Changing Scientific Focus: Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

Some liken the selection of a graduate advisor to finding a spouse.  Of course, a real spouse doesn’t pay us a monthly stipend and (hopefully) we’re not looking forward to finding a new one in five years.  Yet the choice of the marriage analogy may be more appropriate for another aspect of our careers – the science.

Entering graduate school, the thought of having to select the scientific field of interest for our entire career would be overwhelming.  Instead, we look at graduate school as a time to develop our critical thinking skills, master our technical skills, and sharpen our problem-solving abilities – with less importance placed on finding a research question we will spend the next 40 years trying to answer.

Yet six years later, after publishing several manuscripts, reading hundreds papers, and completing thousands of hours of lab work, it’s hard not to feel heavily invested in a field.  While postdoctoral research presents a fantastic opportunity to broaden or change out scientific focus, our reputation and contacts remain in our field.  Bypassing the postdoc, employers will certainly find us more attractive candidates in the field we just spent six years mastering.

Changing scientific focus can be exciting and exhilarating, but it’s not without drawbacks.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that to truly become an expert in a field, we need to put in 10,000 hours of work.  While the exact number may be debatable, researchers understand that mastering a new scientific technique or field is extremely time-consuming.  As a result, it may make more sense to remain an expert in our field and collaborate with other experts when our research takes a turn out of our wheelhouse.

While some would argue that maintaining a consistent scientific focus throughout our entire career is essential for success, the evolution of new fields such as Chemical Biology has certainly challenged this notion.  Unlike a “neuroanatomist”, a “chemical biologist” doesn’t necessarily suggest any specific field of expertise and in fact, many of us know just enough to be dangerous in a number of areas.  Instead, we follow the science and may feel more like jacks of all trades and masters of none.

With a new class of graduate students just a few months away from beginning their own journey in research, how should they be thinking of their careers on the front end – should they try to stay hyperfocused on a single field for their entire career, or is changing focus occasionally a good thing?  Thanks to soon-to-be graduate student and recent BenchFly contributor, Natalie Goldberg, for the request to ask whether changing scientific focus over a career is good for professional development.

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Is it a good idea to change your scientific focus throughout your career?

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What do you think are the advantages or disadvantages of maintaining a consistent scientific focus over a career?

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7 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Zen Faulkes

    wrote on April 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    The advantages of maintaining a constant focus are mainly professional. You establish a consistent "brand" for yourself and your research. This makes it easier to show a track record for grants proposals and the like.

    The advantages of not necessarily maintaining a focus are mainly scientific. You might publish more (and maybe more interesting) papers by casting further afield. It also stops you from becoming bored.

  2. Nick F

    wrote on April 11, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    I'd suggest to undergradutes to get involved in research ASAP. Find out what you like and more importantly what you don't like. I was a physics major and interned doing physics research and realized- holy crap- I don't want to do this for the rest of my life. Despite being successful, I didn't want to become my internship advisor. Now, 4 years later, I'm happy in a biology-focused lab working for someone I wouldn't mind ending up like. Choosing an advisor is a big deal- I've seen too many of my friends regret their choice and leave with their MS.

  3. Nick F

    wrote on April 11, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    As for changing your focus from graduate school, to post-doc and beyond- it of course depends on the field. But more importantly, it depends on what you want to do! If something outside your field interests you and you have the opportunity to dive into it, you should do it and not worry about it not being in your "core competency."

    In today's job market I'm banking on the "jack of all trades" designation for my graduate education. I'm hoping that by having a wide range of talents and knowledge I can apply to many different jobs in many different areas. The alternative, in my mind, is to focus on one or two skills and end up stuck looking for that one or two job around the country that is looking for your skill set. Of course, come back and talk to me in a year or two and we'll see what I think then!

  4. alan@benchfly

    wrote on April 12, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    The funding issue is a very interesting point. It takes a while to build up a solid reputation and a track record of funding in a field, so constantly changing focus may negatively affect funding. However, if you've obtained interesting and exciting results that lead you into a new field, perhaps that's enough to overcome any lack of reputation/track record.

  5. biochembelle

    wrote on April 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Several months ago I attended a very informal talk given by Jack Szostak in which he talked about the progression of his own career. Most of us know him for his Nobel Prize winning work on telomeres, but his career really has been a winding path–and now his lab is into 'origins of life' work on RNA and membranes. His approach is finding an interesting question to which he thinks he and his lab can make a unique contribution. He's found new areas of interest by sitting in on colleagues' courses and attending workshops. Granted, as an HHMI investigator, he's got a bit more flexibility to go after riskier questions.

  6. alan@benchfly

    wrote on April 28, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    You've gotta love that he's sitting in on colleagues' courses and attending workshops. That desire to learn and explore is what attracted so many of us to science, but unfortunately it seems there is a tendency for us to get distracted or lose the spirit as other responsibilities pile on over the years. Refreshing to see it can still happen (and with amazing results)!

  7. What's In a Name?

    wrote on May 9, 2011 at 5:25 am

    […] I was sending tweets back and forth with Alan. It started when Alan had asked, in reference to a previous BenchFly blog post, whether it was better to focus on a specific research field, or to be a jack of all trades. I […]

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