Operations research analysts formulate and apply mathematical modeling methods to develop and interpret information that assists management with policy formulation and other managerial functions. Using analytical techniques, operations research analysts help managers to make better decisions and solve problems. The procedures of operations research were first formalized by the military. They have been used in wartime to effectively deploy radar, search for enemy submarines, and get supplies to where they are most needed. In peacetime and in private enterprises, operations research is used in planning business ventures and analyzing options by using statistical analysis, data mining, simulation, computer modeling, linear programming, and other mathematical techniques.
In addition to the military, operations research analysts today are employed in almost every industry, as companies and organizations must effectively manage money, materials, equipment, people, and time. Operations research analysts reduce the complexity of these elements by applying analytical methods from mathematics, science, and engineering, to help companies make better decisions and improve efficiency. Using sophisticated software tools, operations research analysts are largely responsible for solving complex problems, such as setting up schedules for sports leagues or determining how to organize products in supermarkets. Presenting the pros and cons of each possible scenario, analysts present solutions to managers, who use the information to make decisions.
Analysts are often involved in top-level strategizing, planning, and forecasting. They help to allocate resources, measure performance, schedule, design production facilities and systems, manage the supply chain, set prices, coordinate transportation and distribution, or analyze large databases.
The duties of operations research analysts vary according to the structure and management of the organizations they are assisting. Some firms centralize operations research in one department; others use operations research in each division. Many analysts work with management consulting companies that perform contract work for other firms. Analysts working in these positions often have areas of specialization, such as transportation or finance. Because problems are very complex and often require expertise from many disciplines, most analysts work in teams.
Teams of analysts usually start projects by listening to managers describe problems. Analysts ask questions and search for data that may help to formally define a problem. For example, an operations research team for an auto manufacturer may be asked to determine the best inventory level for each of the parts needed on a production line and to determine the optimal number of windshields to be kept in stock. Too many windshields would be wasteful and expensive, whereas too few could halt production.
Analysts study the problem, breaking it into its components. Then they gather information from a variety of sources. To determine the optimal inventory, operations research analysts might talk with engineers about production levels, discuss purchasing arrangements with buyers, and examine storage-cost data provided by the accounting department. They might also find data on past inventory levels or other statistics that may help them to project their needs.
Relevant information in hand, the team determines the most appropriate analytical technique. Techniques used may include Monte Carlo simulations, linear and nonlinear programming, dynamic programming, queuing and other stochastic-process models, Markov decision processes, econometric methods, data envelopment analysis, neural networks, expert systems, decision analysis, and the analytic hierarchy process. Nearly all of these techniques involve the construction of mathematical models that attempt to describe the system. The problem of the windshields, for example, would be described as a set of equations that represent real-world conditions.
Using these models, the team can explicitly describe the different components and clarify the relationships among them. The model’s inputs can then be altered to examine what might happen to the system under different circumstances. In most cases, a computer program is used to numerically evaluate the model.
A team will often run the model with a variety of different inputs to determine the results of each change. A model for airline flight scheduling, for example, might stipulate such things as connecting cities, the amount of fuel required to fly the routes, projected levels of passenger demand, varying ticket and fuel prices, pilot scheduling, and maintenance costs. Analysts may also use optimization techniques to determine the most cost effective or profit-maximizing solution for the airline.
Based on the results of the analysis, the operations research team presents recommendations to managers. Managers may ask analysts to modify and rerun the model with different inputs or change some aspect of the model before making their decisions. Once a manager reaches a final decision, the team usually works with others in the organization to ensure the plan's successful implementation.
Operations research analysts held about 104,100 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of operations research analysts were as follows:
- Finance and insurance - 27%
- Professional, scientific, and technical services - 22%
- Management of companies and enterprises - 9%
- Manufacturing - 6%
- Federal government - 6%
Some operations research analysts in the federal government work for the Department of Defense, which also employs analysts through private consulting firms.
Operations research analysts spend much of their time in office settings. They may travel to gather information, observe business processes, work with clients, or attend conferences.
Most operations research analysts work full time.
Education & Training Required
A bachelor’s degree coupled with extensive coursework in mathematics and other quantitative subjects usually is the minimum education requirement. Many employers, however, prefer applicants with a master's degree in operations research, management science, or a closely related field—such as computer science, engineering, business, applied mathematics, or information systems. Dual graduate degrees in operations research and computer science are especially attractive to employers. There are numerous degree programs in operations research and closely related fields in colleges and universities across the United States.
Continuing education is important for operations research analysts. Keeping up to date with technological advances, software tools, and improvements in analytical methods is vital for maintaining their problem-solving skills.
Other Skills Required
Those considering careers as operations research analysts should be able to pay attention to detail because much time is spent on data analysis. Candidates should also have strong computer and quantitative skills and be able to perform complex research. Employers prefer analysts who understand how to use advanced operations research software and statistical packages. Although not always required, having programming skills can be very helpful.
Since operations research is a multi-disciplinary field, a background in political science, economics, statistics, engineering, accounting, and management can also be useful. Operations research analysts must be able to think logically, work well with people, and write and speak well.
How to Advance
Beginning analysts usually perform routine computational work under the supervision of more experienced analysts. As novices gain knowledge and experience, they are assigned more complex tasks and are given greater autonomy to design models and solve problems.
Operations research analysts can advance by becoming technical specialists or project team leaders. Analysts also gain valuable insights into the industry where they work and may assume higher level managerial or administrative positions. Operations research analysts with significant experience or expertise may become independent consultants. Others may move into corporate management, where they eventually may become chief operating officers.
Employment of operations research analysts is projected to grow 25 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
About 10,200 openings for operations research analysts are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
As technology advances and companies seek efficiency and cost savings, demand for operations research analysis should continue to grow. In addition, increasing demand should occur for these workers in the field of analytics to improve business planning and decision making.
Technological advances have made it faster and easier for organizations to get data. Operations research analysts manage and evaluate data to improve business operations, supply chains, pricing models, and marketing. In addition, improvements in analytical software have made operations research more affordable and applicable to a wider range of areas. More companies are expected to employ operations research analysts to help them turn data into information that managers use to make decisions about all aspects of their business.
Operations research analysts will continue to be needed to provide support for the Armed Forces and to assist in developing and implementing policies and programs in other areas of government.
The median annual wage for operations research analysts was $82,360 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $48,690, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $160,850.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for operations research analysts in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Federal government - $120,950
- Professional, scientific, and technical services - $99,790
- Manufacturing - $98,040
- Management of companies and enterprises - $94,070
- Finance and insurance - $79,450
Most operations research analysts work full time.