Specialist vs. Generalist

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  • #1
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Here's a true story about one of my professors. He stated clearly that he was a "generalist", as opposed to "a specialist who researches a very, very specific area and nothing else for the rest of his life." However, he was later forced into early retirement from his university because he did not publish enough papers. He later became a novelist, no longer a professor of any university.

This is a tough decision for me. If I specialize in a very specific area and do nothing else, I will get bored within a year. If I become a generalist, I will be constantly intrigued in my research because I am going from topic to topic and happy with my wealth of generalized knowledge. However, by generalizing to many different areas, I will always be far behind the various experts who have specialized in the areas that I am generalizing to and thus my research can hardly compare to theirs.

This is like a dilemma. Being bored but producing many papers to stay in the job, or being happy and intrigued in my research but not being considered valuable to the scientific community. What are your thoughts?
 
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  • #2
ZapperZ
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Both you and your professor have a very jaundiced opinion of what it means to "specialize". Just to prove you wrong, I will describe exactly what *I* do currently at work, and I qualify as someone who your professor would call a "specialist". Keep in mind that I was trained as an experimental condensed matter physicist, and I am currently working in the field of accelerator physicist.

1. I operate our particle accelerator

2. I study electron beam properties, especially when it passes through our dielectric structure

3. I study electron multipactor phenomenon, especially in dielectric.

4. I use an SEM to study surfaces of various material

5. I designed, built, and operate a photocathode fabrication system.

6. I study the physics of high QE photocathodes for use in FEL systems.

7. I study the physics of vacuum breakdown in high gradient environment. This includes designing a new facility that will be dedicated in studying how things behave as we increase the E-field gradient up to 120 MV/m with or without high-powered laser assistance.

8. I assist a separate project in negative-electron affinity photocathodes

9. I help run an astrophysics experiment to calibrate a set of detectors that will be used for the Auger Observatory.

10. I keep up to date knowledge on left-handed material that produces negative refractive index. This is because one of our grad student works in this area and is building a metamaterial structure to be used in our accelerator to see if we can produce a reverse Cerenkov effect.

11. I still actively referee papers in tunneling, photoemission, and high-Tc superconductors.

Shall I go on?

And I will also tell you this: I am not unique, at least not around here. We are encouraged to work in a wide variety of areas because we simply cannot put all our eggs in one basket, especially when funding is so tight and difficult. As I have mentioned elsewhere, you very seldom just do ONE thing, especially when you work in experimental physics. Even theorists find interests in many areas of physics. If you are stuck in doing just one thing, it is often your own inaction that causes this. I personally do not see any lack of opportunities to involve myself in many different projects, often across various field of studies in physics. Yet, I still consider myself a "specialist" considering that my main effort is concentrated on a few major projects with a particular aim.

I think it is about time that this "myth" is dispelled.

Zz.
 
  • #3
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But I'm sure that there are specialists who do nothing but
"researches electron beam properties when it passes through dielectric structures"

or nothing but
"researches electron multipactor phenomenon in dielectric"

or nothing but
"researches the physics of high QE photocathodes for use in FEL systems"

or nothing but
"researches the physics of vacuum breakdown in high gradient environment"

There may not be too many of these specialists, but they exist somewhere, right? Since you do all of these, wouldn't your findings be incomparable to the findings by the experts who specialize separately in these (or you discover something that had already been discovered by them)?
 
  • #4
ZapperZ
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But I'm sure that there are specialists who do nothing but
"researches electron beam properties when it passes through dielectric structures"

or nothing but
"researches electron multipactor phenomenon in dielectric"

or nothing but
"researches the physics of high QE photocathodes for use in FEL systems"

or nothing but
"researches the physics of vacuum breakdown in high gradient environment"
Then point out to me these people. I have seen none.

Since you do all of these, wouldn't your findings be incomparable to the findings by the experts who specialize separately in these (or you discover something that had already been discovered by them)?
Then how do you explain all of these publications that I have produced on this these topics?

Zz.
 
  • #5
Dr Transport
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I have not found anyone who continually publishes in just one area. Your natural inclination is to see how differnt areas fit together.

Like Zz, I have worked in many areas of physics. I am trained in Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics, I started in electronic transport in anisotropic semiconductors. My work has taken into optical properties of these semiconductors, thermal properties of materials, laser systems, laser system design etc... See what we mean, we are all generalists.

