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How do scientists achieve breadth?

  1. Apr 13, 2010 #1
    In 1905, Einstein's miracle year, he published 3 ground-breaking papers on totally different areas, namely special relativity, photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. Is such breadth of research still possible for today's scientists? A scientist typically only does a PhD in one specialized area. How might he steer his career to become an all-rounder in several areas?
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  3. Apr 14, 2010 #2
    This is a really good question you ask because I agree the trend is toward specialization. There is not a lot of room these days for the renaissance thinker, but they will come along anyways. If one personally is driven to achieve breadth, then one just simply put has to take it upon themselves to enter into discussions with people outside their field, put themselves in situations where they have to learn quickly about things they do not know, and keep an open mind and open eyes for opportunities to apply what they have to an area and dedicate themselves to it.

    It is easy to think that to achieve breadth you would want to avoid specialization, but honestly even Einstein was incredibly specialized in his thinking, focusing on a few specific topics all related to developments in physics and his later work on relativity. My point is that one has to search for breadth, but commit oneself all the more to effort.

    Also, when you only work in one field you can tend to see things only in one way, and having an outside perspective can go a long way too. It is all in how you look at it.
  4. Apr 14, 2010 #3
    This really is a good question, one I'd like to hear more answers to.

    On a related note - and since when looking at the title I thought this was going to be what the topic is about -, do scientists find time for breadth OUTSIDE the field they're working in? By that I mean everything from following the news and getting info unrelated to the niche you've managed to find work in. Do you have the time for a couple of hours daily to read and hear what's going on in the world around you or do you have to be oblivious to mostly everything but the field you're working in if you want to succeed in it?
  5. Apr 14, 2010 #4


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    You achieve breadth by "learning" new things all the time.

    The one thing that people probably don't know is that the skill one gets when pursuing a degree, especially a Ph.D is the skill to learn new things. This is especially true in physics where your degree arms you with the basic knowledge and skills that enable you to transfer to another field if necessary, or to apply it in a different areas. It is not unusual for many physicists to start in one area, and throughout their career, go into many other areas. I'm one of them.

  6. Apr 14, 2010 #5


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    This calls for counsels of perfection.

    You should at uni not neglect the ancillary disciplines attached to your main speciality and you should read around these subjects. As well of course as general culture, leadership and social and organisational skills, physical and sports skills, practical skills and your emotional and affective life and personality. I have probably left out something. Possibly some compromises will be needed:biggrin:, but the idea, well the ideal, is valid.

    These days in biology at least if you are pitched into research you will probably be pitched into some interdisciplinarity. Time ago I went to a conference on 'molybdenum enzymes' which swept between inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, physical organic chemistry, protein chemistry and biophysics, evolutionary relationships of course, crystallography and protein structure, biochemistry, genetics, protein genetic engineering, pathology, medical and population genetics and I don't know what else and no one batted an eyelid or spouted about The Need For Interdisciplinarity In This Modern Science. Some oldies said it was a matter of course for the students and youngsters -though they found it a bit hard to keep up with all of it themselves!
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2010
  7. Apr 14, 2010 #6
    There is quite a lot of room for this in industry. If you want to do anything non-trivial outside of academia, you have to some knowledge in a lot of different areas.

    One other way of thinking about it is that you want to specialize, but you want to specialize in something that no one else has specialized in. For example, if you want to build a semiconductor plant in Peru, you have to know something about semiconductors, but you also have to know something about Peruvian politics and culture.

    It turns out to be easy to be the world expert in something. There's someone in the world who is the leading expert in building semiconductor plants in Peru.
  8. Apr 14, 2010 #7
    Also, it's probably too much to become an expert at everything, but even getting to the point where you can ask the right question to the experts is non-trivial.
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