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If you’re a scientist, learn SQL now!

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

Improve your data science skills using SQL (Structured Query Language).

Photo credit: Thierry Raimbault

In college, I majored in Neuroscience and Psychology. The idea of programming did not entertain my mind. I was pushed to learn lab techniques such as tissue dissection, virus handling, PCR, in vivo, in vitro etc. In order to “work,” I had to be physically at a lab.

Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, I lost my job in June 2020. All labs were closed, and we had to confine. There was no way for me to find a job unless I could use my skills remotely. This meant that I had to learn how produce and analyze data from home. The idea of programming came up as I witness many of my friends thriving in the tech industry. I was not ready to leave the research world, so I considered computational science.

I signed up for codecademy, it’s a user-friend and affordable website that provides great flexibility. You can sign up and take online coding courses at your own pace FOR FREE, but if you pay for a pro membership, you can practice on real-life projects and get a certificate. If you’d like to sign up for the pro membership, please use this referral link, you’ll get a free month.

Since I didn’t know where to start my coding journey, I took the Codecademy assessment quiz. It gauges your personality (are you a bigger picture or smaller picture person…) and gives you few options of career or skills paths you can start with. On my end, I was recommended Analyzing data with SQL or Python.

I had never heard of SQL in my entire life. Few years ago, I tried learning Python as a hobby. It was irrelevant to my previous career as a lab technician, so I gave up without much thought. What is consuming about coding is the amount of small details. We need to pay attention to punctuation, case sensitive letters or parenthesis. Somehow, in my erroneous mind, programming came with the stigma that you had to be exceptionally intelligent… and anti-social.

SQL didn’t scare me as much as Python because I just didn’t know enough about it. So, without telling anyone, I spent countless hours in front of my screen practicing coding. Before I knew it, I accomplished 39%, then 56%, then 87%. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. It also made me realize all the possibilities that open up with this new skill.

I was honestly happy for the pro membership because learning how to code without context is boring. It is also well-known that we retain information better when we can relate it to something we already know. In my case, I was happy to deal with data from real companies and understand how they target their customers’ attention and advertise more efficiently.

My experience with SQL was positive and I felt sad when the course ended. I was also relieved because I can move on to the next language. Before I could totally move on, I would like to share what I’ve learned. Moreover, if you’re interested in suggesting coding to kids, here’s another Education Monsters’ article on the pros and cons of coding for kids.

SQL is the best language for beginners

If you’re new to programming and don’t want to get caught with too many commands, start learning SQL. SQL is quite simple because the commands are short words in English. It also deals with tables (columns and rows) so if you’re familiar with Excel, you won’t find yourself too lost. All we need to know is that everything has a relationship, and as the coder, you have the power to organize, match and rematch the data as you please.

Benefits for scientists

First of all, knowing your data and their relationship to each other is key to a good analysis. SQL gives you the tool to understand your data better, even huge amounts of data from multiple tables. You can order, group or structure your data however you want. You can easily search missing values and identify outliers. If you know other programming languages such as R or Python, you may integrate SQL in your work.

If you’re into books and would like a guide, check out this one. It’s a great introductory book using MySQL. It’s nice to keep your references near you.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a new skill as a scientist, try coding. SQL is the perfect introductory coding language for beginners because it is easy to use and simple to understand. It is the basis for data science and can also help you get jobs in marketing or business-related analysis. A small query can let you perform a lot of simple tasks and it’s really awesome to have a clearer picture to make a better decision. Knowing SQL is a really marketable skill because you can manipulate datasets and reorganize them to your advantage.


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