How to improve at programming when your current position doesn’t require it & Online Learning Resources

Have you ever felt like you would like to get better at programming, maybe even get a position involving more programming some day but the fact that you currently don’t really need it at your current position seems to hold you back? This post is for you.

Daily practice is key for improvement

You need daily practice if you actually want to improve. You already need daily practice just to keep your skills sharp during a time where you don’t need to use them. Also, if you don’t even have programming skills yet, you probably are too tired after work to sit down and work on a private programming project.

But you should. Programming is a skill which takes a long time to learn. That is, if you want to reach a decent skill level. This means that you have to start regular practice long before you actually need that skill or need to apply for a job, if possible.

The common advice: Find a starting out project to program in your free time

When I first informed myself on this, the most common advice was to find a cool project and try to program it in your free time. But I found that when you don’t have an idea for such a project which makes complete sense to you, you’re not going to go through with it. Without an acutal, urgent need you probably won’t sit down the amount of hours necessary to actually make progress. At least the great majority of people wouldn’t.

Then I tried setting myself mini-challenges. This was a good idea. But there wasn’t a lot of guidance (obviously). This, in return, was discouraging and wasted a lot of time. Of course, time well spent learning something. But since I am really interested in effective learning, I felt that I was wasting time. Effective learning is always better than just playing around. You need curriculum. At least some. That’s when I found out that there are a lot of competitive programming sites which offer useful short exercises where you can do one per day.

Before that, I had tried all sorts of “Learn programing” sites like SoloLearn, freeCodeCamp, the Enki app, just to name a few of my favourites. But really, I didn’t like them all that much. They went through the syntax of the language and that was it. Like learning the vocabulary of a living language but never using it.

Review of some of the materials out there

Here, I want to share links to all sorts of learn coding sites out there. Of course, it’s not extensive but I think it does cover a good few of the most important ones. And maybe has a bit of a different perspective from most other “here are 30 sites to learn coding for free” blog posts out there.

A constraint for me was that the site had to be completely free of charge. So, for example, DataCamp is a no-go. Although, I have still linked to some pay-sites in case you are interested.

But especially as there are so many pages where you can get a similar service for free, I don’t see why I should pay for one of them, when there are so many alternatives available. If it were really brilliant, I would probably pay for it, in theory. Like HackerRank, I like so much at the moment, that I would probably get access for a one-time payment. But most of those apps and sites ask for monthly payment of up to or even starting at 10€ – that is a crazy amount of money and you already get books starting from 10€. I personally would always put more trust in a book in terms of quality and the hope that there might be a logical progression to the teaching; and thus, rather go for that. Also, I just don’t do monthly subscriptions. They eat so much of your money and mostly, when you sum it all up, are not really worth it. 

Also, the amount of sites (plus all the apps!) out there has become so huge, it’s really a full-time job to check them all. That time might be better invested in just picking one and learning to code. These other sites that I found initially focused more on interview prep for experienced programmers or programming contests, but many of them have actually developped training tracks. They also tend to offer a broader range of subjects than many other very popular sites which focus on web development (“coding”) mainly.

Enki app

I had liked the Enki apps daily workouts, but the learning progression was not stable. They give you a random tutorial every day. This was not very effective and I quickly was through with all of their material. Ergo, the workouts started repeating very quickly.  For more, you would now have to pay monthly for access which I am not willing to do since learning-wise, it is not sooo well done. It was really good for a free site (for a while I used it a lot), but not good enough to be paying for it. Sadly, I have experienced this with most of the sites I have tried (and I have tried quite many).

App-wise, you will just get the Enki review here. I tried probably all the most important apps out there. But mostly, in their way of just explaining the syntax of a language, the progress was slow and it was ineffective for me who already knew most of the syntax. You usually can’t skip much or speed up if you’re getting bored. Still you never get any actual programming done which I found both useless and frustrating. Having tried all the apps and “learn the syntax of XY” (disguised as “Learn programming language XY” which is not the same thing, in my opinion), I now found competitive programming sites to be more what I had been looking for. 

Some of them don’t have all the languages you might want, especially the smaller ones and the web dev focused ones.

 

General-purpose learning sites (video-based, MOOCs, etc.)

Many popular sites (Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, Khan Academy, MOOCS like edx, OpenMIT) are video-based and I don’t personally like that. I prefer interactive sites where you can type your code directly. But well, now you have the links to those resources as well.

