Monday, January 7, 2013

To specialize or not to specialize

Well, I am finally back from a long break at home in Ohio. I saw my sister get married, ate lots of cookies, and visited with my entertaining inlaws-to-be. I feel that the break from thinking about science has done me quite a bit of good and given me some new perspectives on things. Now, as I settle into work on completing my dissertation, I still plan on taking time to write here since it is a nice break from the slow, boring work of drilling away in Word on an endless technical document. Besides, I've gained so much from writing this blog that I don't think that I will ever let it go.

I don't have much to say for today, but I do want to put into words something I've thought about previously. Namely, it seems that the degree of specialization varies between research groups and what this means for individuals looking to enter graduate school or change jobs. By degree of specialization, I'm referring to the extent to which a researcher's problems encompass a number of different academic fields. A high degree of specialization will involve problems that do not utilize concepts from other fields and vice-versa.

**The following lists are my opinions only. I realize that some statements may be regarded as contentious. However, these opinions are based on my experiences and to me, at least, carry a degree of truth.**

Characteristics of a highly specialized field are:
  1. There are many unsolved problems; these often involve refinements to simpler models
  2. One does not need to maintain a wide breadth of knowledge across other fields
  3. One's skills may be extremely marketable, but in a field of limited size
  4. One may control the direction of his or her field more easily since there are fewer competing researchers and ideas to contend with

Characteristics of a less-specialized field are:
  1. You can apply to many different jobs, though you may not usually be the best candidate
  2. Solutions to problems make a large impact since the problems apply to many settings
  3. It is more difficult to read a majority of research articles that one finds since one is not as well-versed in the details
  4. One's research is more likely to be attacked by those more specialized if you neglect some newer and precise models (I often find that this is the case, even if the more precise models do not weigh upon the problem I am solving)
When I'm on this line of thought, I can never escape the line "Specialization is for insects."