Learning How To Program

Here’s what it’s like to go from being a clinician to being a scientist.

You take what you know about your topic. Let’s call that Level 6 knowledge (on a scale of 0 to 10). You think to yourself, “That ain’t bad!”, after all you are a specialist in your chosen field. Medical students think you’ve memorized the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. House Officers tremble at the thought of being quizzed by you during ward rounds, and Medical Officers bow down to your expertise.

Pretty soon after the start of your PhD, you’ll realize that what you thought of as Level 6 is actually Level 1 or 2 knowledge in the grand scheme of things. After all, you may know a little bit here and there about a variety of topics, but for your PhD you’ll need to ramp up the level of expertise. You need to push the dial to Level 11 if possible. If Level 10 is the limit of what the world knows about something, then your job is to take it up a notch and discover something new.

So yeah, in summary, it ain’t easy doing a PhD (yay it rhymes!).

Now the good news is that you don’t have to do it overnight. You have time, but seriously, there’s a LOT to learn!

One new thing I’m learning at the moment is programming. Full disclosure: I am a noob at this, so take whatever I say here with a pinch of salt. From what I can see, a lot of neuroscience research is done with MATLAB, R, and Python. Without any context available, I’d probably say that you should try to learn Python first. But the reality is you will probably end up having to learn all of them simultaneously.

MATLAB

I’ve heard that the best way to learn a programming language is by using it to solve a problem you’re having. My problem right now is that I need to analyze the data on working memory I’ve collected thus far and turn it into a presentation for my group’s lab meeting. Should be fun, right? What could possibly go wrong…

Integrity

One of the benefits of being in Oxford is the chance to attend lectures by people who are leaders in their respective fields. I recently went to a talk given by Tan Sri Abdul Wahid Omar at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. One part of his speech really resonated with me (emphasis mine):

Many people have been asking, what does it take to be a good and sustainable leader? To my mind, beyond working hard and working smart, there are three prerequisites to becoming a good and sustainable leader; Unquestionable Integrity; Competence; and Humility.

Integrity is about “doing the right thing even when no one is watching”. Competence is about having the necessary knowledge and skills to do the job well. Whilst humility is about treating people with mutual respect, about staying grounded to our roots and about being cognisant that we all serve a greater purpose in life rather than for our self-interest. Humility is also about knowing that you don’t know everything and that you need teamwork in order to succeed.

A competent, humble leader with unquestionable integrity and who works very hard will enjoy a reputation that will precede him.