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Note, by highly technical skills I mean anything that isn't directly taught by your course (i.e. programming/coding, use of specialist lab equipment, mathematical expertise)

I am student of Earth Sciences/Geography within the UK.

I'm planning on doing a masters and in brainstorming ideas for my application's thesis proposal, I often run up against the issue of lacking specific technical skills needed to conduct the study. Should I let this hamper me? I worry I'm restricting my potential by only choosing topics in which I can wholly conduct every step of the research/analysis independently.

For example, my undergraduate dissertation required large datasets and modifying open-source software, meaning I independently taught my self to code. Another student looked at microfossils which required the use of a spectrometer.

Although both of skills were not taught to us, I independently taught my self to code while uni staff operated the spectrometer machine for my peer, meaning he didn't have to learn it.

If I want to study, say, microplastics in fish, will I need to be able know how to use the required lab equipment and interpret the results or is it acceptable to outsource this?

Summary

To word my question another way, University thesis: How can you utilise highly technical skills without falling into the rut of teaching your self everything from scratch?

I taught my self coding for the sake of my undergraduate dissertation, at the cost of a loss of free time which could be spent on my area of study (Earth Science, not Computer Science). Coding is not the direction I want to take in life despite the effort to learn it. I, therefore, do not want to invest so heavily in another one-off skill for my masters.

My two main concerns are:

  • Restricting my potential research topics to studies which I can wholly conduct and interpret each research technique.
  • Become stuck teaching my self a skill which I do not desire to follow up in the future (i.e. a statistical technique, coding, lab equip)
  • Use up a lot of time independently learning said technique

Real life example

In the question linked here, a SE user discusses how during his masters two programmers were hired to help with programming. Would it be reasonable to request the university for someone to help with a skill I've not been taught (i.e. coding or high-level statistics) for my master's thesis?

closed as off-topic by Massimo Ortolano, Fomite, Coder, scaaahu, aeismail Aug 17 '17 at 14:15

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "The answer to this question strongly depends on individual factors such as a certain person’s preferences, a given institution’s regulations, the exact contents of your work or your personal values. Thus only someone familiar can answer this question and it cannot be generalised to apply to others. (See this discussion for more info.)" – Massimo Ortolano, Fomite, Coder, scaaahu, aeismail
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Expensive experimental equipment will often be operated by staff. The purpose is not to make some student's lives easier, but instead to keep the equipment up and running for all users. Those students still spend their own time learning things too. Sorry, but your question comes off as a rant. If you learn a lot, you get to tell future employers (or potential advisors) how you are a self starter who learned a lot. – Jon Custer Aug 16 '17 at 17:41
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    I'm slightly offended by the suggestion that coding is a "one-off skill" as opposed to a fundamental prerequisite for modern science, like reading, typing, or basic statistics. – JeffE Aug 16 '17 at 18:41
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    And I don't think you sound like a slacker, I think you just sound very naive if you think coding (or statistics) is a one-off skill, for the same reasons that @JeffE pointed out. – Bryan Krause Aug 16 '17 at 19:12
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    @BryanKrause and JeffE: in some fields coding can be surely considered a one-off skill. Imagine that you are a physicists and for a certain experiment you need a specialized amplifier: will you spend years learning how to design high-performance amplifiers just for one or two experiments? Certainly not. Well, in some fields programming is exactly like that. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 16 '17 at 19:43
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    @BryanKrause Being able to code is exactly like being able to build circuits, just in different fields (and depending on the application being able to do the latter can be much more useful than being able to do the former). Anyway, the purpose of my remark is just to highlight that each person judges the importance of certain skills depending on their background, and if one doesn't know all the details it's better to avoid contending certain claims so strongly (that said, I'm certainly one who encourages people to enlarge as much as possible their working toolbox). – Massimo Ortolano Aug 16 '17 at 20:06
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Having just finished my Master's in a subject area in which I had very little technical expertise before starting, I hope I can provide a reasonable answer. (My project involved some mathematics and statistics which were new to me before starting, as well as learning a new programming language from scratch.)

