What Does a Data Analyst Do?

male data analyst working in computer lab

Do you consider yourself to be a naturally curious person who enjoys solving puzzles and problems? Or perhaps you’re someone who likes to figure out the “why” behind the answer to a question. If this sounds like you, a career in data science may be in your future.

What does a data analyst do? If you look at a typical data analyst job description, you’ll find these professionals use software tools to analyze large volumes of raw data in order to provide valuable insights for their organizations. This job description is rather broad because data analytics can be used for a wide range of industries—from healthcare to retail to sports.

What Does a Data Analyst Do?

In order to develop a stronger understanding of what data analysts do, it’s first helpful to understand what “big data” is. As the term implies, big data refers to extremely large datasets that defy analysis with conventional statistical methods. These dataset collections are so voluminous that they are measured in exabytes (one exabyte is one quintillion bytes—and a quintillion is a one with 18 zeroes after it).

The concept of big data first picked up traction during the early 2000s, when emergent technology made it possible to evaluate these very large datasets. Since that time, data analysts have defined big data with the three V’s:

  • Volume
  • Velocity
  • Variety

“Volume” refers to the substantial size of the datasets and “velocity” refers to the rapid pace at which it becomes available to organizations. With the rise of the Internet of Things (internet-connected devices and their associated data), there is an ever increasing speed of data streaming into businesses. “Variety” simply refers to the different formats of big data.

Big data may be structured or unstructured. Structured data is fairly easy to categorize (for example, account balances, transaction data and GPS information). In contrast, unstructured data is more complex (e.g. comments on social networking sites). Note that big data can refer to a range of types of data, such as photos, videos, maps and phrases—not just raw numbers.

Now that you know the basics of big data, let’s take a closer look at what a data analyst does. The job can vary from one organization and role to the next; however, in general, these professionals are responsible for collecting, storing, organizing, cleaning and analyzing big datasets. “Cleaning” big data refers to the removal of errors, excess information or irrelevant information.

Data analysts interpret their findings according to the needs of their organization. They then package their findings in easy-to-understand charts, graphs and similar presentation models, and pass the information along to the organization’s decision makers.

Here is a look at some of the ways big data is used in various fields:

  • City planners may use information on traffic patterns collected by package delivery services to design more efficient city routes and reduce traffic congestion.
  • Data analysts for e-commerce businesses may use transaction data to develop algorithms that suggest additional purchases for customers based on items already in their shopping cart or items they previously purchased.
  • In the finance field, account and transaction data may be analyzed to detect potential signs of fraud.
  • Pharmaceutical developers may use big data from the Human Genome Project (electronic map of human DNA) to develop medications.
  • Physicists can study the properties of colliding particles, such as the location and velocity of particles colliding into each other.
  • Fantasy sports data analysts may use sports analytics to create player projections.

As you can see, big data analytics has a role in just about every field—from healthcare to entertainment to particle physics. Its versatility is one reason why data analysts are in such high demand.

Specific Tasks Found in a Data Analyst Job Description

Since a wide range of industries rely on data science these days, the exact role and daily responsibilities of a data analyst will depend on their employer’s needs. However, you may find the following items in a typical data analyst job description:

  • Design and maintain databases
  • Collect and aggregate datasets
  • Perform an initial analysis and remove corrupted, irrelevant or excess data
  • Organize data
  • Perform a deep analysis of the relevant datasets using computerized modeling tools
  • Prepare reports for presentation to the organization’s managers or executives

Earning a Data Analyst Degree

After considering the answer to the question, “What does a data analyst do?” you may have decided that you’d like to pursue this in-demand career. If you’re still in high school, you should try to take as many mathematics and computer science classes as possible. Economics and statistics are also good courses to take.

Then, you’ll need to enroll in a STEM bachelor’s degree program. There is no one universal data analyst degree. People come to this field with a range of backgrounds.

For example, you might choose to earn a degree in computer science, mathematics, statistics or information technology. Although there is flexibility regarding degree programs, it’s best to choose a degree that has a specialization or an emphasis in big data analytics, if possible.

Advanced Certifications for Data Analysts

After earning an undergraduate data analyst degree, you may find that you also need to earn a certification. This might not be mandatory to land your first job in data science, but your employer might require that you earn a certification at some point.

Generally, data analysts earn certifications from the software vendors who manufacture the programs they use. The certification allows the professional to demonstrate that they know how to use that particular software. Being a certified data analyst is also a reflection of one’s commitment to ongoing professional development.

Some examples of data analyst certifications include the following:

  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Data Management and Analytics
  • MapR Certified Data Analyst
  • INFORMS Certified Analytics Professional
  • Cloudera Certified Associate: Data Analyst

You might choose to earn a certification while you’re looking for your first job. A certification would help give you an edge over other job candidates. On the other hand, if you earn a certification after you’re already employed, your employer may agree to pay the fees and you might be allowed to study for the certification on company time.

Does a Data Analyst Need a Master’s Degree?

When you look at a typical data analyst job description, you’ll find that it isn’t strictly necessary to possess a master’s degree. Many data analysts enter the field with just a bachelor’s degree.

However, it’s not uncommon for these professionals to go back to school to earn graduate degrees after gaining some work experience. Earning a master’s degree in an area such as mathematics, information technology or computer science will help qualify you to pursue higher level positions, such as supervisory roles. Consequently, you may command a higher salary after earning a master’s degree.

You can begin working toward a rewarding career as a data analyst by applying to enroll in Grand Canyon University’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology. The Bachelor of Science in Computer Science with an Emphasis in Big Data Analytics is an academically stimulating degree program that trains students to become competent, ethical professionals in the field. Other degrees include Masters in Data Science and Doctor of Business Administration: Data Analytics (Quantitative Research). Click on the button to Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about joining GCU’s supportive learning community. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.