What Does a Data Analyst do? A Career Guide [Updated 2021]

A data analyst gathers, cleans, and studies data sets to help solve problems. Here's how you can start on a path to become one.
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A data analyst collects, cleans, and interprets data sets in order to answer a question or solve a problem. They can work in many industries, including business, finance, criminal justice, science, medicine, and government.

What kind of customers should a business target in its next ad campaign? What age group is most vulnerable to a particular disease? What patterns in behavior are connected to financial fraud?

These are the types of questions you might be pressed to answer as a data analyst. Read on to find out more about what a data analyst is, what skills you'll need, and how you can start on a path to become one.

What is data analysis?

Data analysis is the process of gleaning insights from data to help inform better business decisions. The process of analyzing data typically moves through five iterative phases:

  • Identify the data you want to analyze

  • Collect the data

  • Clean the data in preparation for analysis

  • Analyze the data

  • Interpret the results of the analysis

Data analysis can take different forms, depending on the question you’re trying to answer. You can read more about the types of data analysis here. Briefly, descriptive analysis tells us what happened, diagnostic analysis tells us why it happened, predictive analytics forms projections about the future, and prescriptive analysis creates actionable advice on what actions to take.

What is a data analyst?

A data analyst is a person whose job is to gather and interpret data in order to solve a specific problem. The role includes plenty of time spent with data, but entails communicating findings too. 

Here’s what many data analysts do on a day-to-day basis:

  • Work with data: Data analysts will spend the bulk of their time, perhaps unsurprisingly, with data. This can mean several different things.

  • Gather data: Analysts often collect data themselves. This could include conducting surveys, tracking visitor characteristics on a company website, or buying datasets from data collection specialists.

  • Clean data: Raw data might contain duplicates, errors, or outliers. Cleaning the data means maintaining the quality of data in a spreadsheet or through a programming language so that your interpretations won’t be wrong or skewed. 

  • Model data: This entails creating and designing the structures of a database. You might choose what types of data to store and collect, establish how data categories are related to each other, and work through how the data actually appears.

  • Interpret data: Interpreting data will involve finding patterns or trends in data that will help you answer the question at hand.

  • Present: Communicating the results of your findings will be a key part of your job. You do this by putting together visualizations like charts and graphs, writing reports, and presenting information to interested parties.

Is data analysis for me?

If you have good critical thinking skills, are comfortable using math, and enjoy solving complex problems, then a career in data analysis can be a fit for you. You can get started by taking a look at programs like Google’s Career Certificate in Data Analysis or IBM’s Data Analyst Professional Certificate hosted on Coursera. Read on to see what skills you’ll find useful to become a data analyst.

How much is a data analyst's salary?

The average base salary for a data analyst in the US was $72,151 in May 2021, according to Indeed [1]. This can vary depending on your seniority, where in the US you’re located, and other factors.

Data analysts are in high demand. The World Economic Forum listed it as number two in growing jobs in the US [2]. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports related occupations as having extremely high growth rates. From 2019 to 2029, operations research analyst positions are expected to grow by 25 percent, market research analysts by 18 percent, and mathematicians and statisticians by 33 percent [3,4,5]. That’s a lot higher than the total employment growth rate, which is just under four percent.

Types of data analysts

As advancing technology has rapidly expanded the types and amount of information we can collect, knowing how to gather, sort, and analyze data has become a crucial part of almost any industry. You’ll find data analysts in the criminal justice, fashion, food, technology, business, environment, and public sectors—among many others.

People who perform data analysis might have other titles such as:

  • Medical and healthcare analyst

  • Marketing research analyst

  • Business analyst

  • Operations research analyst

  • Intelligence analyst

Data analyst vs. data scientist: What’s the difference?

Data analysts and data scientists both work with data, but what they do with it differs. Data analysts typically work with existing data to solve defined business problems. Data scientists build new algorithms and models to make predictions about the future. Learn more about the difference between data scientists and data analysts.

How to become a data analyst: Skills and paths

Becoming a data analyst will entail having the skills desired by employers (and knowing how to acquire them).

Data analyst skills you’ll need

Hard skills

  • Database tools:  Microsoft Excel and SQL should be mainstays in any data analyst’s toolbox. While Excel is ubiquitous across industries, SQL can handle larger sets of data and is widely regarded as a necessity for data analysis. 

What is big data?

The term “big data” refers to the vast amounts of structured and unstructured data that many businesses have access to on a daily basis. These data sets are typically too large to process using traditional data analysis methods. Big data is characterized by the three Vs: high volume, variety of data types, and the velocity at which the data is received.

  • Programming languages: Learning a statistical programming language like Python or R will let you handle large sets of data and perform complex equations. Though Python and R are among the most common, it’s a good idea to look at several job descriptions of a position you’re interested in to determine which language will be most useful to your industry. 

  • Data visualization: Presenting your findings in a clear and compelling way is crucial to being a successful data analyst. Knowing how best to present information through charts and graphs will make sure colleagues, employers, and stakeholders will understand your work. Tableau, Jupyter Notebook, and Excel are among the many tools used to create visuals.

  • Statistics and math: Knowing the concepts behind what data tools are actually doing will help you tremendously in your work. Having a solid grasp of statistics and math will help you determine which tools are best to use to solve a particular problem, help you catch errors in your data, and have a better understanding of the results.

