Data analysts collect data and examine it to spot trends and glean information that can be used to make business decisions. In the information age, companies rely on big data more than ever to make decisions such as which customers to target, which products and services to focus on, which advertising methods to use, how many people to hire and for which positions, and new markets for expansion. For virtually any business decision, data is available to steer the company in the right direction. The role of the data analyst is to procure this data and draw conclusions the company can use to make decisions.

Data analysts are in demand literally everywhere. This is not an industry-specific role. Any company savvy enough to understand the importance of parsing data has a need for skilled data analysts. While data analysts command above-average salaries, the returns on investment (ROI) for companies who employ them are even more impressive. The trends spotted and information gleaned by data analysts often make their employers millions of dollars per year.

Students and young professionals who are quantitatively inclined, logic-driven, computer-savvy and good communicators, and who want to make an above-average income while working reasonable hours, should look into data analysis as a career choice. Industry analysts have named it one of the hottest career choices for the 2010s, with projections indicating the demand for data analysts should increase rapidly as more businesses get on board with the importance of harnessing big data.

Conducting Surveys

Perhaps the most important job function for a data analyst is obtaining as much relevant data as possible to investigate a particular area of need for the company. Sometimes this data is readily available online, through census or government statistics, or via industry reports published by third parties. Other times, however, the data analyst, as part of his job, must create the data himself by conducting surveys.

For example, consider a startup operation that is testing a new alternative to cable television that streams specific channels through a home user's high-speed Internet. A common complaint about cable is that customers are forced into these huge packages with hundreds of channels, most of which they never watch. It is tantamount to paying for a seven-course meal and only eating two of the courses. The startup is confident it can convince people to switch to an a la carte service; after all, the demand for one has been palpable for years. However, there is a lot of information it does not know, such as which channels are in the highest demand, how much customers will pay per channel, how many channels on average a subscriber will order and so forth.

Much of this information is not readily available in prepackaged charts and graphs. The data analyst must conduct surveys of prospective customers to procure the data he needs. Once this process is complete, he can move to the next step of parsing the data and drawing conclusions.

Parsing the Data and Drawing Conclusions

All the data in the world does a company no good without people on staff who can parse the subtleties of this data and draw accurate conclusions that lead to profitable business decisions. This is another important role of a data analyst. A skilled data analyst can take a torrent of data and identify the relevant trends within.

Often, the data analyst employs computer software to help him through this process, such as Microsoft Excel, SharePoint and MySQL. After identifying trends, the data analyst can organize the relevant data into charts and graphs that support the conclusions he has drawn. Again, computers often aid this process, underscoring the importance for a data analyst to possess high-level computer skills.

Making Presentations

The technical aspect of a data analyst's job is to obtain data, examine it, spot trends and extract information, and then draw conclusions from his findings. At this point comes the final project phase: presenting these findings and conclusions to decision makers. Good communication and presentation skills are vital for performing this component of the job at a high level. Executives and decision makers frequently are not math whizzes or computer geniuses, so highly technical information must often be translated into layman's terms.

Skills

The ideal data analyst possesses strong skills in mathematics, logic and pattern recognition. He is highly organized and can take on large amounts of data without becoming overwhelmed. Because computer software aids much of the analysis process, a data analyst should be more than computer literate; he needs a working knowledge of programs such as Microsoft Excel and MySQL.

Data analysts also need good communication and presentation skills. Decision makers use the findings of data analysts to make important decisions. To do so accurately, however, they must understand the implications of the findings. Data analysts are responsible for imparting this information in a clear manner that the decision makers can understand.

Most data analysts have at least a bachelor's degree, with the preferred college majors being mathematics, statistics, finance and computer science. A master's degree makes any candidate more competitive in the job market, but it is not necessary to have one to become a data analyst. For this position, companies prefer proven aptitude in field-specific areas over educational credentials.

Average Salary

The median yearly salary for a data analyst is $54,070, as of 2013. The median range, meaning the 25th to 75th percentile, is roughly $45,000 to $66,000. The fact that such a variety of companies in a variety of industries employ data analysts contributes to the wide salary range. The size of the company, the industry, the geographic location, the candidate's education, his experience and other factors combine to determine a data analyst's first-year salary.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lumps data analysts under the heading of market research analysts, a field for which the organization projects explosive growth until at least 2022. The BLS projects the field to grow by one-third for the period beginning in 2012 and ending in 2022, adding 131,500 jobs during this time.

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