There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers.
— Vannevar Bush, 1945
The following is a set of ideas and suggestions for students interested in developing themselves as generalists rather than specialists. Although these suggestions have been written with graduate scientific training in mind (such as a PhD or MD program), they are also relevant to those pursuing self-study, or who are guiding their choices as working professionals with the mindset of developing as a generalist. With the diversity of online resources available today, a formal education is certainly not necessary. Likewise, while this website is targeted at those interested in science and engineering, similar points could be made about the humanities and social sciences as well. If you have comments or additions to make to this list, please write us at [email protected].
Career Options for Generalists
- Organizations will not advertise for needing a “scientific generalist.” However, there are many areas where general scientific knowledge, critical thinking skills developed in the setting of advanced technical training, and strong communication skills are major assets and provide opportunities to distinguish oneself.
- There may be domains where others have not realized that your background is uniquely valuable. The idea of scientific generalists is not a developed one in the educated world and you may have to make a case to someone that your education is relevant to what they are looking for. In those cases, you should also be able to accomplish the standard tasks that are expected of others. It is unlikely to be very persuasive to someone if you claim to be a “visionary” or “high-level thinker” who trained as a “generalist” if you cannot accomplish ordinary tasks.
- Venture capital, scientific journals, program management at funding agencies, journalism, and consulting are all areas where modern scientific generalists may be uniquely suited to make strong contributions.
- Science and engineering are the bedrock of the modern world. A more widespread appreciation of the most cutting edge developments is important for society at large, and bringing that knowledge and perspective to an organization may be a contribution even if your work is not technical. Strong scientific generalists are needed at government agencies, in education, in policy, and in politics.
While You are Training
- If you are in college, consider double majoring. Highly dissimilar subjects-math and chemistry, electrical engineering and biology, computer science and political science, etc.-will be more valuable than closely related ones in developing broad skills and a flexible learning style.
- If you know that you will apply for a PhD in an area, consider fulfilling your pre-requisites while studying another subject. For example, if you are planning a PhD in physics, you might consider majoring in computer science, chemistry, or applied math, or doing a double major in those subjects. For areas where your work will be less quantitative, investing early on in the foundations is important, as you will have fewer opportunities to develop those skills later on. For instance, if you are planning to apply to medical school or do a PhD in biology, a quantitative major as an undergraduate will be a major asset.
- You cannot be too strong a programmer or know too much statistics. The ability to do meaningful data science is already important to many fields and this trend will only accelerate in the coming years.
- Constantly ask yourself the question “what does this specific knowledge base or the current state of this field say about the big picture?”
- You cannot know too much intellectual history. If you are doing research, consider learning about the history of the research topics you are investigating. More specialized topics will not have specific histories devoted to them. You will have to learn the history through the scientific literature and speaking with older scientists. Keep in mind that most researchers are focused on their next research target and will not encourage historical study. If you are sufficiently interested, consider writing a history yourself.
- Read grant applications, either from researchers you know or publically available ones (NSF, NIH, NIMH, ERC, etc.) and follow up on the actual trajectory of that research.
- If you are motivated and have the time, consider taking graduate qualifying examinations outside of your primary field of study. For instance, if you are in a computer science PhD program, it should be achievable to pass a qualifying examination in economics. Likewise, if you are an economics PhD student, it should be feasible to pass a qualifying examination in physics. Focusing your studies around problem solving is also an efficient way to get up to speed on the fundamentals of another subject.
- There are now many outlets for intellectual output. Write as much as possible, if not publically, then in correspondence with others. Consider maintaining a blog, posting sufficiently well-developed ideas as pre-prints, and look at novel publication outlets such as The Winnower, PubPub, and F1000Research.
- If you are doing an MD/PhD, consider doing your PhD in a non-biological subject, such as math, physics, or computer science. If you are interested in an MD/PhD, consider an MD/MS in computer science along with work experience as an alternate route to developing the skillset of a generalist with a background in the medical sciences. JDs with strong scientific background will also be uniquely suited to play the role of a scientific generalist in a variety of organizations.
- Consider internships in industry, at consulting firms, or in government, particularly if you are in a PhD program. These are valuable opportunities to gain real world skills and develop a professional network. They are particularly important if you are in a basic sciences PhD program and your research is in an area that does not give you immediately employable skills.