Careers in business analysis are growing in popularity. Business and data analysts assist organizations in making data-driven decisions by querying information sources, generating reports, and identifying patterns and trends—and in the U.S., the role of “data analysts and scientists” is in the second highest demand, according to a 2020 survey by the World Economic Forum.
With the right training, business analysts can help inform decision-making in every part of an organization, from marketing and sales to human resources and finance. And this role is employable in every industry, including IT, finance and insurance, government and the public sector, and business and professional consulting, with these top five rounded out by the healthcare and social services industry, according to the International Institute of Business Analysis.
Even within a single industry, there’s room for a wide range of skill sets. “There’s a place for the hardcore technologist and the coder,” says Brad Price, an assistant professor of business data analytics at West Virginia University. “But there’s also a place for the person who wants to do managerial insights. There’s also a place for the person who’s really interested in how we communicate with data and visualize data.”
If you find yourself curious about this rapidly-growing career path, you’re not alone. Here’s a step-by-step guide to becoming a business analyst:
- Get an undergraduate degree
- Look for entry-level employment in a related area
- Expand your skill set with a master’s degree
- Build competencies with professional certifications
1. Get an undergraduate degree
Almost 45% of employed business analysts hold a bachelor’s degree, versus the approximately 34% of analysts who have completed a master’s degree, according to the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA). A four-year undergraduate degree will set you on the path toward gaining the necessary knowledge to land a job in business analysis.
While a specific business or technical degree isn’t a requirement for breaking into business analytics, a solid understanding of mathematical analysis and computer science will serve you well in your future career. As a result, areas of undergraduate study that may be helpful for people interested in becoming a business analyst include statistics, finance, information technology, management, and accounting.
2. Look for entry-level employment in a related area
People looking to break into the field with limited experience will find themselves in good company; among active business analysts, 64% have 10 years or less of experience. A junior employee working in business analytics will likely learn on the go by assisting more senior analysts in data collection and reporting.
On-the-job learning will require understanding analytical fundamentals and also picking up the technical skills that many analysts rely on, including statistical software (such as SPSS, SAS, or STATA), programming languages (including Python or R), and the ability to conduct data mining and data visualization.
3. Expand your skill set with a master’s degree
You may also want to go back to school. “A master’s degree sometimes serves as a pivot for people who didn’t realize they were interested in this field when they entered college, and got them there,” says Price. “That’s what a lot of programs are doing right now—they’re helping people either refresh their skill set or target their skill set.”
Whether prospective business analysts are fresh out of undergrad or considering a career shift, a master’s degree can offer a leg up. Luckily, there are a number of different types of professional offerings to consider:
- A master’s of business administration (MBA) offers much of the necessary training required for employment as a business analyst, but generally spread across broader topics rather than specialized business analytics coursework.
- A master’s degree in business analytics will generally offer more tailored coursework on topics like prescriptive analytics and the use of data science in business, well preparing graduates to tackle real-world organizational issues.
- A master’s degree in data science or even a master’s degree program in information management offer further options; paired with business and managerial coursework, both fields of study may be a good fit for those people seeking work as a business analyst.
With so many options, how can a potential master’s candidate find the best program that’s a fit for their career? One differentiator may be the breadth of coursework offered.
“Organizations can create a competitive advantage if they leverage the power and insights that are often hidden in complex data,” says William Young, director of Ohio University’s online master’s in business analytics (MBAn). “Our program has been successful because we not only focus on developing technical skills, but also focus on the strategic use of business analytics within the workplace.”
Price agrees, favoring a learning-to-learn educational model. “We’re not just teaching math and statistics and operations research and information systems,” he says. “What we’re doing is helping our students develop a way to think about problem solving around a set of tools that will empower data and technology, and be empowered from data and technology.”
4. Build competencies with professional certifications
The business analytics field also recognizes a variety of professional certifications that help indicate competency and subject matter expertise to employers and clients. These include:
- International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA): The globally recognized IIBA certifications range from entry-level to advanced and cover everything from general topics to specialized areas like cybersecurity analysis, agile analysis, and business data analytics.
- BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT: The Chartered Institute for IT offers business analysis certifications at every level, from foundational to expert. Topics include project management, agile business analysis, business finance, and data analysis.
- Project Management Institute (PMI): PMI offers a tailored professional in business analysis (PMI-PBA)® certification that highlights the holders’ ability to define requirements, shape project outputs, and drive intended business outcomes.
Price, of WVU, says that professional certifications are both “a value add” and necessary because of the way they complement a master’s education, while offering specialization.
“A certification is typically around a specific skill set, where I think these master’s degrees, depending on what program you go to and how it’s taught, can really scale you in general as an individual,” he says. “Certifications allow us to get really targeted in the areas of the field. [They’re] more about where you want to grow and how you want to grow in the field.”
In business analytics, opportunities abound
Considerable preparation is needed to advance as a business analyst, but with a median annual wage of $98,230 and a faster than average predicted growth outlook of 14% by 2030, the reward is worth the effort for many.
From entry-level roles up to career advancement built on targeted certifications and broader graduate study, there’s a place for everyone who wants to play a role in problem solving and bringing actionable solutions to organizations worldwide.
See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programs, business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.