Becoming a Healthcare Data Scientist, Northwestern University MSPA

Northwestern University MSPA 400 Math for Modelers course, final thoughts



I had previously posted my interim thoughts on this course, and now that the course is finished, thought I would add my final thoughts.

The final examination was fair and a mixture of the math and Python.  You could certainly pass the course if you didn’t keep up with the Python, and do the exercises, but would be much more difficult.

The last section of the course was on calculus.  Weeks 6 and 7 were devoted to a review of differential calculus and weeks 8 and 9 were devoted to integral calculus.   Dr. Goldfeder continued to stress the real world application of the concepts learned.

We had a week off over the Thanksgiving holiday, which allowed us to catch up and review before the final examination.  I took this time to both review the math (a little), and review Python (a lot).  I went back through each weeks Python assignments to make sure I understood the concepts and could work through the code.  I HIGHLY recommend this.  Looking back I wished I would have spent more independent time applying Python and writing code to do the problems as much as possible as we were going through the course.  I encourage future students in this class to attempt to do this.

After the class ended I started catching up on my to do list, which included how to use Jupyter Notebooks.   After doing more exploring of the Jupyter Notebook, I wished I would have found them earlier.  They are very useful for learning code, and taking notes at the same time.  I would encourage students to look at these when they start this course.  I wish Northwestern University would do what several other universities have done, and that is start teaching the class using these notebooks.  This would be extremely useful for the Python part of the course.  I have now been brushing up on R using the same Jupyter Notebooks, with an R kernel installed.  I plan on using this notebook as I go through my next class, statistical analysis, which uses R.  Here is the link to Project Jupyter’s webpage.

My overall assessment of the math for modelers course is highly positive, and I feel as if I learned what I set out to learn, and got my money’s worth.  It is a very demanding class time wise, but for those interested in analytics, this is a foundational set of knowledge that must be learned.

12 thoughts on “Northwestern University MSPA 400 Math for Modelers course, final thoughts

  1. Thanks for your detailed posts – they helped me tremendously as I evaluated NU’s program. I’ll be a semester behind you, starting in a few weeks.

    Quick practical question – what are the textbook requirements like? The costs are quite high, even rolled into my loans. This course, for example, has both a full textbook and a “component” – are both mecessary? Or one or the other? Thanks!


    1. Chris great questions. The “Finite Mathematics and Calculus with applications” textbook is overall a great resource. There is a separate “Student’s solutions manual” that is also good, I used it occasionally to help me work through problems, so this could be optional. I used the Pearson web based questions heavily. There is another book “Graphing Calculator and Excel Spreadsheet Manual” that I tried to use, but gave up, and I just looked for video’s/web based references if I was struggling to find how to use my calculator.
      I highly recommend getting a computer based calculator. I got the TI_Nspire CX CAS student software package, and ended up running all my calculations on my computer, even though I had a calculator. Much easier to see and do.


  2. Awesome, thanks, that was very helpful. Haven’t had to buy books in a long time, it’s a lot different than it was 20 (gulp) years ago. I’d love to connect over email, I’m at – I haven’t found a way to look folks up yet. Thanks again!


  3. Randy, thanks for posting these blogposts about the MSPA program. I’ve just been accepted into the program and start this Spring. Although I’m excited to get started, I also am anxious about the quality of the program and the professors. I read positive reviews on the whole, but I’m used to in-class learning, and the online aspect of the program still causes some tummy ache.


    1. Rahul, welcome to the program. This is definitely a program where you get out of it what you put into it. The professors will help, but most of the onus will be on you. So far I have found the instructors superb, and very responsive to questions, and wanting to help you succeed. The Northwestern CAESAR website contains CTEC’s – Course and Teacher Evaluations – which I highly suggest you read before registering, and fill out once you are done. There does appear to be differences in the popularity of the Professors, not sure if that translates into a better or worse educational experience though. So far I feel that I have gotten my money’s worth, not an easy task for how expensive the classes are.


      1. Thanks for responding, DataDoc. I’ll work my hardest to make the courses worth my money too. I’ve signed up for 402 and 420 this Spring. I think we’re in the 402 class together this Spring. Is that the only class you’re taking this quarter?


      2. Yes, that is the only class. I am doing this the slow way, one class at a time, since I have so much going on with my other roles. I don’t know how people take more than one class to be honest. I spend on average, between 20-30 hours a week on one class. But I do admit, I read every assignment, do the nomework, post actively in the discussions, and dive pretty deep into the material. I don’t want to just pass the course, I want to learn the material, and the programming needed to be successful. I am sure you could pare the time required down, especially if you are a math or computer major.


  4. I was accepted into this program and my background seems to not exactly line up with that of others in the program. I do not know python or ANY programming language. The only similar “languages” that i use are SAS and SQL and i am an entry level user in both. If i have no clue whatsoever about python am i going to fail this program?


    1. There are a lot of students who have little to no programming experience, and who do very well. The program is set up assuming you have no experience, and the programming is built into the curriculum.

      I would encourage you to start learning if you can. There are many options. Once you get access to Canvas (the distance learning platform), you have free access to all the courses in I have done many courses in There are good courses in Data Camp (which is where I started to learn).
      I started learning python and R in the months prior to starting, and that helped. You can start with no experience, when classes start, but there will be more work.
      But I would not worry about not having experience. I would take advantage of every resource they have though, as this is such a key part of what we do.


      1. Hi Randy,
        As preparation for MSPA courses, would you emphasize one language over another? Or emphasize any aspects of R and Python? I have almost no background in either programming language.

        Also, would you recommend spending time brushing up on mathematics if these topics aren’t fresh (i.e., stats, probability, linear algebra, calc, etc…)?



      2. Dan, this is a tough question. I think that brushing up on math may not be a bad idea, but not absolutely necessary. Doing a stats or probability review might be helpful, but don’t have any good recommendations. As long as you stay up on the reading and do as many problems as you can, you should make it through the math and statistics ok.

        As far as programming languages, I don’t really think there is a “right” one. You should be able to do a little in several languages – R and Python. But really having a deeper understanding of one of the languages would be helpful. I like Python over R for personal reasons I can’t articulate well, but I know others that feel opposite. I am enjoying SAS now as well.

        If you are looking – I highly recommend DataCamp and Udemy. DataCamp has some statistics courses using R or Python.


  5. Thanks Randy — the Data Camp courses are great. I completed a few for Python, but will make sure to work in a few about R as well.


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