Online books or blog tutorials

Even though I have a tutorial blog myself, I personally would not try to learn a programming language from a blog. Sometimes you find useful posts for a specific problem you need to solve, that’s mainly what they are good for. I just think that the available interactive things are cooler for actually getting programming experience as a novice programmer.

Youtube tutorials or channels

Some posts on free “learn coding” resources recommend Youtube tutorials or channels. This is, I think, a valid point if there really is an excellent tutorial video out for exactly what you want. So, if what you want isn’t uncommon, there is likely to be one. Sometimes a 5min video can save you an hour of reading a tutorial. But I find that hardly any channels offer sensible curriculum for a motivated learner, so I’m not sure how much you would get out of it in the long run. That’s why I won’t recommend any here.

Sites just/mostly teaching the syntax of languages

 

Many of them are gamified as well

Sites I really like for practice / or of the type I like (challenge-based)

Learn the language tracks are available on for example: HackerRank, HackerEarth (teaches algorithms).

With Hackerrank, for example, I really like their testcases. They don’t just ask you to write a solution on your own (sites like SoloLearn, Codecademy hardly do that in their regular curriculum), they also provide testcases where, for example, overflow is bound to occur. So with every single test you are reminded to remember that. This is a good reinforcment method in  teaching, I think 😉 Also, have I mentioned that supposedly, the only thing which really works wonders in teaching is getting tested? So forget about what learning type you are (visual, audio-visual-bla, etc.) and become a tester. You can skip some of the testcases of course, but the frequent reminder still works wonders. Also, you can learn from other users good (high-ranked) solutions. Especially in algorithms, it’s really worth checking how more experienced programmers did it. However, these competitive programming platforms do kind of encourage bad programming style (and dirty hacks to improve speed), so be sure to take care of that yourselves. Be persistent disciplined when it comes to using good style! And remember to still work on bigger projects every once in a while, since the daily practice from these sites is just one single function without context.

Learn Catch the Flag / Hacking

Also, if you’re interesed, these are some sites where you can learn CTF (catch the flag), something like competitive ethical hacking.

Other / Tutorial-based

More tutorial-based sites which are useful but not for the kind of rapid learning I recommend:

Resources

Also, check these other posts on free coding resources:

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Your 24 hours. Time management or How to get to know yourself while organizing your life. Part II

Today, I am yet again happy to present the second part of the latest LaTeX Noob guest post:

 

Last time, I told you about four important steps to organizing your life. They were:

  1. Know your priorities.
  2. Learn to say “no”.
  3. Leave your comfort zone.
  4. Never back down.

If you want to re-read the last post, you can find it here!

So, time management.

You will need a calendar, let’s start with that. Take your phone, open your Google calendar. Start. It is actually that easy. You have to know the most important basics. When do I work, what are my main working hours? Do I like a silent or slightly more lively environment for my work? Am I a morning person or a night owl? When will I need a break, when do I want to go to sleep?

When am I meeting my friends, when do I spend time with my partner or my family? What do I do for relaxing? How often? Exercise? Any activities? When and where?

What is there to do on household chores (you know, cooking, cleaning, gardening etc.) and when are they due?

Just write those things down. Think about it. It is creepy at first sight, I know, but hey…

Labyrinth-Girl

I am a morning person, I like to start early with my work.

I love good instrumental or orchestral music during work. I like other people around me while I work, because of the swift “office-noise”.

For relaxing, I like reading, listening to music, going climbing, watching TV, taking long walks, photography, writing, people-stuff (friends and family).

Basic week:

  • 4 work days, Monday to Thursday = 30 hours of work
  • 1 “thesis day” (also called somehow home-office)
  • 1 university course to teach and prepare
  • 4 university courses to attend and prepare
  • one evening to go climbing
  • (at least) one evening to have dinner with my partner

An example week

I will give you my five days of my working week in my calendar now, just as an example and to show you how I work on my organization and how I try to plan my days. You may have got it until now – it is all about your own rhythm: find it, then stick to it.

