Capella VP takes unlikely path to career in data analytics and business strategy

May 1, 2017

Shawna Thayer never intended to make a career in charts and spreadsheets.

So how did she become Capella University’s vice president of data strategy and institutional analytics? The answer, Thayer admits, still surprises even her.

An unlikely path to a data career          

After finishing her undergraduate degree at a brick-and-mortar school, Thayer enrolled in a traditional graduate program, planning to earn a PhD in Family Science and embark on a career of research and teaching as a university professor. As part of her program, she studied statistics and learned to crunch numbers—an essential skill in academic research. She discovered she had an aptitude for managing data, but her real interest still lay in analyzing and drawing conclusions from large collections of it. Immersing herself in the data analysis got her excited.

Midway through her graduate studies, however, Thayer came to the realization that most university professors rely on graduate students to analyze data and write up the conclusions. The heart of the process—analysis—was something instructors delegated so they could spend time teaching and writing, among other things. “It kind of threw me into a panic,” Thayer recalls. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if being a professor is really what I want to do.’”

A mentor suggested she consider an alternative career in business analytics—which initially perplexed Thayer. “The idea sounded completely absurd to me. I’d never considered a corporate career at all,” she recalls. “But I thought, ‘Well, there may be something here.’”

Data crunching in the corporate world

Thayer went on to finish a PhD in Family Science, with a specialty in quantitative analysis and research design. Rather than seeking a post at a university, she leveraged her skills to land a position as a quantitative analyst at American Girl, a subsidiary of toy maker Mattel, where she worked on retail strategies, catalog tests, loyalty programs, and digital advertising metrics.

“It was definitely a crash course in business,” Thayer says. “At the beginning, I didn’t even know what a P&L statement was. It was a tough first year. I had to learn a whole new world.”

Over the next decade, she went on to jobs at the data company Nielsen, the grocery retailer Supervalu, and a consulting firm, Analytic Partners. Her skill at managing and assessing data, along with her background in the social sciences and her communication skills, propelled her up the career track quickly.

A return to education

A year ago, Thayer began considering a change. She missed being in higher ed. Was it time to go back to teaching? She discussed the matter with her husband and the next day, to her surprise, got a call from a recruiter asking if she might be interested in working for Capella. Last March, she began her current job, assessing university data in the hopes of maximizing student success. Thayer says, “I’m not teaching, but I can see how the data analysis my team does helps our students achieve their goals.”

Advice for starting a career in data

Thayer is encouraging of other women who want to enter the field and notes that Capella has a great track record in educating women who want to make a career in data. And she has some good advice. “You need to know how to handle both structured and unstructured data; know how to learn coding languages, and have savvy technical skills,” Thayer says. “But you also need the ability to pull insights from big data. How do we interpret, communicate, and visualize data? You have to be able to communicate your insights to an audience.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, she also encourages people to take career risks. She made a switch that ultimately paid off—even if at first it seemed like a crazy turn on her life path. “If you’d have asked me then if I ever thought that my future career was going to be in statistics or analytics, I would’ve laughed,” Thayer says.

Capella offers the following certificate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in data and analytics:

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