Course correction: What you never thought you’d need to know

It’s that time of year again. Students are flooding back onto campuses, resuming their courses of study or embarking on a new path.

Research runs similar lines – following up and taking new directions. And sometimes it leaves me wishing I had learned more _______ as a student. There’s hope for those who are still students – and in the digital age with things like free online courses and CodeAcademy, there might even be hope for the rest of us. Here are a few on my list:

  • Statistics – really, why isn’t this required for every science degree, from BS to PhD? We tend take p-values as a statement of truthiness of research results, but how well do most of us understand them?
  • More calculus – If you get into any sort of quantitative biology, derivatives and integrals are going to haunt you.
  • Linear algebra – Goes along with ‘more calculus’ and the realization that computers operate in matrices.
  • Computing – Along with previous 2, if you’re doing quantitative analysis, chances are you’re going to find yourself entrenched in R and/or MATLAB. You might also find that you’re running, editing, or writing code, so speaking the language (e.g. Python, which seems to be taking over bio applications) is be a huge benefit.

Ten years ago, as I was finishing up my BS, I never imagined how much some of these things would be infiltrating my life. From my view, these things certainly are not going to become less useful in the future – of my research or the field.

What’s on your list?

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13 Responses to Course correction: What you never thought you’d need to know

  1. Dr. 27 says:

    A formal biophysics course, a course in the fundamentals of my branch of struct bio, a programming course and a methods course. Stats were always a bitch for me, but yes, I wish I’d taken more stats.

  2. Things like electron microscopy, molecular biology, immunohistochemistry, maybe. I learned fiddly bench skills, but mine were mostly related to electrophysiology.

  3. bananafurby says:

    Statistic and programming definitely. A better bioinformatics course maybe, but I also much more microbiology.

  4. Stats. Oh, how I wish I had taken stats.

  5. jbashir says:

    That’s pretty much my list. I actually signed up to take Intro Compsci pass/fail, but as you can imagine that ended with me not going much and dropping. I don’t know why I stopped after taking math after I finished the required courses. I think I just wanted a bit of a break to do stuff in my major and work in labs.
    Actually I kind of wish I would have considered doubling in applied math more seriously. I didn’t realize how quantitative my work would end up being.

    • biochembelle says:

      I didn’t realize how quantitative my work would end up being.

      I’m with you, Bashir. Oh how I long for the days when all my quantification could be done using Excel… 😛

  6. biochembelle says:

    Picking up from some Twitter chatter, I have to say, a course on spotting data manipulation sadly might be in order…

  7. I second everything you have. For undergrad, I would also add a research methods course. My psychology major required it, but one for biology would have been really helpful!

  8. Kallen says:

    If as far as a person goes in science is a bachelor degree, why doesn’t even that teach the basics?

    As a journalist, I’d say people really need to learn better research techniques. I’d like to say most people who are studying science learn this, but when I was finishing up my college degree, I overheard a biology undergrad who was all, “why should I read a research paper? The info is on Wikipedia.”

    I had an entire course on how to research, analyze and vet source material and it was extremely valuable. When it comes to research, everyone should be a skeptic.

    For myself… more stats. Why was this not a requirement?! Its frustrating and I think stats would have been more useful than the two years of Calc for understanding the basic fundamentals of science and research.

    • biochembelle says:

      First apologies for the delay in replying!

      Second, agree on the research methods class. A course required for my undergrad degree was called “Intro to laboratory methods”, but it was really about the stuff you do before a project and in writing it up, so a major focus on finding original source material. Being in a chem department, we had to learn how to use Chemical Abstracts (yes, the old print edition) and the e-version SciFinder scholar.

  9. Stats for sure!!! I have been laboring over how to handle a set of data for two months now. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I can’t do anything statistical until I have more data, which I have to coordinate with a collaborator on the other side of the country!!!
    Every stats book I’ve read says you should determine how you’re going to handle/analyze the data before you collect it. I don’t think anyone does that and sometimes its just not practical, but I’m starting to see the wisdom in it and I will definitely think about it more NEXT time!
    Also, read a paper today in which simple calculations (percentages!) were WRONG… which makes me question their stats, especially since they didn’t look quite right. So, I second the course on how to spot data manipulation as well. Ugh! Science!

  10. Pingback: What do you wish you’d learned as a student, but didn’t? | Dynamic Ecology

  11. Pingback: “What do you wish you’d learned as a student, but didn’t?” | The Language of Science

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