Monday

7:00 start work

15:00 short coffee break with friends

17:00 back home, dinner

18:15 climbing (1.5 to 2 h)

  • hair day, bathroom cleaning

  • prepare courses

22:00 bedtime

Tuesday

7:00 start work

10:00 Coffee break with colleagues

18:00 back home, dinner

  • washing clothes

  • prepare courses

  • TV/Dinnertime with my partner

22:00 bedtime

Wednesday

7:00 start work

10:00 teach my university class

12:00 lunch with friends

15:15 university course 1

18:45 university course 2

20:30 dinner with colleagues

22:00 back home

23:00 bedtime

Thursday

7:00 start work

13:00 end work

13:30 university course 3

15:00 prepare next course (learning a new language for work)

17:00 university course 4

19:00 back home

22:00 bedtime

Friday

7:00 morning routine

  • Thesis Day

  • kitchen cleaning

  • washing clothes

  • shopping supplies

14:00 lunch with my partner

15:00 beginning of my pre-weekend

Weekend

Normally spend with family and/or friends and /or partner – and sometimes spent with reading texts or papers connected to my research field

Conclusion

So I actually do have some kind of private life, but I have to organize it in a very strict way and I have to be very strict with myself sometimes. I am a morning person and I am in the possession of a “daylight alarm clock” – you know, it starts with deep red light approximately one hour before your actual alarm time and continues getting brighter like the sun rising, so your body can wake up before you actively open your eyes and wake up in your head. It works! At least, for me.

I need my bedtime set earlier now, so around 10 pm I am really grateful for a warm and cozy bed and sleep. I enjoy resting in my bed on the weekend, this is a fact, but it is like a reward I promise to myself.

I am still meeting my friends and I have still a lot of other things to do in my life, things which I enjoy and which are keeping me relaxed and sane.

It’s worth the hard work. You just have to start.

[Guest Post] Your 24 hours. Time management or How to get to know yourself while organizing your life. Part I

I am happy to introduce the second guest post by our friend, the LaTeX Noob. This time not on LaTeX 😉 So, here we go. Enter the Noob.

 

I am currently writing my PhD thesis and, hell yeah, it is rather pleasant, because I am good at getting sh*t, I mean, stuff, done. Now, I will tell you how this is possible and show you how to achieve that too.

 

Before time management, find structure in your life first

However, it was not always that easy and organized. I have to admit I am generally a structured person: I like notebooks, I do keep a bullet journal and I love calendars to organize my life. But how to get the great amount of work together with one’s private life (for we all love our family, our partner, our friends, and we want to spent time with them, right?), enough sleep, healthy eating, some sports, some Me-time?

The ways of time management are paved with many books, tons of good advice, and many expectations – but, essentially, always depend on yourself. This might sound like a yoga mantra, but only you can be the best version of yourself. Therefore, before getting into structuring your life, you have to reflect on yourself and on your life.

This is like our Ninja’s post on why courses on learning how to program go wrong most times. You cannot start with an expectation to be the best structured and organized human being in this world just from zero to hero – no, it is hard work. However, I can give you only some advice on how to build your organized self, but it will take its time.

Self management first!

1) First things first: Know your priorities.

What do you want in life or at this moment? Is it your PhD – like for me – or is it the next career step? Is it to spend more time with the people you love? Is it to get enough Me-Time, quality time for yourself, to caress your soul etc.?

2) The next thing will be: Learn to say NO.

Let’s say, you are planning your life as a graduate student, like I do. You have a job, you have to write your thesis, you have to relax and practice self-care. So, the important word is “no”. You have to know when you can and when you should use it. Trust me, sometimes this is really hard. However, you, your mind and your body, are your resources, so be careful with them. We are living in a hard world, full of burnout and bore-out; we have to be careful with our resources. That should be clear.

Of course, there are some situations, where you have no choice – you have to give everything in this specific moment. So, please, imagine, you have to give everything, but are very stressed out because you never take a break. When you are constantly giving everything or nearly everything, you have no resources left for the moment you will need them the most. Easy enough to understand, I guess. So, just take care and take a break when it is necessary.

3) Leave your cozy cavern.

The next thing is: After you know how to use the word “no”, learn to be fearless. One only grows with new situations. Therefore, if you really want to get to the next level in your life, you have to leave your comfort zone. Moreover, as always: Start with the tiny steps and the little things. It will be that you make a terrible fool out of yourself, as it happened very often to myself, but hey, we can get up again and try the next time. This leads us to the next step.

