If you want to become a data analyst, you should read my mail first.

Here in my inbox you will find the unvarnished image of the analyst’s life. It’s not my own life I’m talking about, at least not mine alone. Each day, hundreds of messages flow in and out, each containing little traces of the lives of my colleagues. Some are old friends, others total strangers. Some have written to me personally, others posted to groups, not knowing just who might read their words. None of them have any conscious interest in telling their life stories.

My mail tells you what it’s like to be an analyst.

What’s in there today? Some old colleagues are organizing a new project – a book for fellow practitioners of their own analytic specialty. Others are spreading the word about upcoming conferences. One person writes to say he’s looking for a position, have I heard of any openings? Someone likes the work I’ve proposed to do for him; we’ll need to discuss details. Many, many fellow analysts are asking for professional advice – about what techniques to use, books to read, classes to take. There are job listings, lots of them, mainly for positions in India, but also quite a few located in New York City or Silicon Valley, and just a handful in other cities.

A lot of the mail is dull by anybody’s standards. Some of it is interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing. None of it is glamorous. A couple of years ago, Google’s Hal Varian said that in the future, the sexy job will be statistician. I’m still waiting.

Like artifacts found in an archaeological dig, these messages help us build an understanding of the people who write and read them. Analysts, on the whole, are hardworking and earnest. They pay attention to detail. Analysts are comfortable with steady work that is useful but gets little notice outside their own ranks. If they are making a decent living, they’re reasonably content.

 Is this life for you? If so, congratulations! You are fit to become a statistician, a data miner, or your choice of the many other titles for people who use math and rational thought to glean insight from data.

You might even become a “data scientist,” whatever that is.

Some of you, dear readers, may not be pleased with what you found in my mail. Rather, some of you may not be pleased with what you didn’t find in my mail, because some of you are looking for evidence of an even brighter future for analysts, or “data scientists,” whatever they are.

I understand your frustration - I’ve read the books, the reports, and the news articles proclaiming rapidly expanding demand for analysts, too. The business press gives the impression that any analyst worth the time of day is bombarded with competing job offers, has the ear of top management and a life that’s just a bowl of cherries. I’ve seen a few high-profile poster kids for the profession, the same few showing up in the media over and over. They must have great press agents.  The average analyst – and I’m talking about people with excellent skills and work ethics – has an interesting, fairly steady job, with decent pay. It’s a nice life, but nothing that makes headlines.

Until recently, that was not an issue. But lately, with rising coverage of analytics in the media, there has been a lot of attention paid to reports and individuals claiming that there is and will be a shortage of analytic talent for some time. The view from my inbox reveals no signs of a shortage, plenty of people are looking for work. But as a group, I’d say we’re doing better than many other professionals today.

The cries of “shortage” are driving interest in all manner of analytics education. Many people are investing heavily in certification and degree programs believing this will assure them of high earnings and influence.  This analytics education gold rush reminds me of a similar pattern that began a couple of decades ago with MBA programs. Once a relatively uncommon credential, today MBAs are a dime a dozen, with no assurance of employment, let alone riches and power. Make your education choices carefully, examine salary claims critically (a great opportunity to start putting your analytic inclinations to work) and be sure to seek out graduates of any program that interests you and get the straight scoop from them.

Now that you’ve seen the view from inside, I hope you still want to become an analyst. If you have realistic expectations, and you’re willing to study, you can be one of us. And hey, it’s a nice life.

This post is part of Analytics Blogarama II - Analysts Don't Get No Respect.

©2011 Meta S. Brown