Veteran Joel Fecke launching new career at SAS after earning master’s in economics at UMSL

Joel Fecke sits at a table with his hands folded in front of him

Joel Fecke earned a master’s degree in economics and graduate certificates in data science and applied econometrics and data analysis and has landed a job as an associate software developer at SAS. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Joel Fecke’s professional life was at a crossroads in the winter of 2021 when he enrolled at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

He had spent five years as a test equipment reliability engineer at SpaceX after serving in the U.S. Army, and he was looking to do something different, though he wasn’t certain exactly which direction he wanted to go.

Fecke had been thinking about it and weighing his options for almost a year when he decided going back to school to earn a master’s degree in economics could lead him to a multitude of options. He chose to pursue that degree at UMSL.

Two years later, he’s graduating not only with his master’s in economics but also with graduate certificates in data science and applied econometrics and data analysis and is set to begin a new job with a six-figure salary as a senior associate software developer at SAS, a multinational developer of analytics software based in Cary, North Carolina.

“Going back to school was 100% the right decision, and UMSL was probably the best decision,” said Fecke, who’ll soon be relocating to nearby Raleigh, North Carolina, to begin his new career. “I’m happy with how it all played out.”

Working at SpaceX would have seemed a dream to Fecke when he was finishing his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in aerospace in 2010 at the University of Missouri–Columbia. It still sounded pretty appealing four years later when the former ROTC cadet from La Monte, Missouri, was finishing his four-year service commitment in the Army while stationed at Fort Hood in Texas.

But after five years of being on-call whenever a problem arose, Fecke felt pigeonholed and wanted a different lifestyle.

The COVID-19 pandemic actually seemed to present a good opportunity to make a change, and the fact that he’d recently become fully vested in the stock options he received when he started at SpaceX meant he didn’t have many incentives to stay.

He briefly looked at graduate programs in Texas because he was living in Austin at the time after a stint in Waco. But Fecke’s older sister and younger brother were sharing a house in St. Charles, Missouri. He figured finding a master’s program in the St. Louis region and moving in with them would be a more cost-effective option.

Fecke found UMSL while doing research as he got set to make the move north, and the graduate program in economics seemed to fit what he was looking for.

“I saw that data analysis was a big focus here,” he said. “The area I wanted to go into was data analysis and data science, and I figured I could take some computer science classes to help augment that.”

Fecke began taking classes in January 2021, and it was initially a little rough getting acclimated. Most of his fellow graduate students at the time had been part of UMSL’s BS/MA dual degree program, so they had established networks on campus, and he felt a little like an outsider. Plus, it took time to adjust to being back in an academic environment after a decade away.

But Fecke also found himself engaged by his professors and the course material. That was particularly true of an Introduction to Econometrics course taught by Professor Anne Winkler.

“I’d never had econometrics before, and I barely knew what it was when I came here, but she taught it really well, and I got super into it,” Fecke said. “I really liked it. It made me feel really good about my choice of coming here. Once I took it my first semester, I’m like, ‘OK, this is really what I want to do.’”

Subsequent courses in applied econometrics taught by Associate Professor Donald Kridel have proved even more captivating.

The work wasn’t always easy, but Fecke was able to find plenty of support whenever he needed it.

“All the professors are super receptive,” said Fecke, who received a general graduate school scholarship in addition to his VA benefits. “They all make time for office hours, and I’ve heard all kinds of stories from people who talk about how they work full time, they couldn’t meet, they couldn’t make normal office hours, and their professor would meet on Saturday mornings for them. All the professors seem like they actually care whether students are learning the material or not. They’ll make the extra effort. If you’re having trouble, you actually make an effort to go to them and be like, ‘Hey, I don’t understand what’s going on. Can you help me?’ I’ve never seen a teacher blow them off.”

Fecke also found help and camaraderie from fellow students in the Sharon G. Levin Economics Resource Center, a popular spot for students to congregate in the Social Sciences & Business Building. He developed friendships with many of his fellow graduate students as they worked through course material together.

“I read a paper once that talked about how people judge their experience at a university by how good the other students are,” he said. “It’s true. Even if you’re doing well, it’s always nice to be able to have friendly students that you can hang out with and study with, can bounce ideas off, help each other learn. It’s just a nice thing.”

Fecke had already developed some coding skills in his spare time while in the Army and at SpaceX, but he used his electives to take courses in computer science so that he could get a graduate certificate in data science.

The lessons he learned in those classes enhanced and broadened his knowledge.

“UMSL Econ and the related units of math and statistics and computer science offer terrific coursework in data science,” Winkler said, “and Joel fully availed himself of those opportunities.”

It made him pretty marketable when he was applying for internships last spring and landed a summer position at SAS. He parlayed that into part-time work this semester and last month received the full-time job offer.

“I got the job because of the mix between economics and computer science,” Fecke said. “I think they wanted someone who understood the economics stuff and that could code, and I believe I really impressed them with my skills during the summer.”


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