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Five Tips to Manage the Emotional Side of a Coding Program

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Rithm School

Oct 8, 2018

A lot of people who decide to come like a program like Rithm’s spend a lot of time trying to prepare as much as possible for the technical curriculum. We’ll often get e-mails from accepted students before the program starts asking what else they can learn or study so that they’ll be ahead of the curve when the program begins.

While that sort of planning and dedication is admirable, there’s another aspect to immersive coding programs like ours that gets comparatively less attention, though it’s no less important. I’m referring to the emotional weight of a full-time, in-person accelerated program. In this post, I’d like to outline some of the emotional challenges that students face, and provide some tips to help you address those challenges head on.

1. Don’t Neglect Life Outside of School

A lot of programs will jokingly tell you to kiss your partner goodbye for the duration of the program, because you’ll spending long hours in school and won’t see your friends and family again until you’ve graduated. And while there’s some truth to this, to put it in such bleak terms sets an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation.

At Rithm, we fully expect students to work hard during the program and spend a lot of time mastering the skills they need in order to be successful on the job search. At the same time, we recognize that students have social and emotional needs that we can’t (and shouldn’t try to) meet. For this reason, we actively encourage students to find time to connect with friends and family during the program.

2. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

It’s difficult not to compare yourself to other students, especially when you’re pairing with people every day. Every student at some point will feel some impostor syndrome because they get stuck on a problem that their partner can solve almost immediately.

But it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t know everyone’s history, and everyone will have their own unique sets of strengths and weaknesses. You may struggle today but be able to help someone else tomorrow.

If you’re focusing on comparing yourself to others, you’re not focusing on your own personal growth. That’s why the most important comparison you make isn’t to other students in the class, but to your past self. The most important thing is for you to be able to see your own progress week over week. Every few weeks you should be able to look at code you wrote a few weeks ago and critique it. That’s a much better indicator of your growth than comparisons to others.

students chatting in lab

3. Practice Self-Awareness and Self-Reflection

Conscious reflection on your growth and your blockers is an essential skill to develop, both for your time as a student and a job seeker. Knowledge of your own strength and weaknesses is also important, so that you can continually work on self-improvement in order to be the best engineer possible.

This reality isn’t always one that engineering students want to hear, but it’s true. Students who lack self-awareness often will struggle in the job search, because they are slow to iterate on potential learnings from their failures.

Of course, the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection doesn’t make either easy to put into practice. We make sure to regularly check in with students one on one in part to give them space for exactly this kind of self reflection. And if this is an area where you struggle, activities like journaling can be helpful too.

4. Try to Keep Your Expectations Realistic

Students sometimes have a tendency to set unrealistic expectations for themselves. For instance, they might get down on themselves if they can’t remember a concept that they haven’t thought about at all in two weeks, or they might set an overly ambitious reading goal for themselves over the weekend and then be disappointed when they don’t meet it.

On the one hand, such goals are laudable, and extremely commonplace since students in programs like ours tend to be fairly driven. At the same time, it’s easy to spiral when you continually set unrealistic expectations for yourself and then fail to meet them.

Everyone forgets things (instructors and professional engineers included). Learning this stuff is hard, and usually goes more slowly than you’d like. Acknowledging this reality means you’ll be less likely to set yourself up for disappointment. (This is also tied pretty closely to self-awareness, see #3!)

5. Sleep!

This one seems obvious, but in a competitive environment it’s easy to forgo sleep for an extra hour or two of studying. And while that may help you in the short-term, for longer term retention it’s essential that you get enough sleep. It can help to have a time every night when you put the computer down and take some time to decompress.

None of these things are easy. But it’s much more important to finish a program like hours with gas in the tank, because completion of a bootcamp is just the first step in a much larger and more stressful process: the transition to a working engineer. If you don’t take care of your emotional health, you’re more likely to be burnt out right as you’re entering the job search. By no means is this list exhaustive, but these are some of the common trends we’ve noticed among students at our program.

When you’re looking for a job, it’s tempting to spend all your energy on data structures, algorithms, and whiteboarding practice. But don’t neglect the emotional side! Your emotional well-being may be the thing that lands you a job, even if you stumble a bit on the technical front. Don’t believe me? Just ask Angelina.

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