Tell me about a career/degree in information science...
February 5, 2015 5:44 PM   Subscribe

I currently work in an administrative support job and I'm trying to move into a new career area. I think I might be interested in pursuing Information Science for a BA or Masters, and career. My questions are basically: 1) Is information science the right field for me? 2) which classes should I be focusing on to jump start my career path? 3) what careers besides systems analyst sound right for me?

A while back I saw a job ad for a business systems analyst and it sounded like a good fit for me in terms of major job tasks: compiling and gathering data, creating different reports and outputs for the data, and some database ... stuff (it didn't sound like it was actual database design/creation... just using databases to query, collect, report data.
This sounded like a good fit for me, because of:

The things I like about my current admin-support job:

I have a lot of freedom to figure out the best way to compile, collect, analyze, put out data. Basically a supervisor will ask me to find Data from Somewhere and I find it and put it together for them. I also have the freedom to judge how much / what kind of data will be most useful to them.

I work with a lot of different systems and types of data and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve processes of data collection / analysis / management. In my current role I don't have a huge amount of power in changing processes, but I've made some simple changes where I can and I find myself thinking of more ways to do it if I had more power.

Basically, I am good at working with data and I'd like to have access to more of it and know what to do with it. I don't think I want to actually design or build software, just learn what software I need to do to generate data/reports and modify queries. I think I would like to be the middleman between the guy who says "we need all these kinds of data" and the guy who designs the software that holds the data. The guy who interprets the data and makes suggestions.

I don't think I want to work with all numbers, all the time, so probably not a statistician. I don't mind numbers, but I like working with other data (in my current job, things like staffing, scheduling, requirements for different classes etc.)

And the things I DON'T like about my current job, that I think infosci/ systems analysis would have less of:

Being the primary contact for a lot of "people problems" instead of larger designs (does that make sense? I'd rather happily work on a complex problem with a system instead of 99 "little problems' that people want me to fix by liaising with other people/offices. )

I also don't really like being a manager or supervisor of people. I work well with a team, but I'd rather be working on a project primarily, than directing others primarily.

What should I be learning first?

I don't have a great sense of what classes I should take first - or even if I should be aiming for a second BA in InfoSci or try to jump right into a Masters program. I already have an unrelated BA and MA.

I only know basic office-technology stuff: Excel, a tiny bit of Access, Cognos and Oracle/Peoplesoft. (but I taught myself the last two)

Just to get started, I am right now taking an undergrad class in Intro Java Programming (it's hard, but I like it so far), and I'm auditing the intro "survey" class for the masters degree in InfoSci (interesting, but I'm not getting a cohesive feel for the field or the masters progam so far).

The job ad that intrigued me said they wanted someone familiar with SQL and/or R, but I can't find a "SQL class" at the university.. what type of class teaches this? I have easy access to take classes through a university, I just don't know what to take.

I think I want to head towards database management type classes next.. but what else? What should I be taking first to start setting myself up for these systems analyst type jobs?

What other job titles besides "systems analyst" do this kind of work?

Or, what other careers/programs sound right for what I want to do?
posted by nakedmolerats to Work & Money (6 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about a career in records management? Records managers work on a spectrum of information across all industries. I am a little tired to do my whole song and dance, but it's an industry where data and technology often meet.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:47 PM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Maybe consider something related to business intelligence...? These positions may be a called a ton of different things, but usually ending with "analyst". There may also be certain data analyst positions that don't require much statistics knowledge, but for which you'd need to know something like SQL/R/SAS programming.

That said, if you want a career in to analyzing data, you either need to have some statistics, or be the big data/data mining person (the latter kind is definitely gaining popularity these days...)

If you like visuals, you might want to look for an opportunity to pick up something like Tableau. If you think you might like things like improving processes and policies about data collection, then maybe consider something like database administrator.

If you really want more academic credentials, I'd consider something like computer science, data science, or maaaybe statistics. And definitely not at the BA level.

