Erica Akhter- Tools for Learning Online: preparing for careers after graduation

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 4th Year Ph.D. Candidate, Neuroscience

Program start date: August 2014

Institution: Emory University

Like many students from traditional schools, I always thought the value of courses came from interactions inside the classroom more than the information disseminated there. Thus, I never valued—or even thought about—what an online course could provide. That’s changed significantly in the year since I stopped being required to spend time in the classroom.

Most graduate students spend the first part of their career in graduate school wanting to get past the classes, pass the qualifying exams, and finish the TA requirements. Looking into the future, before having checked these boxes, its seems like most of them are just obstacles distracting you from making ground-breaking discoveries, skipping happily towards your PhD. However, after those boxes are checked boxes things can seem a lot different.

It’s easy to start feeling lost without the hard metrics of progress (checked boxes) you’ve gotten used to in the past twenty-something years you’ve spent in school. Whether it is a series of failed experiments, a discouraging committee meeting, or just too many hours spent in a dark microscopy room, it is difficult to feel like you are making progress toward your degree. As annoying as classes can be, it’s nice to know that you’re learning and have a metric for progression. Even more importantly, as graduation approaches, one starts to realize that spending 60+ hours a week in lab isn’t enough to fully prepare you for a career afterwards. One way to salve both of these issues is by taking less traditional classes on the computer.

Here are a couple of resources that I’ve found useful:

Lynda.com

Lynda.com is a resource connected to LinkedIn directly. It has a massive library of courses you can take to learn skills for various career paths OR that will be useful in getting you through your scientific training. These include mini courses that just take an hour or two as well as massive, multi-part courses that build on each other and give you real expertise.

Pro’s:

  • Easy to find learning paths with extensive information available
  • Courses always open and don’t expire if you can’t get back to them for a while
  • If your organization is a member, you can find the most common learning paths & courses others around you have used previously
  • Course completion provides you with a certificate that you can link directly with your LinkedIn account

Con’s:

  • NOT FREE unless your organization/school has an agreement with them
    • Note: Many universities have accounts & you can just use your university username & password to access the material
  • Course ratings aren’t easy to find, so you must judge for yourself the quality of the instructors presenting the material

edX.org

EdX.org is a university-supported platform where professors can develop and upload video versions of their courses. These can then be verified for their quality and rigor. There is a huge range of courses and even “mini degree” programs if you want to delve really deep.

Pro’s:

  • Most courses are free with the option to add a certificate at the end if you choose that it’s worth purchasing one
  • Variety of self-paced or loosely scheduled courses that may or may not include peer or instructor feedback
  • Some courses have options for in-person learning communities to help keep you accountable and in-touch with the material
  • Courses are rated clearly by their users

Con’s:

  • Software in scheduled courses can be inflexible and problematic if you miss deadlines
  • To receive a certificate (in some courses) you must complete assignments and grade those of your peers

Online learning can be a double-edged sword. It would be easy to get distracted by all of the options and neglect your commitments elsewhere. Here are some ways to maximize online classes’ usefulness.

  • Find accountability partners

This is especially important if you’re working on a skill that you need or want for graduate school. Additional note: This works much better when they’re not your close friends. It can be too easy to justify to each other why you can’t take the time to do it.

  • Don’t hesitate to explore.

There’s really no pressure. Taking the classes you always fantasized about can lead you into potentially fulfilling career paths.

  • Don’t hesitate to abandon ship.

This was the hardest one for me to embrace. There’s really no pressure. Taking the classes you always fantasized about can quickly illustrate why you never took those classes. Don’t stay committed to something just because you started it.

Although I definitely learned more in the courses I have completed, those I abandoned have also been very helpful for clarifying which topics I truly have no interest in (shout out to you, Matlab 101). All-in-all, the ‘free time’ I’ve devoted to pursuing learning this way has been more than worth the investment. Not only have online courses provided me with transferable skills for my next job, they’ve also helped me narrow down what that job might be. If you’ve had a similar experience or know of more resources for those looking to learn online, please drop a note in the comments!

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