to Computing Science and Programming
  • Introduction to Computing Science and Programming for Mathematics and Statistics
  • Data Structures and Programming
  • Discrete Mathematics
  • Introduction to Operations Research
  • Calculus
  • Introduction to Probability and Statistics
  • Intermediate Probability and Statistics
  • Calculus for the Biological Sciences
  • Calculus for the Social Sciences
  • Applied Linear Algebra
  • Linear Optimization
  • Introduction to Probabilistic Models
  • Operations Research Clinic
  • Discrete Optimization
  • Network Flows
  • Linear Models in Applied Statistics
  • Introduction to Stochastic Processes
  • Computer Simulation and Modeling
  • Data Structures and Algorithms
  • Numerical Analysis
  • Introduction to Graph Theory
  • Econometric Methods

As evidenced by this sample course content, algorithms, mathematics, and statistics are the drivers of operations research. OR is a way to formulate and solve problems. It provides a mathematical, quantitative basis for decisions concerning operations management. Coursework in the OR bachelor’s program is designed to teach math methods for operations research and analytics that provide students with tools to:

  • Manage big data – store, integrate analyze, update, and use massive amounts of data in real time
  • Operate in real time – update solutions quickly when new information becomes available
  • Make decisions – frame a decision problem or dilemma and choose the best option
  • Analyze networks – study the links between people, how information circulates in a social network or social media, or how to schedule network routes for airline fleets or police patrol cars
  • Achieve optimization – use math methods such as mathematical programming models to find the best solution to a question or problem, given potential practical constraints; for example, an algorithm designed to plan staffing needs must be constrained from planning for 24-hour shifts, which would be illegal
  • Represent uncertainty – use probability theory and stochastic (random) modeling to analyze uncertain events; for example, to forecast inventory demand and compute order quantities and reorder levels
  • Analyze waiting lines – study how lines form, how they function, and why they malfunction; determine how many customers arrive on average per hour and how long on average it takes to serve a customer; then use queueing theory, also known as waiting line theory, to manage the flow of customers (or goods, such as cars on an assembly line) in the most efficient manner
  • Conduct computer simulations – use computer models to represent a process over time, to show how systems perform under various conditions; for example, a computer simulation could show what the effect of a 10% reduction in staff would be

Master’s Degree in Operations Research – Two Year Duration
In general, master’s programs in operations management do not require a bachelor’s degree in the field for admission. Most students, however, begin OR graduate studies having developed above average quantitative skills as an undergraduate. At the master’s level, programs offer various concentrations, either in areas of operations research and/or in the OR process in specific industries. Most programs have an internship component. At many schools, students can choose between a thesis or non-thesis option.

Regardless of the concentration selected, there is typically a set of core courses that all grad students must complete. Here are some examples:

  • Quantitative Bootcamp
  • Optimization Models and Methods
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Stochastic Models
  • Simulation
  • Professional Development and Leadership

Possible concentrations may include:

  • Analytics
  • Decision, Risk, and Analysis
  • Entrepreneurship and Innovation
  • Finance and Management
  • Healthcare Management
  • Logistics and Supply Chain Management
  • Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence
  • Optimization

Degrees Similar to Operations Research

Applied Mathematics
Mathematics helps companies perform better in our data-driven marketplace. That is the foundation of applied mathematics. Students of the field learn to use theories and techniques, such as mathematical modeling and computational methods, to formulate and solve practical problems in business, government, engineering, and the physical, life, and social sciences.

Business Administration
Business administration is about overseeing a business’s finances, staffing, and contract negotiations. Degree programs in the field, therefore, teach students how to plan, organize, and direct all the activities of an organization.

Computer Science
The field of computer science is focused on computer systems and how humans interact with them. Courses cover mathematics for computer science, artificial intelligence, data structures and algorithms, and introduction to program design.

Computer Software Engineering
Degree programs in computer software engineering teach students how to apply engineering principles to software development. Students learn how to design, build, test, implement, and maintain computer operating systems, as well as applications that allow end users to accomplish tasks on their computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices. Most programs begin with core engineering classes like mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Data Science
Data science students learn how to combine domain expertise, programming skills, and knowledge of mathematics and statistics to deduce worthwhile insights from data, which analysts can translate into substantial business value.

Economics asks wide questions about world economies, how governments should respond to financial crises, how stock prices and exchange rates are set, and how to help people living in poverty. The degree field is focused on how to use the concepts and theories of economics to study and solve real-world problems.

In very simple terms, the finance field is about helping businesses, organizations, and individuals make money. Degree programs in finance, therefore, teach students about investing, financial and estate planning, risk management, interest rates, insurance, and taxes. Their objective is to produce graduates who are ready to help both commercial and retail clients reach their short- and long- term financial goals.

