The Obsessive Hedgehog and the Schizophrenic Fox

fox_and_hedgehogBetween becoming an obtuse specialist and a superficial generalist, how broad should be the research focus when planning a scientific career?

I always thought of myself as a generalist. In my field of investigation, I’ve been working on method development, programming, conceptual analysis, benchmarks, re-assignment of experimental data, and simulations of reactions for a large variety of molecules. I couldn’t be more generalist, I thought.

But then one day, a friend of mine made a comment that shook my pretense self-knowledge. He told me he couldn’t be happy working like me, in such a specialized and restricted field. I protested, but he made a good point: for one decade I’ve been only working on excited-state simulations of organic molecules.

Funny how opinions differ: what was a vast field for me, was a small garden for him.

Naturally we are all specialist in some sense. Nobody today could seriously attempt at being a dilettante inventing the theory of motion, proposing a universal gravitational law, establishing the principles of optics, creating the mathematics to deal with all that, and this just in the free time between alchemical experiments.

Science got to a level of complexity that to understand, let alone to contribute to, any topic requires years of training. I’d love to unveil how mind works, open new perspectives in quantum gravity, decipher the mysteries of prehistorical migrations. I have, however, to modestly satisfy myself with reading about all these wonders in pop books.

This means that at certain point of my career I had to decide what would be the focus of my research. I had to find a niche, pee there, and call it mine. It wasn’t easy, though. Much of my earlier specialization was done by accident; by circumstances that I didn’t really control, pushing me towards this or that direction. But at some point I found myself able to take over and make my own choices of career focus. It wasn’t always clear, but now I know well that these choices involve four drivers:

  1. Survival. Before anything else, I must pay my rent.
  2. Skills. I must admit there are things I’m not tailored to do; there are things I don’t like to do.
  3. Wisdom. To know and understand things, this is the reason I decided to become a scientist and gave up a promising professional football player career.
  4. Recognition. Ego is always in play. I want to be respected as a specialist, to be invited for a TED, maybe to get a Nobel! (By the way, about the Nobel, Physics is too difficult; peace, too dangerous. I’d go for Literature: it’s the easiest one and pays just about same. That’s why I’m investing in this blog.)

Balancing between these four drivers, I had to decide how broad my research focus ought to be.

Which options did I have? Let me work out the extremes.

On the one hand, I could overspecialize. I could lay down on a comfortable zone, for instance, by dedicating myself to exclusively study “Theoretical aspects of the interaction between UV radiation and isolated nucleobases.” I guarantee, there is enough fruits there to feed me for a whole life. If I had gone for that, I’d certainly be recognized by the community of specialists. Every conference on the topic would have me as an invited speaker and every contributed book would have a chapter signed by me.

But then I wouldn’t be much clever than an idiot savant. My understanding of the world beyond my little garden would be null. Moreover, overspecialization is a dangerous strategy for survival: ecology teaches that specialists are the first ones to die when environment changes and new challenges are posed.

On the other hand, I could get all greedy and ambitious and take for myself a whole field, say “Molecular excitations.” General enough to encompass basically any topic in chemical physics. There wouldn’t be a grant that I couldn’t apply for. Every interesting topic that attracted my attention could be the subject of my next paper. I’d certainly become wise, with a keen view of the world and broad general knowledge.

But, obviously, I would be eating resources that I can’t properly digest.

Every new topic that I put myself to study would demand that I read two hundred papers to get acquainted with the field before doing anything relevant there. More probably, I would end up only delivering superficial contributions, which no one would take very seriously. I’d be the proverbial Jack of all trades and master of none. Bad for recognition, bad for survival.

Between being an obsessive-compulsive hedgehog and a schizophrenic fox, probably the best strategy is just to be human. Combining the weight of specialization and the freedom of potential innovation, what about focusing on “Interaction between radiation and organic matter?” I’d still be recognized as a specialist, I’d still be learning new things all the time, and I’d still be working on a field with money flowing into and be able to compete for a variety of resources. That was my choice; just like Goldilocks, I settled for the middle-way porridge.

Naturally, this decision didn’t take place in a single moment of illumination. It was a long process, which is still in work. Who knows what I’ll be doing in one hundred years? (Yep, I’m an optimist.)

It took me a while to realize, but at the end, defining my research focus was a matter of finding out the right balance between each driver—survival, skills, wisdom, and recognition. Maybe this is the main lesson that any scientist must learn when planning their career.


Categories: Productivity

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