The late motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.” As professional analysts, most of us have at least one college degree, which for some people may have been completed many years ago. However, not only do the tools and methods analysts use continue to evolve, but organizations are expecting even greater contributions from those skilled in data analysis. As a result, I believe it is imperative that analysts participate in continual learning on a regular basis.
While formal education is certainly valuable, it is expensive, and in most cases doesn’t easily fit into the schedule of a working analyst. As someone who is devoted to the concept of lifelong self-education, following are my four favorite ways for pursuing continual learning with maximum flexibility and minimum (or no) cost:
1. Online methods
The internet is the most obvious place to find up-to-date and relevant information, and here are three of my favorite ways of learning online:
- MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are, in my opinion, one of the best ways to continue your education, as the format closely resembles that of a traditionally directed college course. Sites like Coursera and Stanford Online offer several courses in areas of interest to analysts. I completed the Computational Finance and Financial Econometrics course through Coursera last fall, and learned several techniques that I can apply in my job.
- Webinars are often a great way to learn about new trends, new products, or best practices. As a user of the statistical program JMP, I frequently attend their free live one-hour webinars during which JMP users present specific features of the software and how they can be utilized within analysis projects. In addition, many of their webinars are also available on-demand.
- Blogs written by professional analysts and analytic companies can also be quite useful. For example, if you are in the process of learning R (as I am) or wish to improve your R knowledge, the R-Bloggers site contains a wealth of information related to the program.
Nearly any topic you can imagine has had at least one book written about it, and the best ones can serve as both a way to learn a new skill and as a reference source once you have become fluent in the material. Over the years, I have built a personal library covering such topics as data mining, statistical methods, business analytics, and survey research, as well as books that focus on specific software programs (and I am still in the process of building my R library as I continue to learn it!). I view my library as a customized learning resource that I can tap into at any time.
3. Self-paced courses
Several companies offer self-paced training materials (typically delivered on a DVD) through which you can learn a specific skill or set of skills. I recently heard about a data science program offered by EMC Education that looks particularly interesting. In a somewhat different vein, The Great Courses offers several programs across multiple disciplines that could benefit working analysts.
4. Teaching others
It’s been said that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, as to do so effectively requires that you have a complete understanding of the subject. Several years ago, I was asked by my company to conduct a series of training sessions covering various topics in Microsoft Excel. As I prepared for each session, I not only strengthened the knowledge I already had, but inevitably discovered new ways of doing things, which was a benefit to me as well as the class participants. Look for opportunities to share your knowledge with another person, and you will find that your mastery of the material increases as a result. In addition, you will become known as the resident expert in that area.
Planning Your Learning
Like any other endeavor, you get out of self-education what you put into it. Abigail Adams, wife of U.S. President John Adams, once said, “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and diligence.” To ensure that you are obtaining the maximum result from your efforts, follow these steps:
1) Determine what you need to learn (i.e., what skill gaps do you need to fill?). This information may come from a performance review, from the description of a job that you aspire to fill, or even from a self-evaluation. If you have more than one need on this list, prioritize them and focus on the most important one first.
2) Research several possible methods for obtaining the knowledge. Read reviews of the methods if possible, and evaluate the level of the material and the time commitment necessary to complete it.
3) Schedule time each week for learning the material. This is very important, as it is very easy to say “I’ll get to it when I have time…” Make self-learning one of your priorities.
4) Evaluate your level of mastery upon completion. If you’re participating in a MOOC, you will get this feedback from quizzes and exams. For other methods, you can do such things as identify at least one real-life application for the material, apply for a professional certification (if the material was designed to support one), or find a way that you can teach the material to someone else.
Best of luck in your self-education efforts, and be sure to let me know what works for you!