Ninja’s addition,  a nice quote: “Never be afraid to ask. Someone might be willing to show you her answer to your question. Despite all the necessary baby steps, it is OK to aim high. Always aim high. But you have to do all the baby steps in order to eventually get there. ” (Karl Posch, A Lesson On Programming, Graz 2018. p. 177. https://kcposch.wordpress.com/

4) Never back down.

Just because you are making a fool of yourself, your life does not end, you know? I know of what I speak here, because I had some tough times in my life, but guess what – they are past and gone now. I cannot act like they never have happened, but I can cope with them. Sometimes, there are dark days where feelings like shame will hit you hard, but still, you survived all of your worst days so far. You are doing great. Therefore, never let them get you down. You have to try again. You have to work on yourself.

My four steps

Now, this should be a post on time management and somehow it came out as what – four steps to be a better person with self-care? Well, yeah, seems like that. I will end this post in giving you an example (actually, I am talking about myself, because that will be a very valid example) on how you can do all these steps.

1) My next step is finishing my PhD – and I have a job at a research project, so two deadlines and some pressure. However, I want still see my friends and my family and spend quality time with them, next to time alone, because I love to read, alone, in my room. So, how to do that?

I have timeslots in my workdays, where I go and have a cup of coffee – actually taking a break after some hours work, but also meeting friends and talking and laughing. Next thing, I meet some of my friends in our climbing hall, because we exercise together. With my partner, I look for one evening in my workweek, where we will have a cozy dinner together and watch TV on our couch, talking to each other about the current important things in our lives.

2) I am the one who will stand next to you, cheering on every good idea. So… guess, who always has a very hard time on saying “no”? Nevertheless, I am trying to make my choices consciously. I have to work 30 hours on my project, so I try to work hard in this time slot to get my project stuff done. Always giving the best I can and certainly leaving after 30h. I get up early in the morning and work for my thesis. I have some free evenings that way (as long as I can go to bed around 10 pm). On my weekends, I have no plans for work, just for people I love and for me and myself. In addition, if there are some extra tasks that I have to do, then it is like that, but if they are unnecessary, come often and just lead me in the wrong direction, I will say “no”. It is a very complicated game to play, very complicated, if you are working in academia, I know. This might fill another big discussion on how much unpaid work to do and when to refuse, etc.

3) Leaving my comfort zone was and is very hard. I gave talks at conferences which scared the hell out of me. Back in my classes and university courses, there were always people who liked me, so I had support, you know. I am actually a very good presenter, but in front of strangers…?

I practiced my talks in front of my mirror, in front of my boyfriend, in front of my parents. I learned to live with that fear (a fear I cannot name…). I am one of this kind of people who are actually frightened of calling strangers on the phone or writing emails to strangers Yes, I am weird, it is called being an introvert. And it is not helpful, knowing that many people telling you that you actually have to be an extrovert, because of – *insert any reason*. It was getting on my nerves, but then I got it – you cannot see that someone is introvert. You can see that a person is nervous, but that does not mean that this is an introvert. So, deep breath and go.

4) I rushed into very bad situations very often, but I survived them and I am somehow getting over them. It takes time. I had actually a very hard time in learning that all those things take time. You will have to give yourself that time. Moreover, for your next try, just try to make it better in some way. I am trying not to be afraid when I know I am right and the other person is definitely wrong. Introvert-style, you know. Nevertheless, no, I have to stand up for my opinion and my thoughts. In addition, if there is a mistake in my work, I will correct it, but you have to show it to me first.

Time Management part follows in the next post

Now we can dig in the dark mystery of time management, if you still want to. Next time, I will tell you on how building good habits to strengthen your workflow and organization. However, remember, it is always your own life, your own time, your own way. Everybody has the same 24 hours a day. You just need to make them count.

Should I start doing DH?

My non-DH colleagues and friends ask me more and more often if I think they should start doing Digital Humanities and if yes, where to start? Since this seems to be an interesting topic for many, I thought I’d quickly elaborate on it.

Disclaimer: Even though I’ll  put on my “career advisor” hat right now, I want to remind you that I am in no way qualified to advise you on your career. So if it all goes downwards from now, I am not the one to blame. All opinions are my own and should be treated as such.

So, now we got the legal part over with (essentially: don’t sue me), let’s get to my opinion on the topic. I think it is out of the question whether you should start doing DH. In my prognosis, almost all Humanities research is going to be at least part DH in the near future. If you ask me. And you did.