If that seems like a lot, don’t worry—there are plenty of courses that will walk you through the basics of the hard skills you need as a data analyst. This IBM Data Analyst Professional Certificate course on Coursera can be a good place to start.

Soft skills

  • Problem solving: A data analyst needs to have a good understanding of the question being asked and the problem that needs to be solved. They also should be able to find patterns or trends that might reveal a story. Having the critical thinking skills will allow you to focus on the right types of data, recognize the most revealing methods of analysis, and catch gaps in your work.

  • Communication: Being able to get your ideas across to other people will be crucial to your work as a data analyst. Strong written and speaking skills to communicate with colleagues and other stakeholders are good assets in data analysts.

  • Industry knowledge: Knowing about the industry you work in—healthcare, business, finance, or otherwise—will give you an advantage in your work and in job applications. If you’re trying to break into a specific industry, take some time to pay attention to the news in your industry, or read a book on the subject. This can familiarize you with the industry’s main issues and trends.

Learn more: 7 In-Demand Data Analyst Skills to Get Hired in 2021

Paths to becoming a data analyst

Acquiring these skills are the first step to becoming a data analyst. Here are a few routes you can take to get them that are flexible enough to fit in around your life.

  • Professional certificate: Entry-level professional certificate programs usually require no previous experience in the field. They can teach you basic skills like SQL or statistics to get your foot in the door. Many certificate programs should give you the chance to create hands-on projects and provide real-time feedback on your work. Several professional certificate programs on Coursera do just that.

  • Bachelor's degree: The Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends a bachelor’s degree for jobs that involve data analysis. If you’re considering getting a degree to become a data analyst, focusing your coursework in statistics, math, or computer science can give you a head start with potential employers. Many online bachelor’s degrees have flexible scheduling so you can fit a degree in around your priorities.

  • Self-study: If you want a path that doesn’t include formal training, it’s possible to learn the skills necessary for data analysis on your own. Read books and watch online videos until you have a good grasp on the subject.

Data analyst career advancement

Being a data analyst can also open doors to other careers. Many who start as data analysts switch to becoming data scientists. Like analysts, data scientists use statistics, math, and computer science to analyze data. A scientist, however, might use more advanced techniques to build models and other tools to provide insights about future trends. Read more about other career paths open to data analysts.

Get started as a data analyst

If you’re ready to start exploring a career as a data analyst, build job-ready skills in less than six months with the Google Data Analyst Professional Certificate on Coursera. Learn how to clean, organize, analyze, visualize, and present data from data professionals at Google—no prior experience or degree required.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Is a data analyst a good job?

Data analysts tend to be in demand and well paid. If you enjoy solving problems, working with numbers, and thinking analytically, a career as a data analyst could be a good fit for you.

What should I study to become a data analyst?

Most entry-level data analyst positions require at least a bachelor’s degree. Fields of study might include data analysis, mathematics, finance, economics, or computer science. Earning a master’s degree in data analysis, data science, or business analytics might open new, higher-paying job opportunities.

Read more: What Degree Do I Need to Become a Data Analyst?

Does data analysis require coding?

You might not be required to code as part of your day-to-day requirements as a data analyst. However, knowing how to write some basic Python or R, as well as how to write queries in SQL (Structured Query Language) can help you clean, analyze, and visualize data.

Is it hard to be a data analyst?

Some of the technical and math skills involved in data analytics can be challenging. But it’s completely possible to learn them with the right mindset and plan of action. Learn more about some tips for rising to the challenge of data analytics.

How do I become a data analyst with no experience?

Sometimes even junior data analyst job listings ask for previous experience. Luckily, it’s possible to gain experience working with data even if you’ve never had a job as an analyst. Degree programs, certification courses, and online classes often include hands-on data projects. If you’re learning on your own, you can find free data sets on the internet that you can work with to start getting experience (and building your portfolio).

What is the career path for a data analyst?

Getting a job as a data analyst can be the first step in a variety of career paths. Some data analysts go on to become data scientists, while others might move into management or consulting positions. You might also choose to specialize in a particular industry or type of analysis. Read more about four common data analyst career paths.

How long does it take to become a data analyst?

The amount of time it takes to develop the skills you need to get a job as a data analyst will depend on what you already know, your strategy for learning new skills, and the type of role you’re applying for. This could take anywhere from a couple months of online classes or certification programs to four years earning a bachelor’s degree. Here are some tips for how to set yourself up for success as a data analyst.

How much can a data analyst make?

According to the job site Indeed, data analysts in the US earn an average salary of $72,151. As you gain experience, you may qualify for higher-paying positions.

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Article sources

1. Indeed. "Data Analyst Salary, https://www.indeed.com/career/data-analyst/salaries?from=top_sb." May 5, 2021.

2. World Economic Forum. "The Future of Jobs Report 2020, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs_2020.pdf." May 5, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Operations Research Analysts, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/math/operations-research-analysts.htm." May 5, 2021.

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Market Research Analysts, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/market-research-analysts.htm." May 5, 2021.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Mathematicians and Statisticians, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/math/mathematicians-and-statisticians.htm." May 5, 2021.


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