I was in a moderately-well-known-Professor-who-shall-remain-nameless’s office the other day, watching him bang out an email. Except he wasn’t banging it out, he was using his two index fingers to hunt-and-peck at the keyboard while continually lifting his head to look at the screen, and then putting it back down to peer at the keyboard. It was painful to watch. I nearly gnawed right through a knuckle.
I was fortunate. When I was 13 years old, my Mum sat me down at her electric typewriter (yes, really, I am that old), gave me a Mavis Beacon book, and told me I wasn’t allowed any dinner until I could do at least 60 words per minute with no mistakes. A week later, when I was so faint with hunger and the pain from my finger-blisters that I could barely see the page anymore, I managed it.
Of course that’s not true, but my Mum is a fantastic typist, and did teach me when I was about 13, and honestly in terms of investment/payoff ratio it’s probably the best few hours I’ve ever spent in my life. Learning to touch-type is not hard and doesn’t really take that long; like most things it’s just a matter of discipline and practice. Actually, once you start doing it properly it’s hard to imagine how you ever managed without it. If you’re reading this, then you probably spend at least a substantial part of your day sitting at a keyboard, why not spend a few hours making the entire rest of your working life easier and more efficient? And if you’re reading this thinking “Yeah, but I’ve developed my own version of semi-touch-typing which is pretty fast and efficient, actually” then you’re wrong. It’s likely nowhere near as fast and efficient as it could be.
There are lots of good online touch-typing courses available. Most of them give you feedback on speed and the number of mistakes you make while typing. TypingClub looks like a good option. The BBC has a good course aimed more at kids. This site has a free course and a number of games to improve and sharpen up your skillz.
Seriously, this is one of the best things you can possibly learn. Yes, it’s a drag, but it will literally make the rest of your life easier. DO IT.
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.
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!
* I realise US colleges and other countries have a different structure, but I think these recommendations will still broadly apply.
Just a very quick post to point you towards something I recently came across through the power of Twitter – plagtracker.com. This is an online service which will scan a block of text (i.e. an essay/paper) and compare it to internet pages and a database of academic papers. The best thing about it though, is that it’s completely free!
I tested it out by pasting in a block of text from a previous post on this blog, and it seemed to perform pretty well, in that it correctly identified the source of the material as this site. It produces quite a nicely formatted report with links to the source material too:
Pretty cool. The web interface means it probably isn’t that useful for essay-markers who want to batch-check a whole load of student essays, but if I was a student, I would definitely be using this service to check my essays before submission – plagiarism can happen by accident after all, and can often be fixed by just citing the correct sources. I say ‘often’ because you still have to remember the golden rule of undergraduate essays – for the love of God, don’t cite Wikipedia as a source!
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.