The Fight Against Overspecialisation

Busily burrowing along like moles, in the pursuit of our own little specialties, we are dizzily preoccupied with our specialized routine work. We lose the desire of coming once in a while upon the surface of the earth to take a stimulating look at the grand view of nature and its inspiring entity.

L.H. Baekeland in “The Danger of Overspecialization” (Science, New Series, Vol. 25, No. 648 (May 31, 1907), pp. 845-854)

There is no doubt that science is becoming more specialised. Go to a journal in your field and you might be surprised to find out how many papers are at least somewhat incomprehensible, which isn’t too surprising considering how many papers are actually published. For instance, a visit to the database SpringerLink shows that in the last week there, 358 new papers have been published in chemistry and materials science.

Is this increasing specialisation dangerous to graduate students? I claim that the answer is ‘yes’. Compared to professors, graduate students have less freedom in their choice of research area and thus most of us are in the situation of having a very specific problem to solve, which only amplifies our specialised tendencies. This of course is not all terrible because it is crucial to publish good results quickly for the next stage of our careers.

However, accumulating knowledge, techniques, and ideas from related areas is also quite important for a few reasons, and this is often neglected because so much time is needed to learn about even one highly-focused topic (I would be interested to hear comments from graduate students in other departments about this).

One reason to broaden your knowledge is that you probably will not have exactly the same research field as your supervisor; for instance already my ‘grandsupervisor’ does research in a very different field than mine. Thus it is important to learn about things outside your immediate research problem so that by the time you reach your first postdoc, you can formulate the most interesting research program for yourself.

Nurturing your curiosity is another reason to keep abreast of various other topics. For instance, I am studying mathematics because have an intense curiosity for the field, and I would feel unsatisfied if I didn’t allow myself time to answer the various idle questions that come up from time to time. Keeping your natural drive to seek answers to whatever you find interesting will ensure that your research doesn’t become boring or just a quest for publications and fame. I have also found, and I am sure many other graduate students can attest to this, that the seemingly idle ideas I’ve absorbed often became pretty useful to understanding my present research. In fact, science often progresses not just by the discovery of new facts but also by the linking of different theories, which actually leads to the simplification of some previously complicated set of ideas.

Some ways of broadening your knowledge are reading a book or creating a graduate student seminar. Glancing at the titles in relevant sections of the library or reading survey papers is another way to find possibly interesting topics to study. Finally, simply taking the time to think about a few questions in your field might generate new questions that aren’t quite relevant but interesting nonetheless. A friend of mine and I often get together for what we call a ‘crazy seminar’ where we attempt to generate random questions unrelated to our research, and then we try and solve them. I find this rather fun, even if it doesn’t lead to solving any problems.

I feel that keeping a broad perspective on research is helpful and is something that every graduate student should do. For many of us, this is the freest time in our intellectual lives and what we learn now will stay with us for the rest of our careers; why not take advantage of it?

One thought on “The Fight Against Overspecialisation

  1. Couldn’t agree more. The natural world is not divided up into neat disciplines, and neither should be our understanding of it. E.O. Wilson’s ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge’ is a reat book that tackles this issue very well. It’s a great read that was very influential for me in my undergraduate years.

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