I'm planning on doing a masters and in brainstorming ideas for my application's thesis proposal, I often run up against the issue of lacking specific technical skills needed to conduct the study. Should I let this hamper me? I worry I'm restricting my potential by only choosing topics in which I can wholly conduct every step of the research/analysis independently.

I think the key here is working out which skills you can reasonably expect to learn during the project and do a sort of cost/ benefit analysis. You need to be realistic about what is feasible. If the barrier is a particular statistical technique that you're unfamiliar with, it may be relatively easy to pick it up as you go along- you may even understand it better by using it "in real life".

However, if the skill is much more difficult, for example, learning to program if you've never typed a line of code in your life before, then it is probably unrealistic to plan a study using such a skill. This comes down to your judgement and your judgement alone; we don't know how easy or difficult such skills may be for you to learn.

To word my question another way (...) how can you utilise highly technical skills without falling into the rut of teaching your self everything from scratch?

In my own (small) research experience, I found that learning tools on the job actually meant I learnt more, and faster than if I had taken a course on it. I learnt more about programming by teaching myself to write code in Python than I got from two years of lectures and workshops on Fortran during my undergraduate. And you know what, I also enjoyed it more! Learning is fun-- but the most valuable part was that I learnt how to teach myself skills. I started to learn how to be an independent academic. And if you want to do any kind of academic research in the future, knowing how to learn independently is important. In fact, I'd argue that's the whole point of the degree.

Would it be reasonable to request the university for someone to help with a skill I've not been taught (i.e. coding or high-level statistics) for my master's thesis?

As Mad Jack says, this depends on the individual department/ university, but I think you are underestimating the help your supervisor will likely provide. If the skills or techniques are common in the field, they will help you learn them (or point you in the direction of a friendly PhD/ post doc who can).

Ultimately research is all about learning new things. You never know, the skills you learn now might seem useless, but in ten years' time may be vital to your research. I don't think you can get stuck in a rut when you have the whole world around you to learn more about.

  • I think this is a good answer, but my impression from the OP wasn't that they wanted their advisor to help them learn techniques, rather they are wondering if the university will provide them people to do parts of their research for them. – Bryan Krause Aug 16 '17 at 22:43
  • @Bryan, indeed, but I think the answer to that question is simply no, they won't (unless, as pointed out by Jon Custer, they need to operate expensive, university owned equipment). – astronat Aug 17 '17 at 6:16
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The answer to your question is very simple. If doing your research requires coding, you will have to learn how to code. Period. You can teach yourself, or take a class, or hire a tutor or whatever, but one way or another, you won't get very far trying to get your university, or anyone else, do the coding for you. As @JeffE and others were politely trying to help you understand, coding in the science and technology worlds today is such a basic skill that your comparison to operating specialized lab equipment simply isn't appropriate. A more proper comparison would be to things like typing up documents or using Microsoft Excel. Would you consider asking your university to get someone to help you with Excel because you can't be bothered to learn it? No? Didn't think so...

As for other skills which your question might be applied to, I think the answer would be it depends, but it seems pretty clear you are mainly interested in coding.

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    I downvoted this answer for the reasons outlined in my comments below the question. I'm sure that you wouldn't have objected if instead of coding the OP asked about being able to use a lathe, and you'd have said go to a workshop. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 16 '17 at 20:17
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    Depending on how much coding(or whatever is needed) is involved and how difficult the problems are it's also quite common and very reasonable to get people involved which are experts on whatever you need. We got several collaboration partners who do things we could technically do ourselves but they got much better equipment and knowledge so it would be stupid to not do it this way. – DSVA Aug 16 '17 at 21:52
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    @Massimo you are correct, I don't see coding and using a lathe as analogous in this respect. Your hypothetical scenario where OP has chosen to work in a field where he/she will only need coding skills for one project in their entire career is simply not realistic. If they are on a STEM career path and their research project involves some coding, my premise is that it is essentially certain that future projects they will be involved in (either in academia or in industry) will also require at least basic familiarity and proficiency with coding. As others have said, it is not a one-off skill. – Dan Romik Aug 17 '17 at 4:22

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