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Back to school special

Funny-Back-to-School-Sign

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.

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Why every student needs a Google account

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This post might seem a trifle umm… politically insensitive after recent revelations in the UK about exactly how much corporation tax Google pays (answer – basically none), but I’ve been planning it for a while, and unlike Starbucks (which should be boycotted at all costs, because their coffee sucks) Google is a little harder to avoid, and actually provides a whole slew of incredibly worthwhile, and mostly free, services. One of the first things you should do when you start an undergraduate course at a college/university is sign up for a Google account. Here’s why:

1. Gmail
You’ve probably already got an email address, but if you’re not using Gmail then you need to switch. The interface is brilliantly usable and customisable, and you get a massive 10Gb of storage for all your mail – more than you’ll likely ever need. The most important benefit though, is Gmail’s ability to pull all your current and future email accounts together in one place. Gmail can be set up as a POP3 client (here’s how) meaning it can pull email in from several different accounts and present it all in one inbox. You’ve probably got an account already, you’ll definitely get an account on your university’s servers, and when you leave and either go on to postgraduate study (maybe at a different university) or get a job, you’ll almost certainly get given yet another account. Gmail can centralize everything, and mean that you only have to check one inbox for all your accounts. You can even configure it so that it sends mail through, say, your university account by default, so people you contact see your ‘official’ email address. I’ve currently got five email accounts configured to read through Gmail, and I honestly couldn’t manage without it. Additionally, if you start using Gmail from day one, all your contacts and mail are saved in your Gmail account, and won’t be lost when you complete your course and your university account inevitably gets cancelled/deleted. Another benefit of Gmail is its ease of use with various smartphone platforms. Android (obviously) and iOS devices are designed to sync up with Google accounts pretty much seamlessly.

So, set up a Gmail account, and assume it’ll be your email address for life. Be sensible. Don’t choose a username like sexyluvkitten69@gmail.com, or gangzta4life@gmail.com – choose something you’ll be happy to put on a CV when you leave college, i.e. something that pretty much consists of your name.

2. GDrive/Docs
In one sense, Google Drive is a simple online storage locker for any kinds of files you like, a bit like Dropbox, or any of the other similar services which have proliferated recently. You get 5Gb of free space, and it’s easy to set up file sharing for specific other users, or to make your files available for download to anyone you send a link to. In another sense, it’s a full-featured web-based alternative to Microsoft Office, with the ability to create/edit documents, spreadsheets or presentations online, collaborate on them simultaneously with other users, and download them in a variety of the usual formats. Use it for just backing important things up, or use the full ‘Docs’ features – it’s up to you.

One other incredibly powerful feature of Google docs are the forms tools. These can be used to create online forms – the best way I currently know of to create online questionnaires for research purposes. The data from the questionnaires all gets dumped into a google docs spreadsheet for easy analysis too – very cool. This page has some good tips.

3. Google Scholar
Google Scholar is pretty much my first port-of-call for literature searches these days, and is often the best way of looking up papers quickly and easily. Yes, for in-depth research on a particular topic then you still need to look at more specialised databases, but as a first-pass tool, it’s fantastic. You can use it without being logged in with a Google account, but if you’re a researcher, you can get a Google Scholar profile page – like this: Isaac Newton’s Google Scholar profile page (only an h-index of 33 Isaac? Better get your thumb out of your arse for the REF old boy). This is the best way to keep track of your publications and some simple citation metrics.

4. Google Calendar
Yes, you need to start using a calendar. Google calendar can pull together several calendars together into one, sync seamlessly with your ‘phone, and send you alerts and emails to make sure you never miss a tutorial or lecture again. Or at least, you never miss one because you just forgot about it.

5. Blogger
Blogger is owned by Google, so if you want to start a blog (and it’s something you should definitely think about), all you need to do is go to blogger and hit a few buttons – simples. That’s the easy bit – then you actually have to write something of course…

6. Google Sites
Probably the easiest way to create free websites – as for Blogger above, you can literally create a site with a few clicks. Lots of good free templates that you can use and customise.

7. Google+
Yes, I know you use Facebook, but Google+ is the future. Maybe. The video hangouts are cool, anyway.

8. Other things
Use your Google account to post videos to YouTube, save maps/locations/addresses in Google Maps, find like-minded weirdos who are into the same things as you on Google Groups, read RSS feeds using Google Reader, and oooh… lots of other things.

Honestly, the feature of Gmail should be inducement enough for everyone to sign up for a Google account, the rest is just a bonus. Get to it people – it’s never too late to switch.

TTFN.

***UPDATE***

Following a couple of comments (below, and on Twitter) I feel it necessary to qualify somewhat my effusive recommendation of Google. Use of Google services inevitably involves surrendering personal information and other data to Google, which is a large corporation, and despite these services being free at the point of use, it should always be remembered that the business of corporations is to deliver profits. Locking oneself into a corporate system should be considered carefully, no matter how ‘convenient’ it might be. This article from Gizmodo is worth a read, as is this blog post from a former Google employee.

How many social networks do researchers really need?