Human-Computer Interaction
Human-computer interaction or HCI explores the interactions between computer systems and their human users. It focuses on how individuals and groups can interact with visual information, how we can understand what people need, and how we can make sure that our software is actually usable. HCI degree programs prepare students to meet these challenges. The curriculum combines theories and concepts from computer science, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and industrial design and ergonomics. Its end goal is to produce professionals with the specialized knowledge to create intuitive interfaces that improve how we interact with and use emerging technologies.

Industrial Engineering
Industrial engineering majors learn how to improve the way that industries and organizations, such as hospitals and factories, operate. They draw on their knowledge in math, science, business, and psychology to consider factors like materials, equipment, and people.

Students who major in informatics learn how to build systems to retrieve and store information. They take courses in database architecture and management, multimedia systems, and human/computer interaction.

Degree programs in insurance prepare students to work as insurance underwriters, the professionals who issue insurance policies. Students of the field learn how to consider individual circumstances and decide which policies to offer to potential clients.

Management Information Systems
Students who major in management information systems learn how to build systems to retrieve and store information. They take courses in database architecture and management, multimedia systems, and human/computer interaction.

Degree programs in mathematics typically teach both the theory and abstract of pure mathematics and its practical application to the world, known as applied mathematics. In other words, math majors study algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics; but most pair this mathematics concentration with classes that reveal how math concepts are used in business management, computer science, economics, finance, music, philosophy, physics, and sports science.

Simulation Programming
Simulation programmers develop computer simulations that allow us to predict, see, think about, test, and manipulate real-world products, services, systems, processes, conditions, situations, and issues, without taking the risk and incurring the costs of doing so in the real world. Math, engineering, and computer science are the overlapping disciplines that simulation relies on. Degree programs in the field are made up of courses in these technical and scientific areas, but they are also focused on teaching the skills of abstracting, theorizing, hypothesizing, and intellectualizing. In other words, simulation programming students learn everything they need to conceptualize the world into models that are designed to reach solutions to many of the world’s challenges and problems.

The degree field of statistics is focused on the study of probability theory and sampling theory. Students use techniques like sample survey theory and variance analysis (the quantitative investigation of the difference between actual and planned behavior) to examine the relationships between groups and measurements. In simple terms, statistics is about collecting data, organizing it, analyzing it, and interpreting it in practical ways that guide decision making in both business sectors and politics.

Supply Chain Management
Supply chain management (SCM) is the management of the lifecycle of materials and products through a business, from manufacturing to distribution and returns. It is a balancing act. It is about balancing inventory, service delivery, profit margins, and customer loyalty. It is about both operational and financial efficiency. What this means is that the supply chain manager is a multitasker and degree programs in the field teach students how to perform every task that the job entails.

Systems Engineering
This degree program is concerned with how to use math and science to develop innovative technologies that help run businesses. Students of systems engineering take courses in operations management, computer-based simulation systems, and statistical applications in business.

Skills You’ll Learn

Operations research graduates come away from their studies with a valuable set of transferable skills:

  • Computer / software savvy
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Decision making
  • Dedication to ongoing learning
  • Interpersonal and communication skills
  • Interpreting the meaning of information for others
  • Logic
  • Mathematics / the ability to turn raw mathematical data into meaningful information
  • Problem solving
  • Psychology fundamentals
  • Research, data collection, and analysis
  • Writing

What Can You Do with an Operations Research Degree?

Make better decisions. Solve problems. That, in essence, is the mandate of every management team in virtually every field of work. And that is why operations research analysts are employed in virtually all sectors, from industry to government to the military. They are the professionals equipped with the knowledge and skills to apply scientific methods to the study of large complex systems for the purpose of streamlining operations.

Financial institutions, insurance companies, healthcare organizations, transportation systems, energy and resources companies, manufacturers, and the US federal government are among the largest employers of OR professionals.

These are some specific areas of management where OR techniques are used:

Resource Allocation and Scheduling

  • Optimal allocation of resources such as manpower, materials, machines, time, and money to projects
  • Determination and deployment of appropriate workforce
  • Project scheduling, monitoring, and control

Production and Facilities Planning

  • Factory size and location decision
  • Estimate of number of facilities needed
  • Inventory forecasts, item order and reorder schedules
  • Scheduling and sequencing of production runs by efficient allocation of machines
  • Transportation loading and unloading
  • Warehouse location decision
  • Maintenance policy

Purchasing Decisions

  • What, when, and how to purchase to minimize procurement cost
  • Bidding and replacement policies


  • Advertising budget
  • Product timing introduction
  • Selection of advertising media
  • Selection of product mix

Human Resources

  • Selection of personnel; determination of retirement age and skills
  • Recruitment policies and jobs assignment
  • Recruitment of employees
  • Scheduling of training programs


  • Capital requirements; cash flow analysis
  • Credit policies; credit risks
  • Investment decisions
  • Company profit plan

Research and Development

  • Planning product introduction
  • Control of research and development projects
  • Determination of areas for research and development
  • Selection of projects; project budgeting


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