Stay broad! Why you should fight the intellectual narrows

A post by Chris RowanFor this month’s Accretionary wedge, my co-blogger Anne is asking us to mark the beginning of a new teaching year by pondering the nature of education in the geoscience. As a post-doc, I may not be in the best position to really address this question, because I occupy a weird transitional state on the educational ladder: not really a student, but only just starting out on my scientific career, and only peripherally involved with the teaching side of university life. And yet, since I am trying to gain a long-term position as an academic scientist, I do need to identify – and then fill – any gaps left unfilled by my undergraduate and PhD training, hopefully before any future hiring committees do.

Thanks to my somewhat tortuous path into geology, I can certainly look back and wish that I’d seen the light sooner so that I had gotten more formal instruction in things like petrology and mineralogy. I can wish that I’d realised earlier that statistics is one of the more essential instruments in a scientist’s mathematical toolkit. I can definitely wish that my PhD instruction had included more insight into the arcane process of acquiring funding for your research; something which, from my anecdotal experience, is a clear weakness in the UK’s PhD system compared to, say, the one in the USA.

However, looking back on my path so far through academia, I think that the thing that I most regret in hindsight is the way I allowed my PhD to narrow my intellectual horizons. It’s an easy enough thing to understand: as you work on your thesis, your whole intellectual bandwidth becomes dominated by a single topic, and decisions about which papers you read, and what you spend your time thinking about, are entirely governed by how relevant they are to your thesis. A few years of this, and you might find that the totality of your expertise is confined to a tiny nipple of knowledge barely discernable on the broader circle of scientific knowledge.

This is the last frame of a great visualisation of this problem by Matthew Might. Click on the image to see the whole thing.

Science is more about the connections between facts and observations than the facts themselves. The more you focus on one thing, the more you lose sight of those connections, and the more you are setting yourself up for trouble in the future. If you are teaching, you will be expected to instruct future scientists on a much broader section of the circle of knowledge. And it is extremely unlikely that you will be able to spend your entire academic career endlessly repeating your studies of exactly the same problem.

Fortunately for me, the nature of geology itself helped to counterbalance the narrowing pressures of my PhD: the diverse and deep interconnections between physics, chemistry and biology that lie at the heart of earth science can easily pull you in unanticipated intellectual directions. I learnt this lesson when my research into the recent tectonic history of New Zealand suddenly required a major detour into the redox chemistry of shallowly buried sediments and electron microscopy of sulphide minerals. And yet, I would sometimes remember all of the different areas of geology that I learnt about as an undergrad and mourn a little about how much of it seemed to have been pushed out of my brain.

Since then, I have been rehabilitating myself: my different post-docs, which have ranged across continents, geological time periods, and sub-disciplines, have helped to nicely re-broaden my mental horizons. But I also think that writing this blog, and reading others, has been almost as important, by drawing my attention to interesting things from other areas of earth science.

But wherever you are in your geoscience career, I believe a little time spent fighting the urge to narrowly focus might reap valuable future dividends. Of course, most of your work time should be spent on your current projects. But try to save a little bit of time for discovering the problems that you don’t know you want to solve yet, the techniques that you wouldn’t currently imagine would be of use to you, the parts of the world or the geological timescale that you’ve never considered you might be interested in. Scan the contents of new journals, and don’t be afraid to read an interesting looking paper even if it isn’t relevant to what you’re doing right now. Never pass up the chance to talk to meet and discuss science with new colleagues and vistors. And never pass up an invitation to go out in the field if you can help it: you always, always learn something new.

So my advice to current students is: don’t get caught in the narrows! And to current researchers, don’t stay trapped in them!

Categories: academic life, geology, ranting, science education
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Comments (4)

  1. Brian Romans says:

    Nice post, glad you’re back.

    As always, there’s a balance to be struck. I also like the visualization of how a PhD contributes to greater knowledge — what I like about it is not so much the tiny-ness of the impact, but how big this circle gets when all those tiny nubs are added up. In the end, research is about contribution to the whole.

    Getting pigeon-holed or caught in the narrows, as you nicely put it, is definitely a danger. The other side of that coin though is simply dabbling in lots of different stuff — the ol’ mide-wide-but-an-inch-deep problem. I think some level of expertise (via X number of years working/pondering something narrow) sets one up to then apply that expertise in a new and clever ways. That’s when innovation happens — when lines of research cross and connections are made.

  2. Malcolm says:

    As an undergrad a couple years in, a lot of what you said resonates with me. Since I’m passionate about geosciences, I have this idea that I can learn anything & everything about all its disciplines, sub-disciplines and inter-disciplines; I know that level of understanding isn’t feasible, but I’ve heard that keeping studies and papers and field work broad in the early years helps out, akin to what you’ve mentioned.

    So I do lab work with the geomorphologists, field work with the hydrologists, read papers on vulcanology & geochronology, and spend some free time out in the countryside absorbing geological structures & hunting for fossils.

  3. Hollis Marriott says:

    If yours is a field where new information accumulates rapidly, and there’s a need for new models and explanations, it pays to have a broader knowledge base. Some bit of information outside your field may be the clue that makes everything fall into place.

  4. I think your line, ” the diverse and deep interconnections between physics, chemistry and biology that lie at the heart of earth science can easily pull you in unanticipated intellectual directions,” is at the heart of why I went into geology in the first place. I can remember as a freshman in college being amazed all the various systems that interacted to influence something as seemingly simple as soil type.

    As a high school science teacher, I’ve found geology a tough sell for some students for precisely those interconnections. It’s almost like there needs to be a certain amount of cognitive development before one can really grasp that interconnectedness at a deeper level. For me it didn’t occur until I was 19 or so.

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