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Data Analyst Job Description

Data Analyst Job Description

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Last Updated September 1, 2022

The world is seeing the creation of an unprecedented amount of data. In 2020 alone, 64.2 zettabytes of data were created or copied globally, according to the United Nations. A decade before that, the world generated just two zettabytes of data total. This dramatic increase is on track to continue, giving businesses a wealth of information to use when making their business decisions. Data analysts will likely be essential staff for gathering and understanding the information that really matters.

That makes the role of data analyst a promising and in-demand career path. Professionals interested in starting a new career or advancing in their current role can benefit from understanding what data analysis entails and how data analysts differ from other similar job descriptions.

What Is Data Analysis?

Data analysis is the act of gathering and studying information to extract actionable insights. Businesses use the information collected and processed through data analysis to make better decisions. 

The modern glut of data presents both opportunities and complications for companies that want to make data-driven choices. While it’s easier than ever before to gather vast amounts of information, the sheer quantity of information makes it harder to collect relevant information and identify accurate trends. Data analysis allows these companies to refine the data they gather with methods like:

  • Exploratory analysis: Looking for general trends in data without a specific goal in mind to find unexpected opportunities or risks.
  • Descriptive analysis: Looking at a past event to understand what occurred.
  • Diagnostic analysis: Looking at a past event to understand why it happened.
  • Predictive analysis: Using past data to extrapolate probable future events.
  • Prescriptive analysis: Using past data to explain why certain future events are probable and how they’ll happen.

Once the analysis is complete, companies have a clear overview of the topic. This is a firm foundation for making better decisions. However, it requires the work of dedicated data analysts to get to that point. It is important to remember that a data analyst turns the data into actionable information, thus creating value for the organization.

What Is a Data Analyst?

A data analyst specializes in gathering, modeling, and analyzing large amounts of data to answer questions. The goal of a data analyst is to break down a request or question into something that can be answered by data and then collect and study datasets to find that answer. Once they have found a solution, they may produce data visualizations and/or reports representing what they’ve learned. 

These analysts typically work for large organizations and focus on the information that the organization has or needs to collect. Depending on the data analyst job description, they may work with many types of information, from customer behavior data to logistics metrics to market research. 

Data Analyst vs Data Scientist

It’s important to understand that a data analyst is not the same as data scientist. The two roles are complementary, but their fundamental responsibilities are quite different. 

Data scientists and data analysts each focus on data but what they do with the data differs. For example, data analysts may analyze data to answer questions, solve business problems or create meaningful reports that help influence strategic decision making.  

Conversely, data scientists may design data modeling or machine learning processes or use other advanced techniques that extract and analyze large sets of structured and unstructured data to answer complex questions or predict future outcomes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines the role of a data scientist as someone who develops and implements “a set of techniques or analytics applications to transform raw data into meaningful information using data-oriented programming languages and visualization software.”

Data Analyst vs Business Analyst

In the business world, data analysts and business analysts are also very similar. In many cases, the terms can be used interchangeably. Like a data analyst, a business analyst is a specialist who uses the principles and practices of data analysis to help their employer achieve their business goals. 

The primary difference between the two roles is that the term data analyst is slightly broader. A data analyst may also be found in academic settings, while business analysts are often found in company positions. However, someone working in business analysis typically has all the same knowledge and skills as a data analyst and applies them in a corporate context. 

What Does a Data Analyst Do?

Data analysts are responsible for understanding the questions they want to answer and determining the best way to find the truth. They must have a firm grounding in the mathematical and technical considerations involved in collecting and analyzing data effectively. These skills allow data analysts to work with a broad range of information and generate actionable insights. 

Regardless of the data with which they work, data analysts are typically responsible for the following: 

  • Coordinating with business leadership to identify the organization’s needs
  • Understanding and breaking down business needs into data-answerable questions
  • Finding new sources of data 
  • Gathering data from primary and secondary sources into datasets
  • Filtering and cleaning datasets
  • Applying statistical methods to datasets to identify trends or patterns
  • Interpreting trends and patterns in datasets
  • Generating reports on the results of data analysis to guide business decisions

What Tools Do Data Analysts Use?

Data analysts use a variety of data analysis tools to accomplish their responsibilities. These tools can include:

  • Microsoft Excel: The most fundamental analysis tool is a spreadsheet capable of performing pivot tables. Microsoft Excel is capable of that and many other forms of analysis, making it essential for data analysts to perform their jobs. 
  • Microsoft Power BI: This tool suite is a full-service business intelligence offering that provides analytics and data visualization. Analysts can use Microsoft Power BI to inspect their data and create reports. 
  • SAS: The Statistical Analysis System (SAS) is a commercial business intelligence and data analytics suite designed to provide robust customer profiling, reporting and predictive modeling. Many analysts rely on SAS heavily. 
  • Programming languages: To collect information, data analysts often write their own computer programs in languages like SQL, Python and R. Understanding these languages also allows analysts to write their own analytical programs.
  • Apache Spark: For especially large datasets, it’s necessary to use dedicated data processing frameworks like Apache Spark. This program is an open-source solution that allows analysts to quickly process data that could take hours or days otherwise.

