Increased digitalisation means that more data is being produced than ever before. If used effectively, this data can play a critical role in helping organisations operate effectively.
Data analysts collect data, analyse it and convert it into formats that can be easily understood. The results can show patterns and trends, and provide the evidence base on which decisions can be made and problems solved.
In this article we look at the role of data analysts, the skills and qualities they need and how to get started in a career in this area.
Milan Patel – who works for Fluid IT (a B-Corporation – ‘business for good’ organisation) – kindly told us about his role and background, and provides some useful tips for would-be data professionals.
What does data analysis involve?
The data analysed and the techniques used depend on your employer or clients. Whether you analyse data on a regular basis or work on projects to investigate particular problems or issues, you are likely to follow some key steps.
- Defining your objective. Framing the problem or question you are trying to answer in the right way is key to the whole data analysis process. To make sure you come up with an appropriate hypothesis, you need to have a good understanding of your organisation (or your client’s business) and its goals.
- Collecting data. You need a strategy to do this. Data can be quantitative (e.g. sales figures or financial reports) or qualitative (such as customer reviews or observations). The data you use can be first party (collected by you or your organisation), second party (provided by another organisation), or third party (large data sets collected and aggregated from various sources by a sector organisation or the government, for instance).
- Cleaning the data. This involves such tasks as removing errors, duplicates and irrelevant observations, and identifying data gaps.
- Analysing the data. The techniques you use depend on your goal. Your analysis may be descriptive (what has happened), diagnostic (why something has happened), predictive (identifying future trends based on historical data) or prescriptive (making recommendations for the future).
- Sharing your results. Once you have the necessary insights you will interpret these and present them appropriately. Your information needs to be unambiguous, clear and transparent – major decisions can be based on the information you provide so you would need to flag up issues like significant data gaps. Your data may be presented as reports and/or visualisations – such as dashboards that use graphs, maps, charts and tables.
To help you collect, cleanse, analyse and present data there is a wide range of tools and techniques. Some are freely available open-source products, which are simple to use but may have limited functionality. Others are more powerful but may require familiarity with coding and programming languages such as Python, R or SQL.
Your other tasks may include helping to formulate data policies, setting up data management processes, and working on better ways of collecting and analysing data, including automated techniques. You will ensure that data is collected and handled according to data protection legislation and your employer’s data policies.
Within your organisation you may work with a range of people at different levels including managers and other data professionals. You may come across jobs with different titles, but which involve similar tasks.
We were interested to find out about Milan’s role at Fluid IT…
“As a business intelligence developer I help our clients (charities and not-for-profit organisations) by collecting and organising key information. My main responsibilities are extracting data (gathering information from people or companies), transforming data (organising the information so that it’s easy to understand) and loading data (storing the organised information on computers).
By setting up automations, it’s possible for computers to collect the information and update reports themselves, saving much time. We use the data to create reports to help our clients make important decisions, such as what to sell or where to open new stores. It’s all about using data to make smart choices.”
Where could I work as a data analyst?
Data analysts are needed in all types of organisations. You could be employed in, for example, financial services (banking, insurance etc), retail, logistics, media or manufacturing, or by local government, central government departments and agencies (ranging from those involved in national intelligence to environmental monitoring), charities, hospitals and universities.
Some large employers have data analysts based in various departments – from marketing to human resources. There are also opportunities to work for specialist consultancies (like Fluid IT) where you would provide services for a range of clients.
TIP: Have a look at vacancies for data analysts online as this will give you a feel for the opportunities available. Jobs are advertised through specialist recruitment agencies and sites, such as technojobs, CWJobs and Bubble Jobs.
Would I suit a career in data analysis?
A career as a data analyst may suit you if you have strong analytical, mathematical, problem-solving and digital skills. But it’s also important to be able to work well in a team and communicate clearly, especially if you have to explain complex information to non-technical people.
You need to be methodical, able to work accurately and pay attention to detail. An organised approach is necessary to meet deadlines and manage projects.
