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Blog post

Computer Programming for Graduate Students with Zero Experience

October 20, 2016
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By GradProSkills

computer programming

    Graduate research often requires you to perform long and repetitive tasks on a computer. You spend hours renaming and resizing images, looking for specific text across multiple Word documents, or updating data in lengthy Excel spreadsheets. In some cases, you can speed up the process with a formula or a button, but more often than not – you go through a lot of clicking, scrolling, copying, and pasting to get the job done. Have you ever wondered if there is a faster way? In this week’s blog post, we will discuss how knowing basic computer programming can minimize the time and energy you spend on repetitive tasks, freeing your schedule for more meaningful activities.

    "All computer programs, from Microsoft Word to SPSS, are made from text files that tell the computer what to do” says GradProSkills workshop leader Stuart Spence, who recently taught “GPDI513 - Computer Programming for Graduate Students with Zero Experience". These text files are written by computer programmers and may come in various computer languages. Some of these languages are easy to master, while others are more difficult. Spence recommends a language called Python for beginner programmers, as it is powerful and yet – relatively easy to learn. Computers can only understand a specific language if they have the software that interprets it. For example, if you want to teach Python to your computer, you need to install a Python interpreter from this link. Did you do it? Yes? Great! From now on, every time you are faced with a tedious task, you can use Python to instruct your computer to do it for you.

    There are many types of instructions your can provide to your computer. For example, with Python you can use the "regular expressions" (also called regex or regexp). Spence describes them as short commands that tell a computer to find specific patterns of text, such as emails or phone numbers, in long documents. Imagine that you have an Excel spreadsheet with over a thousand rows and each row is someone’s responses to your survey questions. Using regex you can instruct your computer to list all respondents who answered 6 to question number 1 but did not answer yes to question number 4. Your computer can do in seconds what may take you hours to do – manually.

    Now that we have seen the time-saving benefits of computer programs, one question remains – if you are new to programming, how do you write a Python program yourself? Well, “you don’t always have to,” advises Spence. There are many programs already available online for you to use. For instance, you can browse websites where programmers openly share their code, such as Github.com, for some useful ideas. If you are looking for a specific program, you can simply google it. “In most cases, you can find the code you are looking for online,” says Spence. Yet, it is a good idea to have some basic Python knowledge, so you are able to run the code and personalize it if necessary. Some helpful resources for beginners recommended by Spence include the interactive website “Codecademy” and the free tutorial series “Automate the boring stuff with Python.” You can also check out some code by Spence himself, as well as additional resources suggested by him.

    Learning a bit of computer programming will require some time and effort, but it is a good investment in the long run. Having a time-consuming, menial task coming up? Why not automate it today?

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