I realised the other day that I now have profiles on about eight different sites which have some kind of social networking functionality. Facebook (mostly for personal stuff) and Twitter (mostly work-related stuff) are the ones I tend to use the most, but I also have profiles on LinkedIn and Google+. I also have profiles set up on a number of more specialist academic/researcher networks – Academia.edu, BiomedExperts, ResearchGate and Mendeley. The only one of these I use regularly is Mendeley, and that’s almost entirely for the reference-management features, rather than the social connectivity side of it. For most of them I signed up to see what they were about, and then hardly ever looked at them again.

Keeping track of them all is starting to become a major headache. When I publish a new paper, in theory I should go to all these separate accounts and add it to my profile on each one. In practice of course, I rarely bother and so my accounts languish mostly unused.

The reason why I’m not more actively using my accounts on, say, Academia.edu or ResearchGate is that they offer me very little that I can’t get elsewhere. Each one offers a slightly different feature-set, and they all seem to be reasonably well-built sites, but if I want to talk about research, then I’m more likely to do it in seminars, conferences or in the pub than on social networking sites. The exception to this rule is of course Twitter, which I’ve found to be an incredibly powerful way of sharing, discovering and talking about new research with more and various interested and expert conversants than I ever imagined.

The killer feature (as with any website these days) is of course content, and in the case of social networks the content is the people that use them. Facebook is now pretty much essential to my social life because almost all of my friends actively use it. If a network existed which included almost all of the people that I was interested in talking to about research, then actively using it would be well worth my while. Unfortunately, none of the specialist academic networks seem to have taken off in terms of their user-base in the way that Facebook has for a more general audience. There was a brief flurry of excitement (ironically, mostly on Twitter) about Google+, and particularly its ‘hangout’ feature, for academic collaboration, but that all seems to have died down, and after a couple of weeks of playing around with it, my Google+ account is now as moribund as all the others.

So, where can we go from here? There seems to be a lot of optimism (and investment) around the idea that a specialised social network for researchers might be a useful thing, but so far no-one seems to have cracked it yet. As this article notes, the only way researchers will start using these tools regularly is if they fill some kind of currently un-met need. My motivation for using facebook is that it makes my life easier – instead of feeling guilty for never e-mailing or calling my friends I can just read their status updates and at least maintain the illusion that I’m in touch with their lives. Researchers are generally busy people and would probably welcome some online tool which could make their lives more efficient. Unfortunately, most of our needs seem to be pretty adequately met by relatively simple tools which are currently available (e.g. RSS readers for keeping track of the latest publications/blogs). Until a network comes along which has a) a really killer feature-set and b) a sufficiently wide user-base, these specialist academic networks are probably destined to struggle, and many will likely fail once their start-up funding runs dry.

How to use Google effectively – an infographic.

I’ve written before about how to effectively search for information on the internet, however I just found a fantastic infographic from a site called Hack College. There’s some other useful-looking stuff on the site too – it’s tips/resource site for (American) college students. Anyway, the infographic is reproduced below (click for full-size version) and if you don’t already know everything in it, then consider yourself duly chastised, you young scamp.

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How to do research on the internet – Google Scholar and other databases

So, you’ve got a lovely juicy essay/paper or research project to write, and instead of spending hours going through card catalogs in the library you obviously want to get your research done in the fastest way possible – on the internet. Here are my best tips for finding material for a paper or essay using online databases. In a nutshell – there’s more to finding information on the web than just typing some keywords into Google and using what pops out on the first page of results.

As a general rule, you should familiarise yourself with what databases are available to you – some are totally open-access, while others require some kind of subscription. Most universities and colleges subscribe to a lot of them, and you can usually find links to available databases on your college’s library website.

The way I usually start is with a couple of really general search terms on Google Scholar. You could start off searching on Google’s regular web search page, but all you generally get there is the wikipedia page, and you wouldn’t be stupid enough to reference wikipedia in an essay, would you? Of course not. Say your essay is on working memory – so stick “working memory +review” (without the quotes) into google scholar. This gets you about 2.2 million hits! Change the middle drop-down box at the top to restrict your search to the last, say, five years and then you have less than half a million references to go through – easy. Of course you don’t have to look through half a million papers – the great thing about Google Scholar is that it ranks things in order of ‘influence’ – which roughly translates as the number of times that paper has been cited by other papers. While there’s lots of arguments about exactly what this means in terms of a paper’s genuine influence, influential papers tend to get more cited than others, so it’s a reasonable metric. Hopefully you’ve got a couple of good review papers there on the first couple of pages that will get you into the topic. The other really great thing about Google Scholar is that it links directly to PDFs of the papers (when they’re available on the net) which enables you to directly download the papers with a single (right-)click. Of course if you use reference management like Mendeley (and if you don’t, you’re an idiot)  you can also import references from Google Scholar directly into your library. Here’s a nice page which talks about some advanced tips and tricks for getting the most out of Google Scholar. Read the rest of this entry

Best iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch apps for psychology students

The iPhone is much more than just a phone – it’s a powerful mobile computing platform which has completely changed the way  we interact with our mobile devices. If you’re a student who has one (or an iPod touch, or even an iPad, you lucky, lucky thing) there are many ways you can use it to make your life easier.

Mendeley. If you use Mendeley (and if you’re any kind of student and you don’t use it, or something like it, then you’re basically nuts) then a download of their free app is a must. The app connects to your online library of references and allows you full access to any PDFs you’ve synced to their servers for download and reading. You can sync papers to your library using the desktop version and read them later on your iPhone or iPad. Sweet. And it’s free! Read the rest of this entry