Career Advice

Data Analyst Pushes Past Personal Weaknesses: Finds Inner-Confidence and Success

Only two years into her career, this data analyst has already overcome academic discrimination, achieved international recognition for her research, and has earned a management role with her non-profit organization. She shares how she must often push herself outside her comfort zone to project confidence and strength professionally in order to stay on a path of success.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
I work as a data analyst for a non-profit social research organization. I’m young and new to the field, having worked in my current position for 2 years.

Would you describe the things you do on a typical day?
I work for several grants and my work is largely project based. Currently, I split my schedule into thirds. I spend a third of my day consulting with psychologists and project managers about how to improve the research tools they are creating for a new grant. I spend a third of my day working on data analysis projects for research papers. I spend the last third of my day creating a data management flow structure for one of our newest grants.

In addition to these tasks, I was recently promoted to a management position. Throughout the day, I coach and direct a team of data management staff members that input data, assist me in basic programming, and check the accuracy of incoming data.

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what response worked best?
Being a woman has its challenges in a technical field. Luckily, I faced discrimination at my university and was forced to confront it and learn from it there, and had some amazing mentors. Social scientists tend to be highly sensitized to race and gender discrimination, which makes it far less of a problem in my current position.

Understanding my own reaction to discrimination was important to getting my job. I have a “cute” disposition and a very feminine voice. In college, people rarely took me seriously or considered me a worthy contender in the classroom. It took time and mentoring for me to learn that the issue was theirs, not mine, and to not cast doubt on myself in response to their evaluations.

If I had doubted myself, I wouldn’t have gotten my job, or taken on the scary-sounding assignments that ultimately got me raises and a promotion. I am not strong, direct, and confident naturally, but I work hard at fostering these traits in myself. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to flourish in this work environment.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
I would rate my job satisfaction as a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. I work with incredible people and an amazing body of work. Despite the freedom I have, I take my work home a lot, and tend to carry a lot of hours. If I worked with another person who had skills similar to myself, who I could trust to handle some of my workload, I think my job would be an 8 or 9.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and how did that happen?
I learned the value of solid reporting skills the hard way. I had one project manager who gave me an incredibly difficult project, requiring hours of complex mathematics. I focused so much on the math that I didn’t notice some labeling problems, poor report formatting, and typos.

The project manager had little understanding when it came to theoretical mathematics; her job was to manage the grant. She didn’t understand what I had done mathematically, so couldn’t see the hard work and brilliance that I had put into it. What she did see was a shoddy, confusing report containing typos and errors. She wasn’t exactly eager to work with me after that.

I took classes on report writing and word processing to improve this. Writing and communication skills, not obscure technical strengths, are what ultimately got me raises and promotions.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
In general, school didn’t prepare me for the complexity of reality. Math problems in textbooks, even very advanced textbooks, are child’s play compared to real data sets and actual problems.

They also did not teach me the importance of fearlessly asking questions. I am successful because I get out of my comfort zone and am not afraid to ask for what I want. The worst thing that can happen when you ask for something big is that you’re told no, and I was surprised how many times I was actually told yes. This realization made all the difference for me. Often, people doubt their worth and settle gratefully for the status quo.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I got started in this field unexpectedly. I graduated just as the U.S. economy began to fall into crisis. Basically, desperation goaded me into applying for a position that seemed above my skill set as a new graduate with no experience, and out of alignment with my own career goals. I’m glad I did it because the experience has been invaluable.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
When my boss asked me to help her hire new subject interviewers, I experienced the strangest moment of my job. The interviewers have to deal with people that can be intimidating, violent, mentally ill, or simply horrendously rude, so my boss asked me to “act like a subject with an array of problems” in a mock-interview. This was nowhere near my job description, and I’d never acted before, but it was a hilarious and fun day.

On a good day when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
When the employees that I supervise succeed and do well, I feel good. It makes my work much easier, and, since I find management and training to be the most challenging aspects of my work, it makes me feel successful.

What do you dislike the most about your job?

The worst aspect of my job is hiring, disciplining and firing employees. Luckily, I’ve only ever had to fire one person.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
Currently, my work is incredibly stressful. I work with academic, research-oriented professionals that are on career-building warpaths. That mindset tends to disseminate into the very fiber of the company, and I feel that stress regularly.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
In the non-profit sector, people in positions like mine generally start out at something like $30,000 per year, and, unless you have a PhD, you’ll probably top out at around $45,000. Social sciences don’t pay well, and the same skill set is worth much more in a for-profit environment. Nonetheless, it’s a great way to get experience in the field, gain proficiency, develop a portfolio or CV, network, get published, and start a career.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?

I’ve created amazing programs and solved pernicious data flow problems. I am most proud of my accomplishments with challenging data sets. Earning the respect of leaders in the field, and networking globally due to my success has been very rewarding.

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
Managing others, and being responsible for their success or failure, is definitely the most challenging job I have ever had. My most challenging moment came when an employee directly defied my request and insulted me in front of other employees. They were all looking at me, expecting me to do something, and I just shrugged it off and did nothing. My boss expected me to fire her due to this and some other problems, and it was hard to confront her, especially since I had not disciplined her or corrected her problems on the spot. Avoidance is the worst form of management and backfires in the long run.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
Analysis is a broad field with varied application. To get hired, you need a background in mathematics, computer science, or disciplines that emphasize statistical and modeling work. My ability to think critically and grapple with complex problems helped me succeed in analysis. However, the most important skill I developed was the ability to communicate clearly and concisely to a variety of people about technical material.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I would tell a friend considering my line of work that working in a research environment requires a significant investment with little immediate compensation. If you are passionate about the work and want to get somewhere, you’ve got to volunteer for projects and go beyond the basic requirements.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
My job has amazing benefits. A lot of non-profits do, because they know that they can’t pay employees competitively. I get 6 paid weeks of vacation per year and I take advantage of every minute of it.

Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
Many people tend to think that analysts and others in technical positions are introverted geeks who lack communicative abilities and can do nothing about it. I am not naturally an extroverted person, but I’ve worked hard to improve my networking, public speaking, and teamwork skills. It can be learned like anything else, and it is an essential part of any career track.

Does this job move your heart? If not, what does?
While I am fascinated with problem solving and enjoy my job, I don’t believe I have the aggressive commitment to this field that some of my mentors do. Some of them live for social research. I love traveling, rock climbing, and working with disadvantaged populations in ways that empower them. I look at my job as a way of supporting the purposes of my life, not as the purpose in and of itself.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
If I could do anything in the next 5 years, I’d want to travel and apply my education and problem solving skills to work with disadvantaged communities, helping them to build and create solutions to problems such as water needs and sanitation development. It’s a major shift from my current work, but our research points to the importance of communities banding together and finding answers, and I’d like to do more than merely crunch numbers about it. I see myself shifting away from analysis, despite how enjoyable it’s been.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

I am successful because I get out of my comfort zone and am not afraid to ask for what I want. Often, people doubt their worth and settle gratefully for the status quo. The worst thing that can happen when you ask for something big is that you’re told no, and I was surprised how many times I was actually told yes. This realization made all the difference for me.