High learning curves that are worth it?
November 22, 2011 5:30 AM   Subscribe

In your field, what's known to have a high learning curve but pays off in the long run?

Lately I've been dabbling in the Haskell programming language. Compared to other programming languages, it's said to have a high learning curve because it's based around a different paradigm and specific mathematical concepts. However, after getting over the learning part there are a lot of benefits, at least theoretically, over some other programming languages.

Another technical-related example is learning vim/emacs, which are text editors that can be compared to Notepad on Windows. Learning these programs can take years, but the payoff is you are permanently much faster at text editing.

Going along these lines, I'm wondering if there are things in your field that are known for their high learning curves and high payoffs?
posted by spec to Education (28 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Etale cohomology.
posted by escabeche at 5:32 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

SQL over Microsoft Access
posted by teragram at 5:43 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by Blake at 5:51 AM on November 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Can you also give a brief description on what makes it a 'superior' method or skill?
posted by spec at 5:54 AM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: I'm a biologist. Many of us use basic GUI-based stats packages (e.g., JMP) that can quickly do basic ANOVAs, regressions, etc and have very little learning curve. However, it's generally thought that if you are working in a stats-heavy branch of biology it is worth the considerable learning curve to use a command-line package like SAS or more modernly R because there is much more control over the analysis and the ability to add on new types of analysis as they are developed. R has the extra benefit of being open source so there are also always people working on better ways to perform established analyses.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:07 AM on November 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

The learning curve for Object Oriented Programming (versus functional) is hard, but once you use some of the good patterns it sort of clicks and you see how the logic of your code is more manageable. The next hurdle is to not over use OOP and create a mess.
posted by dgran at 6:11 AM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: Sight reading and perfect time are skills musicians spend years learning as children. They make possible to play any new piece of music passably in the same day, often on the first try, and over a lifetime pay for the time spent to learn them in practice time not needed.
posted by michaelh at 6:14 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe this is obvious, but -- Photoshop.

Just because everyfreakinbody on Metafilter is a master doesn't mean it was ever intuitive or easy. Over the years I've tried to teach five or six people, and they go from enthusiastic to whaaaat in ten minutes. But then, that was my reaction too when my dad tried to teach me Ps7.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 6:20 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Legal practice areas all have their own learning curves, and one of the requirements of codes of professional ethics is that an attorney be competent to represent the client in a particular matter. I, for example, won't take criminal or probate cases, because while I'm significantly more knowledgeable about those fields than a layman, I'd be way over my head almost right away. But I don't think that's really what we're going for here, as all disciplines, legal and otherwise, do have their own learning curves, and I get the impression that we're looking for things which are not simply a matter of having chosen a different specialty but are actually viewed as being somewhat tricky or difficult, even by the standards of the profession. So, for example, there's nothing particularly hard about probate or criminal work, and any attorney who sat down and put their mind to it could get up to speed in a year or two. But there are legal practice areas which are viewed as being rather tricky, even by members of that practice area.

For example, appellate law is generally viewed as being pretty difficult to get into. It's really just an extension of litigation, but it's pretty common for the attorney who tried a case to bring in an appellate lawyer should an appeal be necessary. For one thing, there just isn't as much appellate practice, so the experience is a bit harder to come by. But it's also a different kettle of fish than trial practice, as it involves a lot more creative thinking and legal analysis than trial practice does. It can be quite rewarding, both professionally and financially, but it's not for everyone.

Same goes for insurance coverage work. Lots of litigation attorneys will actually refer insurance coverage disputes to other counsel, as it's a pretty angular kind of practice. Again, there isn't a ton of it, but like appellate work it generally involves a particular kind of fascination with semantics and interpretation that a lot of attorneys would much rather leave to someone else. Not everyone is cut out for it.

Death penalty defense is also another big one. Defending run-of-the-mill criminal cases like DUIs and B&E isn't terribly complicated, but death penalty cases are a pretty huge deal, and there are criminal defense attorneys who pretty much do just that.
posted by valkyryn at 6:20 AM on November 22, 2011

Linguists learning R Project, or statistics in general.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:31 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

along the same lines as Valkyryn's post, I was going to say ERISA work and more generally, tax related work. Almost all tax lawyers get an LLM in tax, which is an extra degree. ERISA is highly technical. But in my experience, if you work in either of those areas, you are highly sought after. There's never enough people at big firms who do that kind of stuff, and they can command a premium.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:33 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Fluency in languages. From hearing another language as a string of babble to the odd word, most words, all words, meaning, and then, finally, the nuances, accents of what is being said. And when speaking: the private joy of a native speaker not identifying you as an alien - an incredible payoff.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:42 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Writing in the LaTeX markup language. At first everything seems counterintuitive and it is hard to understand why things work the way they do. You have to be willing to give up the control of formatting your document by yourself. However, as a mathematician (and presumably in some of the other sciences), the payoff is that you get to publish papers. Most journals in my field require that the thing be written in LaTeX.

