What Should I Study in College to Become a Business Analyst?

A reader asks:

Hello, I am very interested in becoming a business analyst, the only problem is I have no idea where to begin. One main question I have is what do I need to study in college that can lead me to the point of becoming a BA? I understand that the term “BA” can be a general term, however I am looking for the best path to take getting there. Please keep in mind I have started some classes in IT as a network specialist but have withdrawn from the courses at my school, due to me discovering that BA is the career I wish to pursue. Please help, any information you can give me in regards to this issue would be greatly appreciated.

Laura’s answer:

There are two main tenets of thought on how your studies in college relate to your career options after college. The first is to use your college experience to broaden your mind and thinking, pursuing a liberal arts education that may have little direct applicability to your future career. The second is to use your time in college to pursue training in a specific vocation and plant the seeds of your future career while an undergraduate.

To reveal my biases, I attended a liberal arts college and dual-majored in Philosophy and English. I didn’t start thinking about a career until my senior year when it became apparent to me that the continued education/professorship path was not a good fit. I remember many, many conversations with my parents talking about what I wanted to be when I grow up. I fought with the answer and fought the need for an answer. After college, as you can imagine, I found myself very satisfied with my college years but without any great career prospects. I managed to land an assistant editor job at a local publishing company and proceeded to work myself up from there, eventually landing in a business analyst role that would be the foundation for my first real “career.”

If I had to pick one college class that was the most helpful to me as a BA, Introduction to Logic would be it. In my first months as a BA, as I fought to think through designing systems, the concepts kept coming back to me. It turns out, there were a lot of parallels between picking apart a logical argument and designing a coherent system! While Aristotle did not teach me to write use cases, he sure taught me to think critically. And that has always been important as a business analyst.

I know many, many other BAs with similar stories. So, on the one hand, it may not really matter what you study in college, as long as you are learning and growing intellectually in a meaningful way.

But I know that many do not pursue education the same way I did, and are looking to build the seeds of a vocation while an undergrad in college.

I think an ideal background for a business analysis role would include courses in the following areas:

  • Communication
  • Analysis/Problem-Solving Process
  • Logic
  • Public Speaking
  • Facilitation
  • Relationship Building
  • Finance
  • General Business
  • A dash of the Business Analysis Fundamentals

How can you take this and apply it to your selection of an undergraduate major or program?

A lot of the advice regarding specific courses really depends on what programs your college offers. You might choose an “off topic” liberal arts degree that interests you and add some electives in business analysis so you leave college with an awareness of the core business analysis skills. Or, you might choose a more formal “BA” degree and make liberal use of your electives to choose from courses in fields such as sales, marketing, business, philosophy, psychology, and English to broaden your perspective.

Regardless, when you leave college, be prepared to build some professional experience outside the BA profession, as that’s where you’ll build the professional experience and transferable skills that will lead you to a business analyst job within a few years of graduating. You can accelerate this path by using your summers to work in internship programs.

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Comments

  1. Celal Murat PARLAK says

    Hey there,

    I am an Industrial Engineer. I am quite a rookie as a BA, yet I see that my disciplines’ course stream is quite useful for a BA. As an Industrial Engineer, you are educated to design systems of machine, people by using certain logics,calculations and formulas. They also give you a lovely course named “introduction to Basic Algorithms” where you learn the basics of algorithm. You also learn basics of a coding language in that particular course. Courses like Project Management, Operations Research, Facility Planning and more helps a well since in most cases you develop the logic behind the designed software.

    Thanks for the post and the blog Laura, I am an avid follower and learning a lot from it.

    Sincerely,
    Murat

  2. From a pure IT perspective, there’s an insightful overview of relevant IT skills employers are looking for from new grads recently published here:
    http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/news/enterprise/3337143/6-key-skills-new-it-grads-are-lacking/

  3. I think someone doing undergraduate studies towards a career as a Business Analyst would be well served by studying Structuralism in some form. Though Structuralism has since fallen from favor, it was an intellectual strategy that cut across disciplines (Linguistics, Anthropology, Literary Theory, Psychology, etc.), by providing a useful perspective for any human inquiry: that the surface details of human cultural are insufficiently explanatory and one must look deeper to find meaning in the system as a whole.

    This is a critical perspective for the Business Analyst who must be the one to resist looking at (for example) an individual report as just the report itself. Someone (possibly multiple actors) downstream is a consumer of the report, and it needs to be sufficient to enable their activities.

    • Christopher Herrmann says

      Hi Bob, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments having studied Linguistics in my Arts degree!

  4. mike Lachapelle says

    Hi Laura, I love the nature of this question. At a very recent workshop our Ottawa IIBA chapter ran on critical thinking, analysis and team work, I was asked this very same question – what should someone study in university to be better prepared to be a business analyst.

    My arrival as a Business Analyst has had many twists and turns. But if I think back to my university days, I would have to say two key things helped me develop the skills that I require today. First, I was a sociology/law major. In sociology I studied participant observation and a large part of that was understanding social dynamics and interviewing people. The courses I took also demanded a lot of research and writing. Second, like you, a philosophy course. In 3rd year I took a course in reason and logic in argument. Back then we worked on developing argument trees to prove a statement or opinion. Today that form of logic has been replaced by the mind mapping approach.

    Core concepts from education? critical thinking, research, writing and reasoned arguments. Sounds like an Arts education to me.

    • Hi Mike,
      Great to find a fellow logic student amongst business analysis professionals! Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Interesting connection between sociology and communications too – there seem to be many variants on how to learn the seeds of great communication in college throughout the comments here.

      Here here for the arts! 🙂

  5. Tonya Smith says

    I went from a Psychology major to graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Social Welfare and I find the lessons that I learned from the classes in both of those majors to be indispensable in dealing with such a variety of personalities each and every day as a Business Analyst on an Agile Development team. The empathy taught in both disciplines has helped me to mediate conflicts, facilitate communication and navigate the quirkiness that all people have. It allows me to treat people as the individuals that they are, which they appreciate, and disarm certain difficult situations with humor as appropriate. Since becoming a BA I have taken an Intro to SQL class as well as countless on-line tutorials and webinars on technical topics which are always helpful in my career as well.

  6. Lesley Brown says

    Based on the little BA experience that I have, my suggestion would be communication, communication, communication.

    Logical, technical, and critical thinking are all very important, but you still need to be able to express yourself clearly & effectively.

    Les

  7. I totally agree with the courses you’ve listed Laura. In furthering the “learning how to learn”, I would add a database fundamentals course. Sure, the SQL you might learn will be useful but this would be an addition to the Intro to Logic, since there needs to be certain logic applied to database structures and how they influence reporting needs.

    Statistics (shudder) and / or Six Sigma might also be useful in that if focuses a critical eye to both analysis and some of the tools to get you there. I had an Intro to Manufacturing where we learned about Taiichi Ohno – “5 Whys” definitely had an impact on my viewpoint.

  8. Janet Wood says

    My BS degree in computer science gave me a thorough grounding in the technical side of IT. I also studied logic and that helped me to think things through clearly. Maths taught me to be precise and exact. But in my 12 – 15 years as a BA, I don’t think I’ve directly used any of the actual facts I learned. I never studied business, finance, accounting but I picked up what I needed as I went along.

    I often tell people that I learned all my BA skills when I was reading parenting manuals while trying to get to grips with how to raise 2 bright, active and normally naughty little boys! I learned that “I-messages” work better than “you-messages”. I learned the wonderful concept of trying to “catch them doing something right”, which I have applied to colleagues, bosses and clients. I also learned how important v-e-r-y c-l-e-a-r instructions can be – “do not run while carrying a full cup” rather than “careful with that cup”.

    What I’m saying is actually a support for Laura’s point – it’s the learning how to learn that you get at college that is more important than the facts that you learn. And the experience that life gives you is more important than either. It’s only when you start doing something that you really learn to do it well.

    • Christopher Herrmann says

      Hi Janet, thanks for sharing your insights gained through raising your boys! We have 3 little ones all under 6, and I have learned some great takeaways from your post for my personal and professional life. I think there is great value in thinking about “transferable” lessons and skills. We are the same person whether in the home or at the office.

      Regards,
      Chris

  9. Christopher Herrmann says

    Hi Laura,
    I began my tertiary education in a Linguistics major at Macquarie University (http://www.mq.edu.au/), Sydney Australia. I moved (sideways) into IT support through a government apprenticeship initiative and have not looked back! I find that my Linguistics study, especially functional grammar and systemic thinking has helped me in my business analysis.

    In addition, I recently took a online delivery course through the Australian Computer Society (ACS) in Business Analysis, which was a great learning experience.

    URL: http://www.acs.org.au/cpeprogram/index.cfm?action=show&conid=businessanalysis

  10. I would think that some IT classes will help with the fact that many BA activities are software-related. Something like “Intro to Computers” at least 🙂

    • Hi Olga,
      I would agree it’s a good idea to have a basic technical understanding. I suppose my assumption is that this is happening in high school and that doing something like intro to computers wouldn’t be necessary at the college level.

      Do you have a specific course you took in college that you think helped in your BA career?

  11. As some-one that turned to Business Analysis as a second career (as an IT professional) , I found the studies I took for my first career -10 yrs – in Finance (Bachelors degree and ACCA – Certified Accountancy) as well as the experience from that career provided a great foundation to become a solid BA in the area of Information Systems, good requirements capture, and even Solution design. It wasn’t until I was already involved in various I.S.projects as a Finance Professional, that I realised my real passion and talent lay in the more creative challenges of solving ‘BA-type’ problems and designing and delivering solutions as a Project Manager. I am now on a journey that I hope will allow me to grow into a good Applications Architect. So, for me, the BA role has been a stepping stone that has facilitated my journey to a more satisfying career in I.S. / IT.

  12. Tina Bellamy says

    I was an Anthopology major and always found myself describing it as “the study of the way different people meet the same basic needs in different ways”…one of the classes I took was Ethnographic Interviewing…I did hour long interviews with someone to determine the “culture” of the group they were a part of..what was important to them..why they did things in a certain way. Whenever I’m conducting requirments workshops and documenting the results, I get flash backs to doing those interviews and writing the term paper for that class!

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