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Telling Stories With Numbers: How to Become a Data Analyst

To become a data analyst, you’ll likely need at least a bachelor’s degree in the field as well as a combination of technical and interpersonal skills, including an understanding of statistics and data preparation, a systems thinking mindset and the ability to clearly communicate.
A professional who learned how to become a data analyst, sitting in front of a computer with a bar graph on the screen.

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

Large companies of all types use data daily to decide how to market what movies or music or shopping experience consumers might like to enjoy next. And while raw data can provide a lot of information, it takes someone skilled in interpreting that data to make the information useful to a business.

Data, at its simplest, is a collection of information. That information can be used as a basis for drawing reasonable conclusions. Those conclusions can help solve business needs.

When facts are gathered and interpreted, and those interpretations are shared in an accessible way, they can tell a story about a consumer and their interests. Data analysis is the telling of that story.

If you want a meaningful career gathering data and interpreting that information to help a business or organization thrive, a career in data analytics could be a great fit for you.

What is a Data Analyst?

Data analysts gather and interpret data to tell a story. Businesses of all types can then use that story to sell products or content, create new products or content or market goods or services to consumers.

Dr. Susan McKenzie with the text Dr. Susan McKenzie"By collecting, cleaning and interpreting data sets, data analysts make recommendations for business decisions and help solve business problems," said Susan McKenzie, EdD, a senior associate dean of STEM programs with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Part of a skilled data analyst's role is to identify errors in data. They do this by "cleaning" it. The process of cleaning data involves fixing or removing incorrect, corrupted, duplicate or incomplete data within a dataset, according to McKenzie.  "Then data analysts change, update or remove incorrect data to correct any errors," she said. This process makes the new, clean data readable by software programs and more accessible to various stakeholders.

The process of cleaning and interpreting data requires a strong aptitude for math and statistics, as well as the ability to communicate findings in an accessible way. “Many data analysts have a passion for statistics and visualizing data in a clear manner,” McKenzie said.

What Do Data Analysts Do All Day?

A data analyst must be computer-savvy with a solid grasp of mathematics, statistics and computer science. They typically work full-time in an office or remotely, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Using computers is a key function of the job.

Other important functions of data analysts, according to BLS, include:

  • Creating and maintaining algorithms
  • Creating visualizations, such as charts and graphs, and presenting that data to stakeholders
  • Collecting and analyzing data
  • Designing dashboards for stakeholders to access the data
  • Making business recommendations to stakeholders
  • Making decisions about which data to use for a particular project
  • Using machine learning to create models and make predictions

Data analysts can work in virtually any industry, according to BLS, but their skills are particularly in demand for businesses that require an active web presence. Any business that has new or constantly evolving business strategies needs robust data analysis as well.

Research created from data analysis can be used to support reports, academic journals, marketing efforts, sales or user engagement. Often, the data analysts will be the ones writing those reports, so sound written communication skills are vital.

Where Do Data Analysts Work?

Any business that uses data can benefit from a data analyst, according to McKenzie. The demand for this profession is widespread and growing.

Companies based in the computer and technology field have the greatest need for data analysts, according to BLS. Other areas in need of data analysts include:

  • Businesses and corporations, where data can be used to improve the user and customer experience, according to Business News Daily.
  • Research and development, where data can be used to test hypotheses and determine outcomes for products or business solutions, according to LinkedIn.
  • Science and technology, where data can be used to create new products, such as simulations for manufacturing products, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • The insurance industry, where data analysis can be used for insurance companies to make underwriting decisions, according to McKinsey & Company.

What Skills Do You Need for a Career as a Data Analyst?

Ask yourself if you have an aptitude for coding, engineering or computer science. Are you comfortable reviewing technical information and crafting messages or creating charts and reports to share that data? Do you enjoy math and statistics? If so, you likely already have the basis for a career in data analysis.

There are several technical skills necessary for being a successful data analyst. According to McKenzie, they are:

  • Ability to create data visualizations, dashboards and reports. Using visualization tools like graphs, charts and maps can make complex data accessible to non-technical stakeholders. Dashboards are another type of visualization tool to make data more accessible at a glance, as well as allow stakeholders to drill down into more complex data if needed.
  • Solid understanding of descriptive and inferential statistics. Identifying trends or patterns in data is a key part of interpreting the data. Using statistics to describe what you see or make inferences about it allows data analysts to create an overall picture of what the data is saying.
  • Working knowledge of data preparation and exploration. A skilled data analyst should be able to write code and analyze data as well as create and manage algorithms. Solid computer skills are a must.

Technical skills are the foundation of data analysis, but certain interpersonal skills are also necessary for success in this highly technical field. According to McKenzie, these skills include:

  • Analytical and problem-solving skills. Designing research queries, analyzing findings and interpreting those findings are necessary skills of data analysis.
  • Communication skills. Being able to understand the data is just a start. Data analysts must also be able to communicate their findings and recommendations to stakeholders so that technical and non-technical stakeholders alike are able to understand them and use the information.
  • Systems thinking. A systems thinking mindset allows you to draw meaningful conclusions from the data, as well as interpret data sets and understand how the data points may overlap.
  • Teamwork. Working together in a collaborative way to draw conclusions and share ideas is a key part of this profession.
  • Writing skills. The ability to research and present findings in an accessible way is vital. Data analysts often provide written reports of their findings.

What Qualifications Do I Need to Be a Data Analyst?

Several levels of formal education can help you build a career in data analytics.

