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Back to school special


Unimatrix-0 High School has really excellent attendance and discipline statistics

So, another academic year is about to hove into view over the horizon, and what better time to take stock of your situation, make sure your gear is fit for purpose, and think about levelling-up your geek skills to cope with the rigours of the next year of academic life. If you need any hardware, Engadget’s Back to School review guides are a great place to start, and have reviews of all kinds of things from smartphones to gaming systems, all arranged helpfully in several price categories.

If you really want to be ahead of the game this year though, you’ll need to put in a bit of extra time and effort, and learn some new skills. Here are my recommendations for what computing skills psychology students should be learning, for each year of a standard UK BSc in Psychology.*

If you’re starting your 1st year…

A big part of the first year is about learning basic skills like academic writing, synthesising information, referencing etc. Take a look at my computer skills checklist for psychology students and see how you measure up. Then, the first thing you need to do, on day one, is start using a reference manager. This is an application that will help you organise journal articles and other important sources for your whole degree, and will even do your essay referencing for you. I like Mendeley, but Zotero is really good as well. Both are totally free. Download one of them right now. This is honestly the best bit of advice I can possibly give to any student. Do it. I just can’t emphasise this enough. Really. OK. Moving on.

Next you need to register for a Google account, if you don’t have one already. Here’s why. Then use your new Google username to sign up for Feedly and start following some psychology and neuroscience blogs. Here and here are some good lists to get you started. If you’re a real social-media fiend, sign up for Twitter and start following some of these people.

You may want to use the 5GB of free storage you get with Google Drive as a cloud back-up space for important documents, or you may want to sign up for a Dropbox account as well. Use one or the other, or preferably both, because none of your data is safe. Ever.

You’ll want to start getting to know how to use online literature databases. Google Scholar is a good start, but you’ll also need to get familiar with PubMed, PsycInfo and Web of Knowledge too.

If you’re really keen and want to learn some general skills that will likely help you out in the future, learn how to create a website with WordPress or Github Pages.  Or maybe download Gimp and get busy with learning some picture editing.

If you’re starting your 2nd year…

This is when things get more serious and you probably can’t expect to turn up to tutorials with an epically massive hangover and still understand everything that’s going on. Similarly, you need to step it up a level with the geekery as well.

You probably learned some SPSS in your statistics course in the first year. That’s fine, but you probably don’t have a licence that allows you to play with it on your own computer. PSPP is the answer – it’s a free application that’s made to look and work just like SPSS – it even runs SPSS syntax code. Awesomes. Speaking of which, if you’re not using the syntax capabilities of SPSS and doing it all through the GUI, you’re doing it wrong. 

If you really want to impress, you’ll start using R for your lab reports. The seriously hardcore will just use the base R package, but don’t feel bad if you want to use R-Commander or Deducer to make life a bit easier. Start with the tutorials here.

If you’re starting your 3rd year…

This is the year when you’ll probably have to do either a dissertation, a research project, or maybe both. If you’re not using a reference manager already, trying to do a dissertation without one is utter lunacy – start now.

For your research project, try and do as much of it as you can yourself. If you’re doing some kind of survey project, think about doing it online using Google Forms, or LimeSurvey. If you’re doing a computer-based task, then try and program it yourself using PsychoPy. Nothing will impress your project supervisor more than if you volunteer to do the task/survey set-up yourself. Then of course you can analyse the data using the mad statz skillz you learned in your second year. Make some pretty looking figures for your final report using  the free, open-source Veusz.

Learning this stuff might all sound like a lot to ask when you also have essays to write, tutorials to prepare for, and parties to attend. However, all these things are really valuable CV-boosting skills which might come to be invaluable after you graduate. If you want to continue studying at Masters or PhD level, potential supervisors will be looking for applicants with these kinds of skills, and solid computer knowledge can also help to distinguish you from all the other psychology graduates when applying for ‘normal’ jobs too. It really is the best thing you can learn, aside from your course material, naturally.

Have I missed anything important? Let me know in the comments!

Good luck!

* I realise US colleges and other countries have a different structure, but I think these recommendations will still broadly apply.

Is there a gender gap in computing skills?

The bad old days. And no, that really is not a computer. I honestly don't know what's worse here, the outrageous sexism, or the horrific ghastliness of that beige plastic thing.