Milan’s TIP: “If you’re interested in a career in data, having a good understanding of maths is important. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make perfect sense right away. Keep practising and it’ll become clearer over time.”
How do I get into data analysis?
There’s no one set entry route, although many data analysts are graduates of an analytical subject such as computer science, maths, physics, statistics or economics. There are also degree courses that specialise in data or business information systems. Sandwich courses, which include a year gaining workplace experience, are available.
For entry to a degree course you need A level/Highers or equivalent qualifications – check requirements carefully with individual institutions as certain subjects and grades may be expected. In England, the T level in digital business services can help prepare you for a data role or for further study.
There are also full- and part-time postgraduate courses in data analytics and related subjects. Although not necessary for most jobs, these can be helpful if you have taken a non-related first degree or if you want to study an aspect of the subject in more depth.
TIP: Especially if you haven’t studied a data subject at university, it’s a good idea to do some relevant training. Courses are available through colleges and universities as well as organisations such as ODI (Open Data Institute) Learning, FutureLearn, General Assembly, Coursera and Generation.
As Milan says, “Teaching yourself coding is a great way to start. There are many free online resources and courses that can help you to get a foot in the door! Once you have a basic understanding of coding principles, get stuck into sample projects and build a portfolio of your work.”
So how did Milan get into his career? “I began by completing a physics degree, which gave me a strong foundation in maths. I then pursued my interest in coding by completing a training course in web development. Now that I’m employed by Fluid IT, I’m putting my knowledge into practice.”
Once you are working you will receive on-the-job training for your particular role and you are likely to take internal or external courses to learn about various data analysis tools and techniques. Most employers will support you to develop in your career and some encourage you to continue with your studies.
Large organisations often offer internships and formal training programmes for graduates, and sometimes for non-graduates.
An increasing number of apprenticeships have become available in recent years. These provide structured training in the workplace alongside part-time study. In England, for instance, it’s possible to take a higher apprenticeship at level 4 for data analysts or a degree apprenticeship for data scientists. You could even start by taking a level 3 apprenticeship for data technicians and work your way up to a more responsible role.
As a data analyst you’ll be working in a fast-moving environment so it will be essential to keep up to date with developments in technology and data legislation.
TIP: Joining a relevant professional body, such as the Data Management Association (DAMA) or BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, will give you access to training, events and support to develop your career. It may also be useful to gain some professional certifications such as the Professional Certificate in Data Analysis offered through the BCS or the Certified Data Management Professional (CDMP) qualification, which is available through DAMA.
What opportunities are there to progress in data analysis?
You may be able to work your way up to a more specialist role. You could become an expert in a particular data analysis tool or programme or develop expertise in an area like data mining (using software to extract useable data from large data sets), data visualisation, data infrastructure or decision analysis.
As an experienced data analyst you will have acquired a good understanding of organisations, so you would be well-placed to move into general management or work in policy development. Other options include working in research, teaching in higher education or consultancy – perhaps as a freelancer.
It may be necessary to change employers and possibly relocate in order to take advantage of opportunities to progress in your career.
Milan’s TIP: “Be proactive, be ready to take on challenges and work hard. You’re more likely to progress if you show enthusiasm and a willingness to keep learning.”
How can I find out more about careers in data analysis?
You can find more information on careers in this area through bodies like DAMA. You can also buy a Morrisby pass to find out well suited your strengths, interests and personality are to the career and to read our data analyst career profile.
We asked Milan about the challenges and satisfactions of his job. “Sometimes the information I work with isn’t perfect and I need to figure out how to make it accurate and useful. I also have to manage client expectations – some things are not realistic or possible, so I have to find solutions that work for everyone. It’s really rewarding working with not-for-profit and charitable organisations. I get a chance to make a positive impact, helping our clients become more efficient so that they can focus on the important things.”
With demand high for those with the right skills, a career in data analysis can open up opportunities with employers in a wide range of sectors both in the UK and overseas, and prospects to advance your career are good.
Debbie Steel, November 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.