From Chaucer to Clusters: Data Analytics for Liberal Arts Grads

You’ve heard about “big data,” “data analytics,” and related fields (buzzwords?). Maybe you’ve thought about how to make a career out of it.

One obstacle — you’ve spent college reading Chaucer, not running regressions.

You may think the only route now is a fancy graduate degree right out of school or a lengthy, unpaid internship. This isn’t necessary. Liberal arts to data analysis doesn’t have to be such a gap.

Here’s how to plan your way.

Understand the problems analysts face

Business journals frequently proclaim the potential of big data. Analytics can assist in anything from detecting fraud to suggesting good music. These stories usually don’t mention the obstacles to data analytics.

The dirty little secret of big data is so-called “data wrangling.” Before analyzing data, it’s common to spend hours extracting, cleaning, and preparing it. In fact, analysts spend more time preparing data than analyzing it.

Even the best analytics programs gloss over the importance of data wrangling. They teach you the fancy models and software programs but do not tell you what to do when the numbers don’t match or aren’t formatted consistently. Learn about diagnosing data sets and validating data.

If you can identify and communicate the problem of data wrangling, you will really impress employers. Prove to your hiring manager that you can solve real problems.

Start with “Small Data” — Start with Excel

For all the talk about big data, lots of “small data” still exists. Rather than gigabytes of data stored on a server, this is a smaller data set usually kept in a spreadsheet — namely, in Excel.

You’ll be surprised at how much data in the work world is maintained in simple spreadsheets. So learn some Excel. There are so many free resources. I blog frequently on Excel at my own website. Here are some other great resources.

The MBA is Not a Silver Bullet

This all sounds like a lot of work. Wouldn’t it be easier just to go back to school for an MBA? You are a good student, after all.

The MBA is traditionally a signal that you’ve studied the entire canon of business, from marketing to statistics. As an entry-level analyst, you’re likely to focus on just one area of the business. A two-year degree with such broad scope will be more than necessary.

If you know you want to work in data, focus on data. You can always get your MBA later.

In the meantine, there are countless ways to get started with data analytics — including outside the lecture hall.

Check out sites like Udemy and These offer dozens of courses on analytics. You even get a certificate for courses completed — here’s mine on, for example.

If you’d like an accredited, full-time degree, check out programs with a tighter focus than the MBA. This could be a one-year master’s program or certificate course.

Many of these short-term programs are delivered online. You may be skeptical of online learning, but for technically-driven courses like data analytics, it can work well.

You Need to Be Clever, But You Are

It will be more difficult for you as a liberal arts major to make it into the world of data analytics than an MIT math grad.

But be clever. Prove that you understand and can solve the problems of analytics. You likely won’t hear about the concepts of “wrangling” and “small data” in a fancy graduate program. Employers and clients won’t see a clueless liberal arts graduate — they will see a fellow data analyst.

Originally published at on October 9, 2015.