It being International Women’s Day today got me thinking about sex and computers. No, not like that, get your mind out of the gutter, I mean in terms of differences between males and females in our attitudes towards and interactions with technology. Such differences (if they exist) might be pertinent in a field like psychology, where the majority of undergraduates (often with ratios approaching 10:1) are female, but (as in most other fields) the majority of professors are male. By contrast computer science undergraduate courses are overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Obviously there are a whole host of social/economic/gender-political reasons why this might be the case, and one would hope that the balance these days might be shifting ever closer towards a more equal representation of the two sexes at all levels and fields in science. However, given that the majority of undergraduate psychologists are girls, and successful post-graduate research is to an extent dependent on computer skills, systematic differences in the way the two halves of the population treat and interact with computers might be worth paying attention to.

So, do systematic differences exist? The short answer, is… I’m not sure. Anecdotally, I’ve known plenty of people of both sexes who are programming ninjas, and equally, plenty of both sexes who are utterly hopeless with technology. In writing this piece I’ve tried to take a (quick) glance at some relevant research, but honestly, it seems a bit of a mess. There are quite a few studies out there, but a lot of them are old (I mean, old in terms of the computer industry – like pre-mid-90s) and things have clearly changed since then, particularly for the generation of ‘digital natives‘ that make up today’s undergraduate cohorts. One older meta-analytic study (from 1998) reported that gender differences in beliefs about computers and behaviour related to them were negligible, while finding that males showed more self-efficacy and more positive affect related to technology. A more recent (2007) study in a population of Greek school children reported similar results regarding self-efficacy. Another recent (2010) study (PDF) on internet use in Taiwanese students reported that boys and girls differed in the manner in which they used the internet – boys were more exploratory users of the web, while girls were more communicative users. This finding was also shown in a survey of male and female US college students from 2009. This study also revealed some other points of discrimination between the sexes in their internet use, with males showing a heavier usage pattern overall. However, female students spend a higher proportion of their time online actually doing academic work; males spent more time using the internet for leisure-related activities (checking sports scores, downloading music, visiting *ahem* ‘adult’ sites etc.).

The most recent, and perhaps most relevant study I found is from 2011 (PDF), and is a survey of Accountancy students who, like psychology, show a heavy female bias in their numbers. This study found a difference in attitudes early in the curriculum, but the gender difference disappeared on a more advanced course. This is good news, as it might suggest that some of the differences found in previous research have reduced or disappeared, perhaps as a result of the greater penetration of computers into everyday life.

The computer industry and the way we use its products changes in a heartbeat, and I can appreciate the problems involved in doing research which might seem out of date almost as soon as it’s published (a search for “gender differences +iPad” on Google scholar turns up nothing), nonetheless there seems to be a real paucity of research here. Most of the studies I found involve surveys on attitudes to computers, rather than skills – presumably because skills are harder to assess. Whatever differences there are between the sexes when it comes to technology (if there are any at all) we need to make sure that we’re giving the next generation of students of both sexes the training they need to be effective researchers, clinicians and members of the workforce.

Survey on computer skills/usage in psychology

Dearest readers, I have a request. In order to carry on delivering the finest tidbits of technical/psychological knowledge to your jaded eyeballs, I need you to complete a little survey. It’s very quick and not at all taxing, I promise. The answers to the questions will be used by me to plan future posts on this blog, and also to inform some other educational materials I’m working on.

I’m particularly interested in hearing from psychology/neuroscience undergraduates/Masters/PhD students, however if you’re a post-doctoral researcher or even a faculty member, please feel free to complete it too. If you feel like sending it on to any of your friends then that would be terrific too. Please answer as many questions as you feel apply to you, and then click the ‘end’ button at the bottom of the page to save/send the results.

Many thanks, you lovely, lovely people. I await your doubtlessly fascinating, breath-takingly insightful, and nigh-on paradigm-shifting answers with bated breath and an eager glimmer in my eye. You can take the survey by clicking here.


Computer skills checklist for every (psychology) student.

I decided to put together a computer skills checklist. A lot of the things on this list are not specific to psychology and should be part of the training of every student. I would advise students to work through the list and note down any entries that you’re not comfortable with – finding out how to do these things and ticking off every item on the list will definitely advance your knowledge and help you out in future. Some of the things on the list have already been covered on this blog, and some I’m planning to cover in the future. Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed anything!

Green text denotes a basic/essential skill, orange means intermediate, red means it’s an advanced skill. Most students should be able to tick off all the green ones straight away – if you can’t you’ve got some work to do! Read the rest of this entry