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25 Sep

How to Become a Data Analyst

Man in blue checkered shirt sitting in front of computer screen

Corporate leaders once could say with confidence that they relied on “gut feeling” or their own past experience to make decisions. But those pronouncements won’t fly in most boardrooms today. Organizations of all kinds now depend on data analytics—and on the analysts who use data to provide key insights needed to create winning business strategies.

If you are intrigued by the power of data science, we’ve got some ideas on how to become a data analyst and make the most of opportunities in this growing field.

Understand the Outlook

Why would someone consider becoming a data analyst? Simply put, the outlook for well-paying data analyst careers is exceptionally positive. In 2018, the World Economic Forum published “The Future of Jobs Report,” which predicted that by 2022 85 percent of companies will have adopted big data and analytics technologies. A related finding: 96 percent of companies were definitely planning or likely to plan to hire new permanent staff with relevant skills to fill future big data analytics related roles.1

Data analysts are identified as one of the most in-demand jobs in Robert Half Technology’s 2020 IT salary report, with an annual salary of $83,750 for entry-level employees and $100,250 for mid-career data analysts.2 Other reliable job-trend watchers, including LinkedIn3 and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics4 report similar growth potential for data analysts and related careers. This is a good time to become a data analyst.

But even with a continuing high level of demand, data analysts with the right combination of skills and knowledge are most likely to succeed.

What do Data Analysts Do?

If you are interested in becoming a data analyst, it’s helpful to understand the roles that exist in the field.

In today’s highly digitized and technical business landscape, data analysts are problem solvers. A data analyst is responsible for helping to provide insights that make data meaningful for an organization’s decision makers. They translate what can seem like a foreign language—raw numbers and data—into useful, everyday language. They might also take undeveloped ideas and then use data science to come up with new products and solutions.

Data analysts may help develop automated routines for extracting requested information from database systems (i.e., a customer satisfaction survey or raw sales data), often in partnership with data architects, data scientists and database developers.5 Data analysts might be asked to design and develop machine learning systems, taking problems from computer vision to natural language understanding.

Data analysts look for patterns and trends that can be used to make recommendations to management. Data analysts are often required to present these findings to stakeholders, who can use the information to develop next steps.6

What Skills Do I Need to Become a Data Analyst?

To become a data analyst, you will need to understand the complex set of technical and business skills needed for the job. Those who seek to become a data analyst must be familiar with unstructured data dumps, machine learning, data visualization and current analytics tools, but the Online Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) from William & Mary also emphasizes that data analysts must be able to interpret the complex information gathered through these means and effectively communicate the implications for the organization's bottom line.7

Data analysts use a range of business intelligence and analytics tools for data mining, statistical analysis, database management and reporting. Data analysts are typically expected to be proficient in software like Excel and programming languages like SQL, R, SAS, and Python.

Search LinkedIn and Indeed for “data analyst” and read the job descriptions to understand the skills that employers want when they are looking to hire data analysts. You’ll also get an idea which companies across many different industries are hiring data analysts.

Soft Skills are Important, too

Technical skills are obviously key, but in strategically thinking about how to become a data analyst, it is crucial to consider some of the “soft skills” employers seek. A recent study by Burning Glass Technologies found that, even for highly technical jobs, 25 percent of the required skills were soft skills. This suggests that when you bring soft skills to the table, your powers of negotiation increase.8

What are soft skills? Communication and presentation skills are especially important for data analysts. Since data analysts often work as part of a team, it is imperative to have good organizational and collaboration skills. Your people skills will come into play as you work with executives and others who may not be as technologically savvy. You might need to be creative and patient in explaining problems and solutions in non-technical terms.

Earn an Advanced Degree

Becoming a data analyst almost always requires at least a bachelor’s degree and successful job candidates will need to show significant credentials as well as quantitative skills, including statistics, probability and algebra, as well as business acumen.

Although a master’s degree is not usually required, many employers prefer candidates with advanced degrees, and a master’s program also gives you the opportunity to complete an internship.9 As with many fields, possessing an advanced degree can help you attain a salary at or near the top of the expected salary range for data analysts. William & Mary’s Online MSBA is a step toward a more lucrative career.

Get the Essentials at William & Mary

William & Mary offers an Online Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) that blends the essential elements of business expertise with a robust portfolio of data science offerings. Learn more about how this degree gives you a competitive advantage in the workplace and lifelong connections to William & Mary’s unmatched alumni network.


1. Retrieved September 2 from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs_2018.pdf
2. https://www.cio.com/article/3235944/hiring-the-most-in-demand-tech-jobs-for-2018.html
3. https://blog.linkedin.com/2019/january/10/linkedins-most-promising-jobs-of-2019
4. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/math/operations-research-analysts.htm
5. Retrieved September 2, 2020 from https://www.roberthalf.com/blog/salaries-and-skills/why-its-a-great-time-to-be-a-data-analyst
6. Retrieved September 2, 2020 from https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/data-analytics/how-to-become-a-data-analyst/
7. Retrieved September 2, 2020 from https://online.mason.wm.edu/msba
8. Retrieved September 2, 2020 from https://www.themuse.com/advice/4-soft-skills-that-every-technologist-needs-by-2020
9. Retrieved September 2, 2020 from https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/careers/what-does-a-data-analyst-do