So, the point is: if everybody is going to do DH anyway, so should you. You don’t want to fall behind. This is good – and bad. If everybody is going to do DH in the future, there is no way around the extra work for you to learn it. But then again, hey, you’re already at the right site for getting awesome DH help – so I’m not too worried for you.

Doing DH is going to be normal soon enough

In fact, I think we’re almost at the point where it already is. So for one thing, if you don’t learn the basics and do at least some DH, you will be sub-standard and below average. If you learn and do  some DH however, it won’t be a door opener either because everybody starts doing DH now, ergo it won’t be special anymore in 5 years.

So yes, you should do DH, already so you don’t fall behind. But also don’t expect it to get you very far. Learning what you can now is merely the entrance barrier. If you want your DH affiliation to count in the years to come, this will only be possible if your approach is super innovative or you’re really good at technical stuff. And technical probably way beyond what is common now (XSLT and stuff). It is my opinion that if you want to make a career in the DH in a few years to come, XSLT and web developemnt might not be enough anymore. Maybe if you get lucky. At least, those now-standard DH basics technologies will be the very foundation everybody is expected to have. Alongside the 500 other skills on top of that.

“Label-DH”

If you are a Normal Humanist now, you might not want to completely change course and become a very tec-savvy Digital Humanist unless you already have the programming foundations. You might just want to add a pinch of DH to spice up your regular Humanities research or be eligible for certain grants. Then you are what some call “label DH”.

First of all, I have to add that I am a bit biased when it comes to so-called “label DH”. “Label DH” are people who label themselves  as “DH” but don’t really do DH or are ‘only’ the Humanist part in a DH project or affiliated to a DH project or else. Essentially they have no legitimate DH skills whatsoever but aggressively label themselves as DH for the advantages of it. If you’re only in for the benefits but not ready to put in the work, obviously everybody is going to hate you and you might or might not get lucky with this approach. I wouldn’t recommend it. I think that not so many people are successful with it now. Never overstate your DH abilities, especially if you have none. People will know and you’ll basically be out of the race. I don’t like label DH. Some great DH thinkers, like Patrick Sahle from what I gathered from a talk of his, believe that label DH is just as important for DH as a discipline as is “hardcore DH”. Because it popularizes the discipline more widely. Maybe it is. I’m not particularly fond of it anyway.

Well, I’m a hardliner. I believe that “real DH” would mean to be just as hardcore at programming as you are at your Humanities research. All while not losing touch with your Humanities research, for then, you would turn to a “mere programmer” (not meant in a pejorative way). Because the whole point of DH is that you’re not either a programmer XOR a Humanities scholar. It’s the combination of both. Most people see that combination as some sort of 30/70 or 40/60 kind of thing. I think it has to be 100/100. And yes, that means you’ll have to be a freak with a 200% workload. I’m pretty alone with this opinion, however, so don’t panic. Most people don’t see it like that at all.  I’m generally a bit of an eccentric and maybe some might perceive my opinion to be extreme. Well, sorry, but I like extreme. I think that “real DH” should mean 200%, or even better: 300%. 150% programmer and 150% Humanities. Be hardcore at both. At least that’s my personal goal.

Half-assed just probably won’t do the trick anymore

Like I said, I’m no expert. But my view of the field is that already now there is a lot of half-assed stuff. A lot of people do DH and not all of it is good. So far, the field has been pretty chill but I’m not so sure it’s going to stay that way. Competition will get harder and harder. In fact, it already is harder than it used to be and the boom is extreme. DH used to be marginalized but now, it has become mainstream. I can’t even imagine the masses of people starting to do DH from all over the Humanities. And then, there is formal  education in the DH now which booms, so we soon will be “flooded” with certified Digital Humanists. I put “flooded” in quotes, because of course, there is more work than ever. Seeing as everyone everywhere is going to do at least some DH from now on, the demand is high too. But still, as a non-DH-certified Humanities scholar you will probably have  a harder time benefitting from the DH without going all-in in the near future. 

I can’t really judge if this will cease, as it was feared a few years back when people thought the DH were yet another hype, to pass as quickly as it had come. They were wrong about that. The DH have come to stay. And they are the cool kids in school now. The Geeks get the girls or whatever. (In case anybody noticed, this is an American Hi-Fi reference but you probably have to Google to find out what that is).