When I was a grad student, a bunch of my professors had a policy where the homework you turned in had to be written in LaTeX, so that by the time you started on your dissertation, you had made it over the initial spike in the learning curve.
posted by King Bee at 6:51 AM on November 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

If I had to guess, I'd say statistics in Sociology.

I guess that because my department does not offer a single Statistics for Social Scientists course. and the Stats department doesn't offer anything particularly helpful
Not that I'm bitter about.
Ok, maybe I am.
I've heard our department doesn't offer it/coordinate it with Stats department because they're afraid they'd lose some of us to the STEM world.

posted by bilabial at 6:58 AM on November 22, 2011

Response by poster: Great answers so far, exactly what I'm looking for. Thanks!

But I don't think that's really what we're going for here, as all disciplines, legal and otherwise, do have their own learning curves, and I get the impression that we're looking for things which are not simply a matter of having chosen a different specialty but are actually viewed as being somewhat tricky or difficult, even by the standards of the profession.

You read my mind, valkyryn.
posted by spec at 7:04 AM on November 22, 2011

Knuckleball pitches in baseball versus the standard pitching repertoire. Same with submarine pitching.

Baseball is not my field, though I am a fan and student of the game.
posted by dfriedman at 7:12 AM on November 22, 2011

Celestial navigation is hard to learn but lets sailors navigate comfortably away from the crutches of landmarks or electronics.

I was also going to suggest the very non specific skill "learning to read" - it takes about the same time as an advanced degree.
posted by rongorongo at 7:49 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with King Bee. In addition to mathematics, it's widely used in physics and astronomy. Some people try to do their articles—and, sweet merciful heavens, theses and dissertations—in Word, and I just shake my head.

I teach it to my undergrads as sophomores, and they are confused, frightened and frustrated by it, but in their junior and senior year, they all agree it's the method of choice for writing term papers that have equations in them—and BibTeX makes references so laughably easy that it's hard to imagine why you'd do it any other way.
posted by BrashTech at 8:15 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also came here to say LaTeX. We're even planning to start requiring it for our 200-level Discrete Mathematics course since it's so important but daunting to beginners. My intro was my graduate adviser telling me to write up a result over the weekend. "I don't know LaTeX." "Figure it out." That was a long weekend for me.
posted by monkeymadness at 8:34 AM on November 22, 2011

Nthing SAS or R for statistical analysis and graphing.
posted by lulu68 at 8:42 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Judo takedowns for MMA, or grappling in general. Standing Judo has a notoriously high learning curve, in addition to threatening anyone learning it with a fairly high injury rate. But whenever an advanced Judoka enters a fight or a tournament, it's always on the card and on your opponent's mind. Judo makes the transition to the ground suddenly terrifying to anyone who might be on the receiving end of it. But it usually takes years (and plenty of hard falls) for an athlete to get good returns from it, and a lot of fighters and grapplers end up looking elsewhere for a more readily accesible way to move the fight to the ground.
posted by edguardo at 9:05 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Programming: Regular Expressions can be very handy, but a bit tricky to learn.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:15 AM on November 22, 2011

Within the R universe, the ggplot2 graphing library has a bit of a learning curve because it's quite a bit different from most other graphing libraries, but it appears to be quite worth it.
posted by mhum at 9:27 AM on November 22, 2011

the vi text editor
posted by Kwine at 11:17 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

haha, that's what I get for not reading the more inside
posted by Kwine at 11:17 AM on November 22, 2011

This may not be what you're looking for, but classroom management for teachers is what immediately jumps to mind. It takes years to get to the point where a classroom manages itself rather than you needing to jump in and "fix" things (which actually doesn't fix anything generally).

And I would say that most teachers don't figure it out - which is why there are so many people who leave the profession in the first few years. And there are plenty of veteran teachers who just get by without ever figuring it out.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:18 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Learning languages; in philosophy ancient Greek especially, because it's hard for English speakers to lear (not a Romance or Germanic language), and so much important philosophy was written in it. In general to be a serious scholar of something in the humanities, you need to be able to read it in the original language.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:48 PM on November 22, 2011

People have already mentioned LaTeX, and you mention emacs in your post. Those both have been highly worth it for me.

The one that I resisted for a long time due to the learning curve was version control software. I have recently come around to it, and it's made my work so much more organized. No more third_draft_revision2_january18.tex files floating around anymore. No more emailing files back and forth with collaborators and trying to remember which version of which file is current. It's brilliant!
posted by number9dream at 6:01 PM on November 22, 2011

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