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What does a Data Analyst do?

Karyn Maier
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Data analysts perform a variety of tasks related to collecting, organizing, and interpreting statistical information. The precise nature of the job varies somewhat from profession to profession, as an analyst working for a hospital would necessarily focus on different things than would someone working for a department store or a supermarket chain. In any capacity, though, people with this job look for ways of assigning numerical values to different business functions, and are responsible for identifying efficiencies, problem areas, and possible improvements.

Information Compilation

One of the most important things any data analyst does is collect, sort, and study different sets of information. This can look really different in different settings, but is usually related to nailing down a fixed value to some process or function so that it can be assessed and compared over time. A grocery store might want an analyst to collect all the hours that certain employees work along with profit margins for certain days, weeks, or even hours, for instance; an Internet business might want to see hard numbers on where customers are coming from, how much they are spending on purchases, and whether deals like free shipping have any bearing on overall profits.

There are several different strategies people can use to compile data, but there are typically three universal goals. The data must be regulated, normalized, and calibrated such that it could be taken out of context, used alone, or put in conjunction with other figures and still maintain its integrity. Analysts typically use computer systems and complex calculation applications to get their numbers nailed down, but there is still a lot of intellectual know-how that goes into making these systems work.

Extrapolation and Interpretation

Once the information has been collected, analysts are usually responsible for coming up with some conclusions about what it means, as well as educating business executives on how to use it. Getting hard numbers on sales figures for a given holiday season, for example, is somewhat useful in and of itself, but is usually most valuable when stacked against numbers from previous years or other seasons as a point of comparison. These professionals may also be called on to help business owners and leaders understand what differences in numbers mean when looked at from year to year or across various departments. They usually have the expertise to not only assign statistical values to things, but also to explain what they mean.

Projections and Advisory Responsibilities

In some companies, analysts are charged with actually advising project managers and leaders about how certain data points can be changed or improved over time. They are often the ones with the best sense of why the numbers are the way they are, which can make them a good resource when thinking about making changes. A health clinic that wants to improve patient wait time might ask an analyst to identify the main reasons for delays, for example, just as an advertising firm might look for statistical feedback on prior campaigns as a way to design and plan future slogans.

Research and Writing Tasks

Advisory responsibilities often go hand in hand with writing and research. Most analysts are comfortable preparing written summaries to accompany graphs and charts, but the position often calls for additional writing tasks, too, such as drafting company memorandum, press releases, and formal reports. Analysts typically also collaborate with database programmers and administrators to write system modification recommendations or in-house instruction and training materials.

System Expertise and Troubleshooting

Most of the work analysts do is completed with the help of computers and digitized statistical software programs, which means that professionals need a certain degree of technical expertise as a matter of course. Making the systems work is the first and most important part, but the job usually also requires program troubleshooting and system security measures, as well as an ability to adapt to changing technology and keeping updates current and useful across multiple platforms.

Types of Work Settings

Almost every industry imaginable has a need for data analysis, at least at some level. Just the same, the fields of sales, marketing, and healthcare tend to have the most jobs available for these professionals at any given time. Most professionals work on teams to tackle specific projects or problems as needed. A lot of the work is done on the computer, and much of it can be done from home or from a remote office though this sometimes depends on the type of data being gathered. Professionals can typically expect to work standard hours, though important projects or looming deadlines can and often do require some overtime and weekend work.

Required Training

A university education is almost always essential for this sort of work. Most employers require data analysts to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably in statistics, computer science, or business administration, though there are times when other coursework may be acceptable if the candidate can also demonstrate substantial experience working in a related field. Many of the best paid and most successful analysts hold master’s degrees or doctorates, which gives them more expertise and usually also guarantees higher pay.

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Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier , Writer
Contributing articles to PracticalAdultInsights is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon352218 — On Oct 20, 2013

I would like to point out that a lot of universities now offer degrees in sata analytics. I know someone that recently started their data analytics degree at Southern New Hampshire University. She has a BS in Chemistry from Stanford, yet, she claims that the data analytics degree at SNHU is a challenging degree. This tells me that one needs a good amount of data science training to do the job correctly.

