These days, businesses are collecting more data than ever before, but most of that data still goes unused. That's because the professionals needed to analyze it are in short supply. This is good news for aspiring data analysts. Chances are if you choose this profession, you'll be in demand for years to come.
By some estimates, half of all the data businesses collect becomes dark data; Lucidworks figures it's actually closer to 90 percent. That's a tremendous amount of information that could be driving business decisions on sales, logistics, marketing, and more.
One reason companies don't use all this data is that they have neither the tools or the manpower to do so. The tools are evolving, which will make it possible to use more and more of this data in the future.
The people who wield those tools are called data analysts. These professionals figure out how to cut costs, produce more, and work more efficiently by reviewing and analyzing data. They then present their findings to business stakeholders in a simplified, easy-to-digest way.
Data analysts work in all sectors, from healthcare to marketing to retail to investment banking.
In every industry, they tackle four types of data analysis:
Some data analysts specialize in one type of analytics, but all data analysts are concerned with the same goal. Casey Pearson, marketing analyst at Delphic Digital, summed it up in an interview with the Rasmussen College technology blog when he said that analysts "hope to move our clients' business forward based on their strategic goals."
This article details how to become a data analyst and how much data analysts make. In it, we'll cover:
Data analysts develop analysis strategies, gather, filter and clean data, analyze their results, and compile their findings into reports. What that work actually looks like can depend a lot on what kinds of data they're playing with and what types of questions they're trying to answer. They may also have to do research to find secondary data sources for comparison, maintain databases, and develop custom data collection systems.
When you become a data analyst, you will:
Depending on what industry or department you work in, your official title might be market research analyst, sales analyst, pricing analyst, financial analyst, operations analyst, marketing analyst, advertising analyst, or customer behavior analyst.
The average data analyst salary in the US is about $71,000 annually (based on Indeed.com surveys), but pay rates can vary widely by industry and by title. An junior data analyst might earn closer to $59,000, while a senior data analyst will probably earn about $86,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports average annual income for business operations analysts, their closest category to data analysts, at $76,000.
Positions in major metro areas like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York tend to pay the most, and data analysts who have experience using a diverse set of techniques and software (e.g., SQL, Python, Tableau, Microsoft Power BI) usually make the most money, according to Dice.com.
Data analyst salaries tend to hit the ceiling over time. They typically increase over the first ten years of a career, but then max out. That's why it's not unusual for analysts to transition into data science or data engineering after five to ten years. They simply want to make more money.
You can land an entry-level data analyst job with nothing more than a bachelor's degree. There are specialized undergraduate degree programs in analytics, though not many of them.
Schools that offer a BS in data analytics, or a similar degree, include:
A degree in math or statistics from a well-known college plus experience in programming, computer modeling, or predictive analytics—or a data science degree—will likely serve you just as well. Students in data analysis bachelor's degree programs typically complete coursework in:
Earning an advanced degree isn't necessary to become a data analyst, but it doesn't hurt, and it may help you advance to a more senior position or a data scientist position later in your career. Master's in data analytics programs are more common than bachelor's degree programs.
Carnegie Mellon University offers a master's program in data analytics, as does Tufts University. Boston University offers a fully online master's in applied data analytics. These programs are usually designed for students with a strong STEM background. They typically include coursework focused on:
You typically don't need to have earned a bachelor's degree in data analysis or have worked as a data analyst to be accepted into these programs. Classes include hands-on learning opportunities suitable for those new to the profession.
You may not learn everything you need to know to become a data analyst in a college program, but it's possible to fill the gaps online, or from books. Sites like Udemy have courses in programming, data sorting, database management, and tools like Hadoop. There are even beginner data analytics courses on the web that cost just a few hundred dollars. These are no substitute for a college degree, but if you earned a bachelor's degree in math or economics, they provide a way to get started in data analytics.
Skills that will come in handy when your goal is to become a data analyst include:
Data analytics is a diverse field. There are several certifications for data analysts.
It can be tough in any industry to gauge what certifications will be the most valuable now and in the future. You can get a better sense of which certifications to prioritize by reaching out to working data analysts. Ask them which ones they've found to be the most beneficial.
Data analysts don't usually play the same role at an organization as data scientists, though they both work with information. The dividing line between these two roles is getting muddied as the tools grow more sophisticated. Employers may cause further confusion by expecting their data analysts to do data science work, and vice versa.
There is definitely some overlap in the work that data scientists and data analysts typically do, but there are also key differences. Data scientists can interpret data and identify trends just like analysts, but they also have coding chops, machine learning expertise, and mathematical modeling expertise. What they do is much more technical and hands-on. They are also more likely to have advanced degrees—in fact, it's not unusual for a data analyst to advance into a data scientist position after earning a master's degree in data analytics and one or more relevant programming languages. It's also worth noting that a senior data analyst may do work that's indistinguishable from that of a data scientist.
To answer this question, think about your passions and your personality. Do you love puzzles? Do you possess solid problem-solving skills? Are you a logical thinker? Do you prefer working on unstructured problems? Can you lose yourself in research or in a really juicy data set? On top of all that, do you like telling stories?
When you become a data analyst, your job will not only be to deconstruct, sort, and analyze information, but also to turn your findings into a fluid narrative that can convince stakeholders to take action to solve a problem. The ability to tell a compelling story may actually be the most crucial part of this job.
If you answered yes to all the questions above, this career might be a good fit. Just keep the potential salary cap in mind. What sounds like good money now may not feel like good money later. You can launch your career in data as an analyst—and spend your days bringing dark data into the light—while taking steps to gain the knowledge and skills you'll need to transition into a data science role that pays a lot more.
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