The "SQL class" at a college would be called something like "Introduction to data bases" and teach a few other useful things as well.
posted by yonglin at 7:52 PM on February 5, 2015

I think you and I enjoy very similar kinds of work! I am an R-programming data wrangler working on customer data for a software company. It involves digging around in all kinds of interesting piles of data, putting together reports with lots of interesting tables and plots, and a fair bit of statistical analysis - but even a full-fledged statistician would tell you that a big chunk of their job is working with people to find the right question.

I don't think an academic credential would really be all that helpful at this point. You've got an MA, which checks a box for some HR folks; I think I'd focus on skills next.

A great first project for someone with your skills would be to pick a small report you already do and just... do it in R. Read the data into R, make the tables and plots, use the package "knitr" to generate an HTML report.

Now - do a slightly more complicated project. Do you have a monthly report? Pick up a bit of SQL to pull the latest data from the database and set the report up so you can just click run each month. Do you find yourself doing quality control on the same set of data over and over? Make an automated QA report for your own review - or just send it to the twits putting in the bad data! Once you're to this point, the possibilities will be obvious.

R has packages of code that improve its functionality: you will definitely, absolutely want to learn dplyr, ggplot2, reshape2, and the previously-mentioned knitr.

R and SQL will get you a long way, at which point you'll be better-equipped to know if it's really worth taking an entire course on database design, or if you'd really prefer to do all this in Python, or if you need Hadoop. You will definitely need to learn some stats to level up, but that will be easier once you know R.

Regarding SQL: definitely learn SELECT, CASE, all the JOINs, and GROUP BY; learn how and why to use subqueries; don't worry about creating or updating tables. At some point, it'll be useful to learn how and why tables in a database are "normalized".

Here are a few resources I'd suggest:
- StackOverflow. Every R and SQL question has already been answered here, probably 10
- This demo report I put together for my colleagues who are learning R. It's not an intro but rather a demo of most of my key report-making patterns.
- Your local R User Group. Next meeting is March 18!
- The Coursera Data Science specialization. I've heard good things and the syllabus looks good, but I haven't taken it myself.
- Me! Feel free to message me any time.

And here are searches that I use on to find jobs related to this kind of work. Browsing search results can be a fantastic way to identify the kinds of jobs and companies you're interested in and which particular skills they require. Side note: SAS is dreadful.
- applied data (analysis or analyst) -SAS -postdoc -postdoctoral -"post-doctoral"
- data scientist" (data scientists do what data analysts do but make 30% more)
- ("statistical programmer" or "statistical programming") -SAS
posted by McBearclaw at 10:32 PM on February 5, 2015 [9 favorites]

Many schools have a management information systems program in the business school that is completely independent of their regular information science program. Anecdotally, the biggest difference seems to be that the MIS people make a lot more money after they graduate. If you haven't, you should check whether the school where you're taking classes has such a program, because the classes might be more relevant to your interests.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:19 AM on February 6, 2015

2nding Tableau.

Without doing a full degree, you can get certified in working with tableau or its competitor, QlikView. I've worked with a few "data analysts" who have unrelated degrees (history, social science) and they all taught themselves one in-demand technical skill and went networking with a portfolio.

An Information Science degree might be useful IF you can easily handle the price tag, and you want to be in the heavily quantitative side of things. It would also open the door to your program's job network. However, in my experience, you could get a business intelligence role with self-taught skills and certificates for a lot less investment.
posted by tinymegalo at 7:49 AM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I agree with you that being a Business Analyst sounds like a good fit. I was a BA in my last role, and the thing you really need to get down to get those jobs is SQL. I don't think you necessarily need to go back to school; I know a ton of people with this kind of job with totally unrelated undergrad degrees. I think the best way forward would probably be to work push your current data gathering and analytics out of Cognos and Access and into real SQL. If you can build those skills in your current role, you should be well placed to be promoted there or to get this job elsewhere. I know that when I was interviewing BAs, if a candidate said to me "I used to pull together a report on XYZ using Cognos and some Excel, but then I turned it into a series of SQL queries that I could run automatically once per week," I would want to hire that person right away.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:52 AM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

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