Data Analyst vs. Business Analyst: 3 Things to Consider

Career Resources Business Data Analytics

Are you better suited to become a business analyst or a data analyst? In smaller organizations, these job titles may be used interchangeably to describe roles that involve data or system analysis. Larger organizations, however, might employ both, which is why the differences between the two careers are important to understand.

While data analysts and business analysts both work with data, the main difference lies in what they do with it, says Martin Schedlbauer, associate clinical professor and director of Northeastern University’s information and data sciences programs, including the Master of Science in Computer Science and Master of Science in Data Science.

“In the simplest terms, data is a means to the end for business analysts, while data is the end for data analysts,” he says.

In other words, business analysts use data to help organizations make more effective decisions, while data analysts are more entrenched in gathering and analyzing data for the business to evaluate and use to make decisions on their own.

Determining which career path best suits you depends on three factors: your educational and professional background, your interests, and your desired career path. 

Consider Your Background

Business analysts and data analysts tend to come from different educational and professional backgrounds, says Blake Angove, director of technology services at IT recruiting firm LaSalle Network.

Business analysts, for example, usually have earned an undergraduate degree in a business-focused major. They mostly use data to make business operations more efficient, and they have knowledge, but aren’t necessarily experts, in the various programming languages, he says.

“Business analysts might take requirements from the business and work between the business and the technical team to develop a software package or implement a new CRM,” Angove says. Sometimes business analysts are also known as “systems analysts.”

Data analysts, on the other hand, work with large data sets all day to identify trends, make charts, and create visual presentations for the business to use to make decisions. These professionals usually come from STEM majors and often have an advanced degree and a more extensive background in math, science, programming, databases, modeling, and using predictive analytics.

Consider Your Interests

Do you obsess over numbers and statistics, or are you more of a problem-solving businessperson?

Business analysts enjoy working in the corporate world and are more interested in finding ways to solve problems, Schedlbaur says. They might be tasked with researching, organizing, and overseeing the implementation of a new workflow, for example. These people are often naturally born communicators—both written and oral skills are essential since they must explain technical messages to stakeholders in layman terms.

Data analysts are numbers-people who excel in subjects such as statistics and programming. As the gatekeepers for the business’s data, they’re entrenched in databases and interested in extracting data points from complex and often disparate sources. It’s also important for data analysts to have a deep interest in and extensive knowledge of the industry they work in, Schedlbaur says.

Consider Your Career Path

Though business analysts and data analysts share some similarities, they differ in salary and their potential career paths.

Because business analysts are not required to have as deep a background in programming as data analysts, entry-level positions pay a slightly lower salary than data analysts, Angove explains. The salary for a business analyst working in IT averages $67,194, according to PayScale.

“Business analysts, however, have a bit more of a ceiling in terms of advancement and salary,” Angove says. “Senior business analysts will eventually cap out around $100,000.”

Advanced degrees and certifications are often necessary to move from the business analyst role into a more analytics-driven career.

Data analysts, on the other hand, have a higher earning potential—well into six figures, according to Robert Half Technology—and more options for career paths, Angove says. Because these professionals work primarily in databases, there’s room for advancement with the acquisition of additional programming skills like R and Python. In addition, data analysts can easily move into developer careers and data science roles with advanced degrees.

Despite the similarities and differences between data analysts and business analysts, both have promising futures, Angove says.

“They’re both in strong demand right now,” he adds. “Data science is a hot-button issue for many companies, and a lot of them are hiring and building out large data teams.”

Are you interested in breaking into a career in business analytics or data analytics? Explore Northeastern’s graduate programs, including our Master of Science in Business Analytics, Master of Professional Studies in Analytics, Master of Professional Studies in Informatics, and Master of Science in Computer Science