Jack of all trades

The Swiss National Science Foundation just published an interview with me, in the form of an article (you can read the article in english, french, or german). The last paragraph reads as follows:

So he wears the caps of scientist, entrepreneur, author and musician. Can he manage them all? "I envy those scientists who spend all of their energy on a single pursuit. Being active in a number of different research fields sometimes leads you to think that you lack depth in a number of them. But given that modern science is interdisciplinary, becoming involved in areas outside of one’s comfort zone is also an asset. After all, why choose one approach over another?"

I could probably write an entire book on the idea expressed in this paragraph. Interdisciplinary research has fascinated me from the beginning of my career as a scientist. Doing interdisciplinary science is hard. It's hard because, despite best efforts by the various institutions involved in science, the cards are stacked against you:

  1. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to get funded; experts in one discipline won't understand - or worse, trivialize - the challenges in the other disciplines.
  2. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to execute; different domains speak different languages, have different theories, consider different issues relevant.

  3. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to get published; they don't fit in the neat categories of most journals that are rooted in their disciplines, and there are only a few multidisciplinary journals. Also, point 1.

  4. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to get noticed; there are almost no conferences, prizes, recognitions, societies, etc. for interdisciplinary work.

These challenges are increasingly recognized. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing substantial that is being done to address them. And it's not for the lack of trying. It is just simply a very, very hard problem to solve. Disciplines may be arbitrary, but they do exist for a good reason. 

But the key point I tried to address in the interview - and which led to the highly condensed last paragraph cited above - is that the biggest hurdle for doing interdisciplinary science is found in oneself. At least, that is my experience. Doing interdisciplinary science means spending much time trying to understand the other disciplines. You can't do interdisciplinary science without having a basic grasp of the other disciplines. The more you understand of the other disciplines, the more interesting your interdisciplinary research will be. 

And here's the catch: all this time you spend keeping up with understanding at least superficially what's going on in the other disciplines, is time you'd normally spend keeping up with your own field. As a consequence, you are constantly in danger of becoming a "jack of all trades, master of none". I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on the etymology of this term. When it first emerged, it was simply "jack of all trades", meaning a person who was able to do many different things. The negative spin "master of none" was only added later, but it's deeply engrained in our culture. The fact that similar sayings exist in all other languages, as listed on the Wikipedia page, speaks volumes. 

In science, not being perceived as an outstanding expert in one particular field is a real danger to one's career, especially in the mid-career stage. The incentive structure of science is hugely influenced by reputation, which is the main reason scientists are so excited about anything with prestige. At the beginning of your career, as a student, it's clear you're not an expert; at the end, it's clear you're an expert, which presumably is why you survived in the system for so long (exceptions apply). But in the ever growing stretch in between - especially the roughly ten years between PhD and tenure - you definitely do not want to be seen as a "jack of all trades, master of none"

Unless you don't give a damn, which, if you're like me, is what I advise you to do. 

I wasn't sarcastic when I said that I envy scientists who spend all of their time working on a single topic. Focus is something I strive for in everything I do. How marvelous to be consumed by one particular question! How satisfying it must be to point all one's neurons to a single problem, like a laser! What a pleasure to be fully in command of all the literature in your speciality! How wonderful to go back to the same conferences, knowing everyone by name, being friends with most of them. Alas, it is not for me.

I'm drawn to many different fields, just like I'm drawn to experiencing many different types of food. Goodness knows I can get obsessed about one particular food item, spending years trying to perfect it. But that doesn't mean I'm not intently curious at all the other things that surround me. In science, I've decided I find the space between disciplines too interesting to be focusing exclusively on one discipline. 

But this is the catch 22: you need to be able to deal with the fact that you're not as much of an expert in your main discipline as you could be. Are you able to deal with this? 

One advice that I would give, completely unsolicited, like everything on this blog, is to first become very very good in one particular field. Good enough that you find it easy to publish, get funding, get jobs, get invited to conferences, and so on. At this point, you'll be in a much stronger position to branch out. You'll still face all the negative incentives listed above, but at least you have a home base you can return to if things get too crazy.

And when everything goes haywire, always remember: