To Code or Not to Code? A PhD Question

To Code or Not to Code? A PhD Question

Stephanie Allan (@eolasinntinn) is a first year PhD student in the Institute of Health & Wellbeing looking at process evaluations of digital interventions for psychosis. She is particularly enthusiastic about the meaningful involvement of people who have experienced psychosis within research.

Is doing an extra course that has little to do with your PhD a complete waste of time? Or can it be an enriching activity?

Coding is one of those skills that we are told is very useful to have and it is something that has fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. I love technology but have always assumed I'd be rubbish at making my own code and with so many competing demands on our time - it can be reasoned that if coding has little to do with our PhD research, then it is perhaps unlikely we will make an effort.

 Photo Credit: Pixabay (https://www.pexels.com/photo/coding-computer-data-depth-of-field-577585/)

Photo Credit: Pixabay (https://www.pexels.com/photo/coding-computer-data-depth-of-field-577585/)

I saw an advert for a Code First Girls course at Glasgow University retweeted by a Professor from my undergrad degree and I decided to be bold and go for it.  Code First Girls appealed to me because it is a social enterprise that offers free courses with the aim to get more women (including trans women and non-binary people) into tech - women only make up 17% of the workforce! They offer a supportive learning environment and tailor their course offers around students by having them on campus and outside core teaching hours. Entry into the programme was competitive and involved filling out an application form to tell them about yourself and how having coding skills could help you change the world. I felt being a PhD student was helpful for the application process because we are used to linking our research and ideas to the "bigger picture". I was then lucky enough to be accepted into the eight-week course aimed at absolute beginners.

Throughout the eight weeks, we learned practical skills in how to code with HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Coming from a decidedly non-tech social science background, I found the course a challenge at first. However, by making sure I factored in enough time to complete the weekly homework exercises, my skills improved dramatically. The weekly homework tasks took advantage of the multitude of "teach yourself" code websites that are out there. The free online resources are fantastic and you can really teach yourself a lot in your own time.  All he teachers were volunteers entirely driven by their passion to pass on their skills and knowledge. Having access to an expert who could patiently walk you through the code if you got stuck was incredibly helpful. Ultimately, the course very much highlighted the human side of coding by foregrounding the importance of creating products that provide a good user experience.

 Photo Credit: Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/photo-820275/)

Photo Credit: Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/photo-820275/)

I was aware most students on the course would be undergrads so I worried at times, “What if I felt like their gran?”. I completed my undergrad as an adult returner to education so I'm older than most PhD students. I quickly discovered that yes, I was probably the oldest student there, but this absolutely did not matter! Our final homework exercise was a group project, and I worked with two first-year undergraduates to produce a website. We all worked well together and received incredibly positive feedback for our finished product.

 Photo Credit: PhD Comics (http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=946)

Photo Credit: PhD Comics (http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=946)

For PGRs interested in learning code, I would say go for it! Even if you feel your PhD is not at all relevant, you could always use your skills to develop a truly personalised website to tell others about your research. One amazing thing I discovered doing the course was that you do not need to have studied computing science at degree level to have a coding career. Many of the people who taught us came to code later in their lives and now had exciting careers in tech. I finished the course last Thursday so have not yet found a way to apply my new skills to the PhD. However, I am feeling more confident about taking on new challenges and stepping outside of my comfort zone. I think that is worth making the time for.

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