By anon331995 — On Apr 26, 2013

I am going for a data analyst position in a week's time for an international retail outlet. It has a three-hour assessment before the interview. What kind of assessment could I expect?

By anon304816 — On Nov 21, 2012

I am a Btech in ECE and MBA in General Management with different certifications. Can anyone guide or help for getting into Data analysis?

By jaadams83 — On Mar 28, 2012

I'm a data analyst for a major hospital system in Texas and started out as a central supply tech eight years ago. I would say that my background has helped, but it really hasn't. I would say it's more of a technical job than anything.

You're really creating tools for upper management to make decisions. Most canned reports coming from major software aren't very friendly for someone to data mine so knowing how a relational database works is a must so you may create custom reports and have formatted in a way that tells a story.

Especially when dealing with products I tell people I don't have to know the product but you have to know what you want. If they can't describe what goal the report is trying to accomplish, then how is an analyst any good for you.

Also, I do not have a degree but it most certainly has hindered me getting hired at other companies. I move to a new position of senior applications analyst in a week.

There are a few software packages you need to be proficient in to be successful Excel, Access, MS SQL, Crystal Reports. Those are the main ones you'll ever need and if you can pick up VBA coding you'll be set.

By anon253821 — On Mar 11, 2012

I've graduated as a statistics major and I work as a government employee at a bureau of statistics, and all the things that data analyst do, I do it as well, like

collecting the data for the publication, etc. And you know what? My government paid me $500 per month. Such a pity for me.

By anon252714 — On Mar 06, 2012

Environmental analysts get paid $10,000 a week. How can you turn down the chance too make 20,000 in two weeks?

By anon239610 — On Jan 10, 2012

I would make a distinction between using the label "data analyst" in a role and the actual data analyst role which requires extensive training.

By anon173021 — On May 05, 2011

I work at a business office for a hospital a lot of the people that worked here have transitioned into a data analyst without having any knowledge or schooling.

One of them was here for nine months and then transitioned to a data analyst without any training. They hired them to see the quality of our work, then combine info so that they could come up with a productivity level that each position should have. So i think you don't need it depending on what you are analyzing.

By FirstViolin — On Jul 22, 2010

@closerfan12 -- I could see that happening, but I think it is probably pretty rare, given the training data analysts have to have.

It's not really something you can do with just industry knowledge.

I would think that someone could certainly cross train themselves, or go back to school and become a data analyst after working in an industry, then maybe have a little better position starting out, but I don't think someone could just transition into it without extensive training.

By closerfan12 — On Jul 22, 2010

Does anyone know if it is common for people to transition into being a data analyst for their industry after working in it for a while?

For instance, if someone had extensive work experience in business, and wanted to branch out, would it be feasible for them to switch over into analysis, kind of how some people become consultants in their industries after working there for a while?

By rallenwriter — On Jul 22, 2010

The requirements for data analysts vary between industries too.

Whereas a business data analyst would be expected to have background training in business so he or she could effectively analyze business data in the appropriate context.

A data analyst in another industry, say healthcare, would be expected to have training related to that industry in order to provide appropriate analysis.

It's kind of like being a doctor -- almost every data analyst has a specialty; there are very few "general" data analysts.

By writingeagle — On Jul 18, 2010

Depending on the type of job, some companies will keep a permanent data analyst on staff and some companies will contract out an analyst to complete a specific task.

Investment firms and civil engineers will keep analysts on staff to monitor the daily/weekly/monthly economic and marketing growth or decline. Media outlets, car dealerships or sales people would be more likely to contract out for an analyst to complete a specific, one time job or acquire specific information about an area or population group.

Karyn Maier

Karyn Maier


Contributing articles to PracticalAdultInsights is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New...
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