What’s the Best Undergraduate Major for a Career in Data Analytics?

How do you get a job in data analytics? 

When asked this, I generally recommend our tool, Data Coach, to help users upskill in data analytics technologies and create a portfolio of data artifacts. Both are great for potentially furthering knowledge and careers. That said, it is natural for individuals just starting their careers to wonder what they should study at university to point them in the right direction.

This is why I am often asked, “What is the best undergraduate major to set me up for success in data analytics?” 

Unfortunately, Business Analytics undergraduate majors are rare across most universities. This means that there isn’t a simple answer to this question.

That shouldn’t be too surprising if you think about it. Let’s talk about why.

A Brief (and Recent) History of Business Analytics

Before we get into “majors”, it’s best to understand how we got here in business analytics in the first place.

Even though business analytics as a discipline has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the rise of Big Data (starting around 2005) did we see the start of our modern business analytics environment. Over the last decade and a half, the increase in volume and variety of data has shifted anywhere analytics lives. IT and engineering no longer can support all analytics activities. That responsibility started to shift toward business-side employees.

The effect of this shift was an emphasis on business-oriented self-service data and analytics tools. Tools become more “low-code” or “no-code”. Tableau, Power BI, and Alteryx are wonderful examples of this shift. All of these tools can do extremely complicated operations but are done through simple “drag-and-drop” visual interfaces.

These shifts happened relatively quickly. Companies are still reeling from these changes. Even though you can trace the start of this current trend to about 16 years ago, companies are still in the early stages. Many companies are still starting their data literacy and digital transformations in 2022. These once “bleeding-edge” technologies and concepts can take a long time to disseminate across enterprises, even within a business.

The funny thing is, Big Data, which started all of this, isn’t the trendiest thing for us to talk about in our industry anymore. It had a huge lasting impact on our industry but it’s now assumed to be status quo. However, 16 years later we are still adjusting to the impact that these sets of technologies had on the industry. 

Universities, like businesses, take time to adopt the new practices. It is rare (particularly at the undergraduate level) to find a program that mirrors the technologies, concepts, skills, and processes that are current. In fact, there is a stereotype that academia lags behind the data analytics industry substantially when it comes to teaching and applying what is currently being used by businesses today.

So, What Should I Major in?

I am going to let you in on a little secret. Most current leaders in data analytics do not have majors in Business Analytics. For anyone who has been doing this for more than a decade, it just wasn’t an option.

I think I am a great example of this. My major was Physical Anthropology and Archeology. I was super passionate about these topics. I wanted to get into forensics, studying bones and artifacts, from either disaster sites or crime scenes. I know, morbid, but I found (and still find) it fascinating. However, that wasn’t in the cards.

I graduated at the height of the Great Recession. Jobs were very few and far between, particularly within such a niche area like physical anthropology. However, it was the early days of the Big Data craze. I was able to secure a job as a business analyst at a software company on the condition that I teach myself SQL. They were willing to take a risk on me, as they needed as many data people as possible.

Turns out I loved databases, data visualization, and training my peers. That set me in the direction of a career data consultant, trainer, and eventual strategist.

My point here is that having an undergraduate degree in Business Analytics, or even Computer Science, isn’t the end-all-be-all for getting into this field. It demonstrates a passion for analytics that sets someone apart from the crowd. Sure, Business Analytics, Statistics, and Computer Science will get you a head start on technical skills, but so will a tool like Data Coach

When I am hiring people, I am looking for a demonstrated passion for analytics. How do you show passion? Well, in my opinion, the easiest way to do this is by creating a portfolio. Show data visualizations, workflows, or queries that you are proud of. Curate the best work that you have done and share that with hiring managers.

When I look at my peers in data analytics, the most common majors I see are Economics, Finance, Communications, and various other social science degrees. What most of these have in common are two things: One, they focus on people. Two, they provide data that can be analyzed. 

Find a major that allows you to learn the tools and concepts around data analytics. If it is on a topic area you enjoy, you will go deeper into the data and become an expert in data analytics. 

What About Master’s Programs?

While business analytics undergraduate degrees are few, master’s degree programs are becoming increasingly popular in this area. I often get asked if these programs are a good idea. 

I have done mentorship and guest speaking at three Universities’ programs around Business Analytics. All three are stellar universities, both public and private, and their business analytic programs seemed solid as well.

You will get solid experience in these programs. Though some of the technologies being taught within these programs might be considered a little outdated, the transferable technical skills you are learning are super valuable. However, remember that it is not just about these technical skills. What any good hiring manager will look for is demonstrated passion.

Conclusion

Keep in mind that things might change. I don’t see it happening soon, but it will happen someday. When that day comes, I can see Business Analytics undergraduate (or graduate) degrees become the norm. We just aren’t there yet.

What I look for in my potential early-career hires are:

1. Demonstrated technical ability, through their university programs (Computer Science or Business Analytics) or finishing programs like Data Coach. The latter is way more common.

2. People are passionate about their undergraduate degrees, whether or not they are explicitly related to analytics. All fields of study have data. If you are truly interested in something, you will find a way to analyze it.

3. A portfolio. Demonstrate both technical ability and passion by curating data analysis artifacts that you have made.

Every company and hiring manager is going to have a differing opinion. Research what an individual company values. That will also give you an edge. But I feel strongly that the advice above will point individuals in the right direction.

At phData, we’re hiring! Be sure to check out our open positions and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. 

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