People around me think the demand is not going to sink in the next few years and probably not in the next decades either. Digitization is everywhere and it gets ever more extensive. So no, the demand is probably not going to cease. But new generations of scholars might soon start to learn the DH basics you lack as part of their normal curriculum. So yes, I very much believe you might be at risk to get left behind. Not unless you’re revolutionarily good at your Humanities stuff. Like “excellent” or whatever they call it. So, as a guideline, you probably will need to learn DH. Applying for grants will also require you to have at least a basic overview of what’s going on in the DH. You don’t want to be left behind. For the normal scholar, going your way around the DH basics will be a prerequisite for “excellence”, not the easy way to an excellence award.

What I think you really should learn as fast as you can

Annotation in XML and at least one XML-standard relevant to your research

Learn annotation in XML now because it is easy. Like I said before, this won’t get you very far anymore but it is the foundation on which you can build and will be a gatekeeper. If you don’t even have this basic building block, no more doors will be open to you, even in label-DH projects. I see this starting to become reality now already for everyone who is not an important Humanities professor or otherwise super-important. Also, if you ask for cooperation and possess a basic knowledge of these basics, DH people will be a lot more willing to talk to you because it shows that you did your homework. DH centres can’t accept all projects. This is a way you can stand out from competitors.

How can I start?

Formal education

  • Get a certificate (from a summer school up to a year’s worth of classes).
  • Do a DH master

Teach yourself

Well, of course there is your favourite go-to resource for everything DH (and LaTeX): The LaTeX Ninja – yaaaay! 😉 With many more tutorials to come (soon, hopefully).

Pause to think whether you’re already doing DH

You would have noticed, you think? Well, DH is not only XML and annotation. There are many aspects to it and maybe you have already done something digitally that doesn’t strike you as DH or doesn’t come to mind rightaway.

Learning DH will only really work for you, if it fits your research. So, find a way of going digital which is compatible with what you already do (like a “digital update” of your current work) rather than trying to force yourself to do DH in ways which don’t immediately make sense to you. Take some time to brainstorm this, however. The good ideas might not come to mind  straightaway. Google digital projects from your field. What are they doing? Who does the digital serve their research purposes? What can you take away from that for your own research? If it doesn’t fit between DH and you, people will know. You have to find something you like. If you hate what you do, you’ll never get good. If you like what you do, learning something new will be fun.

Learn something new

I have an extreme drive to always learn and do new things. People usually comment they can’t really understand that. They don’t get me. I think it’s all a question of perspective. If you feel like you have to learn something new, it will be “hard work”. If you want to, it can be an adventure and a nice challenge. Rise to the challenge.

The power plant doesn’t have energy; it transforms one form to another. It generates energy and transmits it. We are the same. (Brendon Burchard)

Life-long learning sounds like a burden to many, but somewhere deep down, past the coziness of our comfort zone, we do have a natural child-like curiosity for learning new things. Try to reacitvate that if you’ve lost it. Use the DH as your trial project.

Cheers,

the LaTeX Ninja

How do I get to do task XY for the first time at the job

Today I want to talk about how you convince others to let you do XY for the first time as an official job responsibility, even though you might not have experience or any formal training doing so. And also, why you have probably come across a situation where one of your colleagues has been chosen to do task XY and not you. Even though you are both equally qualification-less. Now you feel left out. New tasks are opportunities for growth you probably really need if you want to stay in academia. It is all the more detrimental that bosses often don’t take the personal/CV growth of their young colleagues into account and hardly ever give out those tasks strategically. You can end up the lucky one – or you end up left out.

 

Disclaimer: Again, as always, these are my personal opinions and they might not apply to your situation. Use your brain.

 

New skills are always needed in your institution

Especially in the Digital Humanities it can happen a lot that there suddenly is a demand for a certain skill at your institution that nobody has yet acquired. Then somebody gets chosen to do it, often basically by chance and after they have done so, they are the expert on the topic. Which is good if you were the lucky one chosen (teaching yourself probably was quite the struggle so you’d deserve it). But if you aren’t – congratulations, the possibility of you ever going to be able to do this same thing (like programming in a certain language, teaching, shouldering a certain responsbility) might have just shrunk to zero. Often, DH centres are not big enough to need more than one person for a  less-mainstream specialty skill. It will from now on be incredibly hard for you to prove yourself in that area although you might be just as qualified. You have officially become invisible and somebody else has officially become the guy who does XY. I have experience on both sides. I have both had a responsibility thrust upon me, not really freewillingly or because I would have wanted to. But because there was just a demand and nobody there who was actually qualified to do the task.