If you professor didn't get tenure and has left the university, I wold say it is because he jumped from place to place without any tie-in. I remember a faculty candidate when I was a 1st year graduate student, his background was phenominal, his previous work tied together three areas of experimental physics curently underway in my department. They couldn't get him onboard quick enough. The key is that you have to tie everything together to look good, not just publish.
 
  • #6
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My professor jumped around from Hilbert spaces, to functional analysis, to quantum general relativity, to grand unification theories (he had his own version). I guess he jumped around too much, but he said he enjoyed it, and said that "specializing" wasn't for him. When I asked him to be my graduate advisor he said that the university was letting him go.
 
  • #7
ZapperZ
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I wouldn't be surprised if you ask other people at your school and they have a different take on why your professor was let go. You are getting only what he had to say.

.. which means that what you brought up was a non-issue in the first place

Zz.
 
  • #8
Moonbear
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Whatever you study, you need to publish. In academics, that is the end-product that demonstrates productivity. Whatever your professor's excuses were, if he was not publishing, then that is likely a big part of the reason he is no longer working there. Most people have 2 or 3 lines of research they are pursuing somewhat simultaneously, or switch back and forth between as funding climates shift. You might have a straightforward project that gets guaranteed publications and good success with funding, and a more high risk project that you return to from time to time as money allows, which is often what is the most fun, but also the slowest to progress and has the most likelihood of failure. Or you might have two areas of research that both fall within their own separate fields, but also are tied together in some way that interests you.

Specializing doesn't mean focusing on one and only one problem, it means focusing on a series of problems, each arising from the previous one. If someone is not being productive with that approach, it may be because they are not good enough to recognize the next steps that follow from each new piece of information they acquire. If you don't have focus (a generalist) then it's really hard to convince anyone you have the expertise in anything to get funded to do it.
 
  • #9
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So here is a possible summary:

An extreme generalist -- jumps from area to area. This may be intriguing and fun for the researcher, but it really hard to convince anyone you have the expertise in anything to get funded.

An extreme specialist -- focuses on a very narrow field, with each problem directly related to and in the same area as the previous problem. Personally, I would get bored quickly.

Generalist/specialist -- what Zapper, Dr. Transport, and Moonbear described. The ideal mix to get proper funding while at the same time avoiding getting bored in the research.

Correct?
 
  • #10
ZapperZ
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So here is a possible summary:

An extreme generalist -- jumps from area to area. This may be intriguing and fun for the researcher, but it really hard to convince anyone you have the expertise in anything to get funded.

An extreme specialist -- focuses on a very narrow field, with each problem directly related to and in the same area as the previous problem. Personally, I would get bored quickly.

Generalist/specialist -- what Zapper, Dr. Transport, and Moonbear described. The ideal mix to get proper funding while at the same time avoiding getting bored in the research.

Correct?
The problem here is that from my perspective, EVERYONE that I know of is almost in the same circumstance as I am. Until today, I've never heard of any practicing physicist in the same situation as your professor, nor in the situation that you described as 'extreme specialist'. Recall that I asked you to find these people. What you made made up in your mind to be occurring is not true.

Even if they exist, they are in the minority. This means that what you asked really either does not exist, or barely exists. That is why I said that this is a non-issue.

Zz.
 
  • #11
Dr Transport
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I wouldn't be surprised if you ask other people at your school and they have a different take on why your professor was let go. You are getting only what he had to say.
The others will have the complete story....
 
  • #12
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Are tehre any other possible reasons why your professor could have been forced to leave?
 
  • #13
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perhaps he was just unproductive in his research due to lack of ideas and/or results, and this specialist vs. generalist stuff was just his excuse.
 
  • #14
Dr Transport
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perhaps he was just unproductive in his research due to lack of ideas and/or results, and this specialist vs. generalist stuff was just his excuse.

In many cases, getting tenure is directly related to how much money you bring in. You might be a brilliant theorist or experimentalist, but if you can't support your research externally you most likely will not get tenure.
 
  • #15
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so perhaps the professor was brilliant in his research but just could not get funding for his research because his research, though creative and original, was not considered important? how sad.
 
  • #16
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Whatever you study, you need to publish. In academics, that is the end-product that demonstrates productivity.
Do you know how many papers Einstein published during his lifetime?
Was he unsecessful?
 
