Getting Over Data Anxiety

“Forbes “what is a data scientist” series word cloud” by justgrimes on Flickr.

For some people, looking at a spreadsheet brings back bad memories of sixth grade Pre-Algebra classes and mediocre grades. Unlearning your fear of numerical data may take time and patience, but will ultimately leave you a better, well-rounded researcher. Here are a few tips on how to start the process of embracing numbers in your research and life.

  1. Find data that interests you. If you weren’t someone with a heavy interest in math, the mere sight of an equation may make you shiver. That’s why it’s important to begin your journey with data by practicing with data that actually keeps you absorbed in your work. If you’re invested in the outcome, you’re more likely to put in the time and effort to learn skills and best practices that will ultimately make using data easier for you in the long run.
  2. Find some guidance. Staring at a sheet of numbers while scratching your head isn’t always a great plan. Find resources that will help you. Here at the University of Illinois, the Scholarly Commons, Research Data Service, and the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning offer frequent Savvy Researcher workshops to help people learn how to use data and corresponding software. You can also schedule a consultation request with a Scholarly Commons expert online, or e-mail the Scholarly Commons for simple questions. If you want to keep to yourself, there are also a number of data analysis LibGuides, which you can peruse.
  3. Start simple.  Don’t try to learn R in a day. You’ll end up frustrated and discouraged. Take some time to survey your options, and start simple, with Excel and SPSS, for example. Each software has unique things that it can do, and figure out a system that works for you.
  4. Understand why you’re doing this. Everyone has had the moment where they look at their research and think to themselves, “Why am I doing this? Why didn’t I go into the private sector?” It’s understandable. Looking at some of the incredible things people are doing with numerical data can help you remember why it is that you’re taking the time to learn these skills — which will actually be very marketable if you do decide to go into the private sector, just saying — and what you can do with them. A few favorite projects of mine are Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s GBD Compare visualization, The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People by Mason Currey, and Two Centuries of US Immigration.

Just like any skill, learning how to handle and understand numerical data takes time and effort. But mastering data will add depth to your research, and allow you to present your findings in new, interactive ways.

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