 

If you were chosen

You’ll have to teach yourself and might end up with patchy skills

Meaning you will probably end up with a pretty stiched together knowledge and might have to relearn the skill in a more systematic way after the project is done if you really want to go on doing what you were asked to do in a professional way. Projects are often time-sensitive and deadline-driven, so you won’t have the time to really learn the skill in a systematic way. Unlearning bad practices acquired like this can be really hard  afterwards.

You are now officially the default person for the task

You might not exactly be more qualified than your colleagues but you are still going to be the default option to do the task. If you want it or not. So be careful accepting these jobs if it’s a task you genuinely dislike or consider out of line with your own personal development goals. For me, personally, I want to become something of a ‘real programmer’ in the Digital Humanities. I am a girl, but I don’t want to end up being the web designer. Not that web design is bad, inferior to ‘real programming’ or anything. I just prefer ‘real programming’ but since I am a girl, people tend to hand me the ‘soft bits’ and give the ‘hardcore programming’ to a man. Which the man might not even want. Sadly, unconscious gender stereotypes are still very effective in workplaces. Woman often get discriminated againt by ‘non-events’, i.e. not being asked to take up a challenge while male colleagues are etc. which ends up harming their success in the long term. If you want the challenge, you might just have to take it up in your private life or compete hard with your male colleagues. If you accept a specialty you don’t really want, you might seriously harm your ability to start something else afterwards. You will end up with that label. So be careful which label you choose. Also, your time resources for personal development will go into this task completely. If you were planning on learning something else, that’ll have to wait for a long time. Choose wisely and turn it down if you have to and can.

You probably can’t say no

In many situations when you’re asked to do this daunting task nobody else has ever done before, it is probably because you are not be most important member of your organization. You are probably young or new and are deemed to be a hard worker and able to learn. These are good things. But it might still not be something you do freewillingly. But do accept the task. If you don’t you might come across as though you’re unwilling to take up new challenges or learn new skills. Not an impression you want to leave for further job openings and ending contracts – which are never very far away in academia. Also, this new skill your institution is trying to acquire through you might be a reason they hold onto you later or or the base for a new grant proposal, etc. So this might just be a golden ticket, even though you had always imagined those would look more glamorous. Also, it might just be that you are the only idiot they dared to hand this stupid task to. You never know.

 

If you were not chosen but would have been interested

This is really stupid and happens a lot because these informal decisions are not discussed with everyone on the team (which they probably should be and bosses should be aware of this once they have read this post.) But the sad truth is that this decision will probably be made by the bosses in a back room in a discussion you are not allowed to join.

So even if you knew it was about to happen, there isn’t much you can do except maybe inform people beforehand that you would be interested. This by no means guarantees your success but since these decisions can be very spontaneous, maybe it even will get you the job. Definitely try it if you get the chance or overhear a discusssion. Butting in on other people’s discussion is rude but it is also rude of bosses making seemingly inconsequential decisions in private which actually are very consequential to their young employees and can make or break a career in the long term. In this case I would say, better sore than sorry.

But what if it’s already too late? It might even have happened to you that somebody else was chosen as a “new expert” for a job (in a backroom decision) which they are not qualified for – but for which you, in fact, are qualified for. Of course you can tell people that you think you would have been more qualified or at least wished you had been asked. But once the job is already given out, it’s unlikely they’ll take it back. Unless the other “chosen one” has expressed that they will only do it if nobody else is found but rather wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have to. Probably try and say something anyway.

Official responsibilities make you more trustworthy than actual skills

This is an especially stupid situation for you because it undermines your skill and legitimates the other person who actually didn’t have any legitimate skill up to now. If you already have some experience in these matters, you will probably know that often, experts are not made by skill. They are made by decisions of their superiors. In the end, your skill doesn’t count. What counts is solely the fact that your bosses trust you to do a job. This can lead to major unfairness, of course. And you are virtually powerless once it does. The only thing you really can do is show your experience and skill elsewhere. Join an expert society. You will need very bold action and extremely solid credentials if you ever want to make up for this misguided decision again. Also remember that bosses hardly think about this. They are probably completely unaware of the detrimental effect this will have on your career.

