Opportunities: Breadth Versus Depth

When my father was very young, he got a choice piece of career advice from his father: Pick something to do, and be the best in the world at it. My grandfather was a caterer who specialized in elaborate ice cream statues that were the highlight of the finest catered events in Baltimore, Maryland, from the late 1920s through the 1960s. Taking his advice, my father went on to become a leading volcanologist with a specialization in the eruptions and deposits of undersea volcanoes. My grandfather’s advice served my dad very well in his scientific career.

Our scientific community values and esteems expertise. Being the “world’s expert” on something holds a unique cachet, even if that something is extremely narrow. In graduate school, we are encouraged to plunge deep into a subject, to become the world’s expert, and, using that expertise, to advance the progress of science. A colleague once joked that obsessive-compulsive disorder is the hallmark of a good academic.

Our scientific community often struggles with what to do with generalists. In graduate school, we are cautioned against spreading ourselves too thin. Being a “jack of all trades, master of none” is seen as the worst sort of dissipation. Dabbling in an outside field is tolerable only as recreation–and then only after you’ve established your expertise in your area of specialization. Those who dabble too much are labeled “lightweight,” “not serious,” or–worst of all–dilettante.

The drive to make young scientists “specialists” is motivated by an earnest and genuine concern for their success. After all, if a young scientist cannot master even a single field, what’s the point of being mediocre in several? Mediocrity is (with a few conspicuous exceptions) not the pathway to career success.

But in some environments, the excessive exaltation of scholarship can lead to a kind of intellectual snobbery. It was common during my grad-school years to see professors judging those who had risen to senior levels in administration not by their management skills or strategic acumen but by the heft of their CVs. Rather than appreciate the managerial acumen and administrative service of those individuals, I saw many professors casually dismiss them as having “washed up.”

But being a generalist does not automatically produce mediocrity, just as specialization does not always equate with excellence. There’s plenty of insipid research out there that matters only to small communities of like-minded specialists and will never see the light of day. And many of history’s brightest minds have belonged to generalists, not specialists. Albert Einstein, in a single year (1905), published five landmark papers in fields as diverse as special relativity and statistical mechanics and continued to have influence in an enormous range of fields in science and public policy.

Einstein might be an extreme example. But it is all too easy to come out of graduate school thinking that traditional measures of scholarship are the figures of merit upon which you should base your career. It is true that scholarly benchmarks are prized in academia. But in most other environments, what is prized is solving real-world problems.

In order to be an effective problem-solver, you must be willing to think, in the words of Dennis Gillings (the founder of the 16,000-employee biotech firm Quintiles, who just donated $50 million to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Public Health to stimulate problem-solving in the public-health sector) “horizontally” as well as “vertically.” Your scholarship gives you the ability and experience to analyze issues critically. But to solve practical problems, you also must reach across disciplinary boundaries and utilize a wider range of skills such as organization, leadership, project management, and sales. None of these broader skills are explicitly part of your grad-school training. Some of them–especially sales–are frowned upon in academia!

Consider the case of Carl Sagan. Sagan was a gifted scientist, thinker, and communicator who made major contributions to planetary science, exobiology, and public policy. In his work, Sagan explored grand problems, such as the origin of life and the effects of a nuclear war on Earth’s climate. He often reached across disciplines and almost always collaborated with experts in other fields. He was also an extraordinarily effective spokesman for science, a great and important salesman. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the scientific establishment viewed Sagan as a popularizer and not as a serious scientist. Despite his numerous scientific contributions and the blockbuster success of science communication/education projects such as Cosmos (a 13-part TV show that aired on PBS and opened the world of science to millions of Americans in the early 1980s), Sagan was blackballed from membership by the National Academy of Sciences despite his great impact on science and society.

There’s an irony to this, especially in the current funding climate. With the recent plunge in funding rates at the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, it is harder than ever to survive as a specialist. In a recent blog entry, I discussed the dilemma faced by many scientists who rely on a single funding agency for their R&D support. The draw toward specialization may cause a scientist to attack more specific problems that, by the nature of their specificity, have a very small base of customer or constituent support. This can lead to a reliance on a single source of funding for their research. It’s very easy to get cozy in an intellectual niche, but your research can grow stale, and funding priorities can change. Being narrow is no longer a safe career strategy, despite the advice of my grandfather.

The common joke/clich√© about the Ph.D. education is that, as your education progresses, you learn more and more about less and less until (when you graduate with your Ph.D.) you know everything about nothing. This joke often elicits knowing chuckles from Ph.D. scientists–but it should elicit disquiet. Being the best in the world holds little meaning if it is with respect to an infinitesimal niche that only you inhabit. Not only is it a puny accomplishment, but it also comes at the expense of all the larger (and more important) problems you could have devoted yourself to.

Science is not just about scholarship. It is about solving important problems. Einstein admonished the 1931 class at the California Institute of Technology that:

As a scientist, you are endowed with an extraordinary education and ability to solve a wide range of problems. You also have a really big brain. Diversifying your career, either by broadening the types of problems you work on or by broadening the base of support for your research, may help you reduce the volatility associated with funding, but–more importantly–it may also kindle your creativity and enable you to make an even larger contribution.

on Science Careers Forum about the issues raised in this article.

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