Data Analyst Salary and Job Outlook

Data analysts have an excellent job outlook, according to the (BLS). Its Occupational Outlook Handbook categorizes data analysts under the role of operation research analysts, though the fundamental responsibilities are the same. The BLS projects that the field will see a 25% growth rate over the next decade, which is significantly faster than the average rate of 8%. Furthermore, the demand for these positions has pushed median salaries to more than $86,000 annually. 

How To Become a Data Analyst

Becoming a data analyst is primarily a matter of education. The role heavily relies on understanding technical and mathematical concepts and the theory behind them. However, it’s equally necessary to demonstrate that understanding by applying it to real-world considerations. 

To become a successful data analyst, hopeful applicants will need to demonstrate they possess the practical knowledge and skills. This is typically accomplished by passing one of two certification exams: the Certification of Competency in Business Analysis (CCBA) or the Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) tests. 

These two exams are offered through the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), a global organization that sets standards for business analysts worldwide.

Educational Requirements

Having an appropriate educational background is critical to passing the CCBA and CBAP exams, but more than one type of education can accomplish this. Those interested may consider both traditional bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs to earn the education they need. 

According to the BLS, at least a bachelor’s degree is typically required to enter the occupation.  A certificate can also be an option for professionals who already have earned a bachelor’s degree or have a background in relevant fields like software development. Villanova University’s Certificate in Business Analysis helps students prepare for IIBA certification while teaching the fundamentals of analytics.

Data Analyst Skills

A data analyst will likely have a broad range of skills to apply to their career. Beyond a simple understanding of analytical techniques, they will also generally need to have an understanding of the following:

  • Statistical programming
  • SQL
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Presentation skills 
  • Data visualization
  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Data preparation
  • Data warehousing and database management
  • Machine learning

Data Analyst Career Path

Career paths are more flexible than many assume. However, the standard data analyst career path offers insight into what applicants expect from their roles. While the specific titles of each position may differ, the general responsibilities and seniority levels are structured as follows:

  • Data Analyst Intern: Some analysts begin their career with a data analyst internship, though this is not required. An internship is most valuable for applicants without other business experience, such as new college graduates. Interns are typically responsible for the most basic tasks, including cleaning datasets and data entry. 
  • Analyst I: The typical entry-level data analyst jobs areoften listed as “Analyst I.” Employees in this role are typically responsible for important but common tasks, such as collating data, generating visualizations, and performing basic SQL queries as part of exploratory analyses. This role is often filled by people who have recently earned their certification and don’t have other experience in business. Analyst I positions are excellent for gaining experience and learning to implement data analytics in the real world. 
  • Analyst II: The next step up the ladder is an Analyst II role. These employees are granted additional responsibilities, including basic process automation and more in-depth analyses. Furthermore, Analyst II employees may not receive as much direct oversight during their work. Applicants with experience in related roles, such as software development or other industry-specific positions, may be able to start their new career in an Analyst II role. 
  • Senior Analyst: The highest standard level of an analyst is a Senior Analyst. These employees often head teams of Analyst I and II employees and guide the research done by their department. Senior analysts have additional responsibilities, including developing reports to explain their findings and performing the most in-depth analyses. Furthermore, they are often responsible for top-level data management, including database creation and maintenance. 
  • Management Analyst: Management analysts are not just responsible for analyzing external or customer data. They examine the management of an organization and typically specialize in a specific aspect of a business, such as inventory management or human resources, though some focus on niche industries instead. Many management analysts act as consultants after spending time as a senior analyst or an industry expert in their chosen field for some time. 
  • Chief Technology Officer: Analysts who have dedicated themselves to their career path can rise to Chief Technology Officer (CTO). The detailed technical knowledge required to be a successful analyst acts as a firm foundation for understanding the other technology needs of the company. Furthermore, the ability to study and learn from data is a valuable skill for any C-suite employee.

Unlock New Possibilities with a Certificate in Business Analysis

Data analysts are in demand, and the current trend of data growth shows no sign of slowing. As an IIBA-Endorsed Education Provider, Villanova’s Certificate in Business Analysis supports the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK® Guide) and the curriculum is designed to enable learners to understand analytical methods, applications and data strategies to make better business decisions.