Boost your CV, exaggerate your skills a little bit and be over-confident of yourself (because, sadly, everybody else is and you will be left out otherwise)

So show off your skills as much as you can. Drop your knowledge whenever appropriate. Especially if you are a girl or shy, this is not like you. But you will notice how (even misguided) self-confidence goes a long way. Men tend to be much more bold in their statements in the workplace and also in what they write in their CV. If have seen a CV where someone said they were a C1 or C2 in English when they really were so bad that they made tons of typos in basic programing commands. And programming language English is hardly the real deal. If they already can’t spell ‘length’ properly, how can they have a C2 level? It was not a one time typo and by no means the only type of error I observed in the very short time span I paid attention to this either. In their defense, they probably didn’t even know what C2 meant. It is still a bold claim. What I have learned from this is that the impression you convey is all that counts. Be a bit more self-confident than you really are. Pretend you have some more skill than you do. By this, I don’t mean overly exaggerate. But ask yourself whether you could learn a certain skill (in basics) in a week or weekend. Then you probably are good to state it in your CV. (Then go on and actually learn the requested skill since people will probably test this by asking some general questions on the topic. And, of course, this only goes for minor skills but many DH skill requirements are actually quite basic).

 

You have to have done it once

If you actively seek to try it out new things or want to be challenged in your job but were not chosen, you are out of luck. Since somebody else is the default option now, you are going to have an incredibly hard time getting yourself seen or heard from now on. Even if you do everything you can to learn the skill along with your colleague, they are always going to be the one who has the practical experience. Even if you should also manage to get some practical experience, they are going to be the one who won your institution’s trust and showed results on a concrete job-related project. Unless there is a great need for the skill, you might never be able to do this at your job. Sorry, but it’s the truth. 😦 The only thing you can do now is to get real job experience with the task outside of your instituation or going freelance (if your job allows that at the side). Or create a truly mind-blowing hobby project and share it online.

This is partly one of the reasons why I have this blog. I don’t really like the idea of sharing my life with strangers but at the same time, I still want my private technology- and teaching-related activities to be visible. People will only trust you once you’ve “done it once” because it is seen as proof that you can do it. That’s why people often say that you should teach exactly one class in your PhD time – takes up the least possible amount of time and energy possible but from now on, once you apply for a position which includes teaching, you are credible when you say that you can do it. If you haven’t – well, good luck to you. It is highly unlikely someone who doesn’t know you will take the risk. Especially since they probably have 50 other applications from people who did get that chance. So you kind of depend on getting the experience from your own institution. If they have chosen to ask somebody else, all you can do is be annoying or follow that default person along. Tag along and offer to help as much as you can. Drop knowledge you have whenever appropriate. This is by no means guaranteed to help – you might just get ignored. But then you can say you have at least tried to get people’s attention. And maybe it will turn out for the better at some point. Maybe they will remember you the day they need a lab rat for a new task nobody is qualified to do.

 

Conclusion: On the importance of learning from new responsibilities for your CV

“So grow your own CV and decorate your own skills, instead of waiting for someone to bring you opportunities for personal growth.” – based on a quote by J. L. Borges

So, as we have seen, this informal way of giving out new tasks to people can be a great opportunity if you are chosen. But it can also be a way of preventing eager people from taking up new tasks. Once somebody did it, they are the default person and probably nobody else is needed. So nobody else will be given this opportunity of personal development. This can be a real problem in academia where you are expected to constantly grow your CV and tend to your skills. Some people even say that you should add one line to your CV every month if you want to be successful in Academia. What line have you added last month? What will you add next month? Plan this strategically!

I hope that maybe some bosses read this post and become aware of the problem. Maybe people get inspired to hand out these opportunities more strategically and more consciously. It also often happens that it’s always the same people who get the opportunities (because they have already proven their potential to rise to the challenge) and others continuously get left out. This is bad for the ones left out and can lead to overwork in the others. If you are responsible for early career scholars, please make conscious choices with anything which could affect their careers. If you are affected, my consolations. Try to prove your skills in a side project or join a society.

 

Hope this helps someone,

best,

the Ninja

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