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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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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.

Reference Managers and Citing-While-You-Write

Another quickie link-out type post (yes, alright, I’ll sit down and write a proper post sometime soon – it’s been a busy few weeks, OK?), this time to a… let’s say, a spirited discussion over on DrugMonkey’s blog on my very favourite topic – reference management. Well, it’s actually about writing and citing at the same time, but there’s loads of good work-flow related tips related to referencing and reference-management software.

Once again, for those of you at the back – if you’re a student and you’re not using something like Mendeley, then you are a) making your life much harder than it needs to be, and b) a massive idiot.

Reference Management Software – Yes, again. It’s important.

Protoscholar recently, and very kindly, linked to my previous post on computing skills for students and made two very pertinent comments, which you can read here. The first comment was that I’d missed out any kind of software for doing qualitative analysis. This omission is entirely a product of my own ignorance I’m afraid – I come from a very experimental background and know very little about qualitative research and the relevant tools available. I’m happy to link to protoscholar’s article and the recommendations for qualitative software made there.

The second comment was that ‘Reference Management Software’ and ‘Do regular backups’ were too important to be filed away at the end under ‘Miscellaneous’. This is absolutely right – in fact I regard the use of Reference Management software to be the absolute number one, top tip that every student, post-grad or academic needs to know. I notice there are already some good articles on protoscholar’s site about various bits of software, so I’m linking to them here.

Just to reiterate – if you’re a student and you’re not using some kind of reference management software, you’re making your life so much more difficult than it needs to be. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose, as long as you use something!

All via protoscholar.com:

A very useful chart on different features of the most popular RM software.
A useful article on organising your research.

Zotero.
My Favourite RM tool – Mendeley.

TTFN.

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

Reference Management Software

Since this is my very first post on this blog, I’ll start off with what I regard as the best bit of advice that can be given to a student of any discipline: Use some kind of reference management software. For my money, this is the number one, absolute-must, tippety-top thing that you can do that will make your life as a student easier, bump up your productivity, and help to increase your grades.

Once more just in case you missed it: Use some reference management software! If you’re an undergraduate student with essays to write and you’re not using it, you’re an idiot. If you’re a grad student with a long-form thesis to write and you’re not using it, then you’re insane. Read the rest of this entry