  • #17
tmc
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Do you know how many papers Einstein published during his lifetime?
Was he unsecessful?
He most certainly was not productive during those years where he did not publish
 
  • #18
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You didn't understand my rethorical question tmc.
Point is that he published ,if he is compared with a typical nobel laureate,very few papers during his entire life.
But those that he published had enormous influence to science (and still have today).
So the questions is:Quality or Quantity?
 
  • #19
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You didn't understand my rethorical question tmc.
Point is that he published ,if he is compared with a typical nobel laureate,very few papers during his entire life.
But those that he published had enormous influence to science (and still have today).
So the questions is:Quality or Quantity?
this brings me back to my thread (math and physics program). einstein did not add very much to his own theory of relativity because the other relativists (schwartzchild, kerr, etc...) were equipped with more sophisticated mathematics then einstein. this finally convinces me that having a full mathematical toolbox would make a physicist better.
 
  • #20
Dr Transport
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So the questions is:Quality or Quantity?
The quality papers are ones that bubble to the top after years and years. What is forgotten is that the state of physics in the early 1900's was in flux, you could publish a couple of papers that were really far reaching, today most likely your far reaching paper won't see the light of day and will not make large waves in the community.

My advisor was considered for a tenure track position but they didn't consider his publication list to be very good, only 45 papers at the time. The department chair had 100 or so, my advisor asked them how many papers they wrote were considered semial, their reply was none, he had infact 5 papers which were considered as such but they didn't care, no offer and no tenure. He also did work that is refered to as definitive, but he left the university without ever haveing tenure. So the moral of the story is quantity and a thick vitae.
 
  • #21
verty
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this brings me back to my thread (math and physics program). einstein did not add very much to his own theory of relativity because the other relativists (schwartzchild, kerr, etc...) were equipped with more sophisticated mathematics then einstein. this finally convinces me that having a full mathematical toolbox would make a physicist better.
Readability does count for something though. I think there is place for both. Would Quine have been as well read if he had written more obtusely?
 
  • #22
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The quality papers are ones that bubble to the top after years and years. What is forgotten is that the state of physics in the early 1900's was in flux, you could publish a couple of papers that were really far reaching, today most likely your far reaching paper won't see the light of day and will not make large waves in the community.

My advisor was considered for a tenure track position but they didn't consider his publication list to be very good, only 45 papers at the time. The department chair had 100 or so, my advisor asked them how many papers they wrote were considered semial, their reply was none, he had infact 5 papers which were considered as such but they didn't care, no offer and no tenure. He also did work that is refered to as definitive, but he left the university without ever haveing tenure. So the moral of the story is quantity and a thick vitae.
Personally,I know a PhD who split his one paper into three smaller ones.
And then he published.He was just skillful enough to do so.Nothing particularly new from one to another.Third paper was kinda a summary of previous two and comparation with other references.
He is my friend and respected specialist but I was rather disguisted by such modus operandi when he told me that. :frown:
I'm sure he is not the only one who is doing it.
 
  • #23
Doesn't mathwonk specialize in algebraic geometry? He seems chill.

I don't see why you can't just do whatever the hell you want. Publish what you want about what you want. If you decide you need to specialize for a bit to pump some good papers out, then specialize and then move back into something else. I know you can learn complicated maths on your own, so you read a couple texts in a specialized area and write papers for a while, then jump into something else and eventually, tie it in together.

or do you not have this much freedom as a researcher?

andytoh, you certainly construct some weird, abstract dichotomies that always seem to generate 8 pages of responses, lol.
 
  • #24
Dr Transport
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Personally,I know a PhD who split his one paper into three smaller ones.
And then he published.He was just skillful enough to do so.Nothing particularly new from one to another.Third paper was kinda a summary of previous two and comparation with other references.
He is my friend and respected specialist but I was rather disguisted by such modus operandi when he told me that. :frown:
I'm sure he is not the only one who is doing it.
That is typical, publish or perish. I have seen people who will publish a series of papers, each varying a different parameter just to have a larger publication list. I can think of a faculty member who wrote 7 papers totaling about 50 pages, if he would have written everything up at one time it would have been about 20 pages, he was concerned about number of papers and total page count. When he got tenure they looked at the total number of papers and total page count, not looking at the fact that the intro section for these 7 papers were nearly identical.
 
  • #25
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Worse, sometimes groups of mathematicians band together so that whenever anyone of them gets a result they all put their name on it and turn it in...I mean, submit it. Makes me sick.
 

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