An associate degree in data analytics can provide the foundational information you need to get your foot in the door. By using this degree as a starting point, you can learn the basic skills to build a career in data analytics. At the same time, you’ll earn valuable credits that can be transferred to a bachelor’s degree in a variety of STEM fields should you choose.

With coursework in an associate degree, you’ll learn how to diagnose organizational problems and determine how to use data to solve those problems. Earning the degree could qualify you for a junior role in business analytics, business intelligence or as a data technician, said McKenzie.

While an associate degree is a great way to get started in the field of data analytics, a bachelor’s degree is generally required, at a minimum, according to BLS. A bachelor’s degree communicates to employers that you have the essential skills in computer programming, quantitative and qualitative data analytics methods and data analytics standards and policies, among others.

“Data analysts are in high demand, and employers want to know you have the skills to perform the job,” McKenzie said. A bachelor’s degree helps show you have those skills.

A master’s degree in data analytics could also be required, depending on the role. A degree at this level shows that you have done the work to master skills in statistical modeling, data visualization and presentation and analyzing large data sets, among other skills.

A high level of mathematics and statistics is important for all degree levels in this field, as is working knowledge of some programming languages.

With advancements in technology, the size of data sets increases, and data management and database systems can require a great deal of expertise to understand and maintain. To stay competitive in the field, a data analyst must remain current in their discipline to ensure they're providing the best analysis of the data.

In addition to skills in mathematics and statistics, as well as earning a degree, certifications in data analytics are highly regarded by the industry, according to McKenzie.

“The field is progressing and changing rapidly,” she said. “Remaining current in the discipline is highly desired.” Earning professional certifications is an excellent way to continue your education even after earning a degree.

There are many available credentials to support a data analytics career, according to McKenzie. Several such credentials are:

  • Amazon offers a Data Analytics certification and badge that indicates the ability to design, build and maintain analytics solutions using Amazon Web Services (AWS). "This certificate is best suited to professionals who already know how to implement Cloud initiatives and use AWS web services to gain insights from data," McKenzie said

  • CompTIA's Data+ certification showcases the professional's understanding of data mining, data manipulation, visualization and reporting. "This certification is intended for those who have a few years of work experience," McKenzie said.

  • Google offers a Data Analytics Professional Certificate. "This certificate program provides a comprehensive introduction to data analytics and is designed for beginners with no experience," said McKenzie.

  • Microsoft offers a Power BI Data Analyst Associate certification for working with Power BI, which is an interactive software used to visualize data for business analytics.

If you're enrolled in a data analytics program, your school may offer you the chance to earn additional credentials as you move through your courses. SNHU, for instance, partnered with organizations such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and uCertify to provide students with the ability to earn additional industry-relevant credentials. Some certifications and badges students at SNHU can earn include:

  • Application of Data Analysis Essentials Certificate
  • Data Analytics Core Concepts Certificate
  • Microsoft Power BI - Use Power BI Desktop to Create Reports and Dashboards Certificate

Ultimately, a professional credential provides current and future employers the opportunity to understand the skill level of the employee.

What is the Work Environment for a Data Analyst?

“Data analysts typically spend their time collecting data, looking for patterns, creating visualizations and dashboards and writing reports,” McKenzie said.

A lot of that work is done independently, but teamwork is an important part of the role as well. “A data analyst typically works with many other teams in a company to ensure a proper understanding of the data,” McKenzie said.

BLS notes that data analysts, often grouped with data scientists, typically work full-time. Because data analysis is so important to many businesses, it’s not uncommon for businesses to staff data analysts seven days a week.

A good example of a business that needs a data analyst seven days a week to support operations is the transportation industry, such as airlines. "With airlines, data is processed 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make operational decisions that are immediately implemented," said McKenzie.

“This allows the organization to function without interruption,” she said. In addition to making operational decisions, weekend data analysts may also work on their own projects or continue working on tasks started by other data analysts earlier in the week.

What is the Career Potential for Data Analysts?

The career outlook for data analysts is strong. According to BLS, growth in the data science field is expected at 36% between 2021 and 2031, which is much faster than the national average.* 

One benefit of the field of data analysis is the ability to apply your skills in virtually any career field due to rising demand for analytics professionals, according to McKenzie.

“Analytics is a key factor in better decision-making for companies,” she said. “While the demand for analytics skills is steadily increasing, there's a huge deficit in skilled professionals.”

This gap creates great opportunity for someone with an aptitude for mathematics, computer science or statistics.

Ever-changing advancements in technology provide countless opportunities to apply your skills for working with and interpreting data. While algorithms can provide information, the ability to interpret that information and present the story that it tells in a meaningful way is where the real value in data analytics comes in.

“Regardless of advancements in technology, there remains the need for human insights to provide context and decision-making towards better business solutions,” McKenzie said.

Why Become a Data Analyst?

Ultimately, the intersection between scientific thinking, systems thinking and human problem-solving is where the work of a data analyst happens. Given the growth in this field and the wide array of businesses that need skilled data analysis, working as a data analyst can offer a satisfying career in virtually any industry.

You'll be able to use your strengths to help businesses move forward in achieving their mission. You'll hone expert-level communication skills. You'll be able to make a major impact on the area of business in which you choose to work. And, you'll be the “hunter-gatherer” of the data world, telling stories, solving problems and making businesses better one dataset at a time.

Discover more about SNHU’s bachelor's in data analytics: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Marie Morganelli, Ph.D. is a freelance content writer and editor. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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