Friday, February 22, 2008

Culture Clash

During a meeting today with a diverse group of 8 other Science professors, we found that our disagreement about a particular issue stemmed from one particular source that transcended our differences in scientific field (various physical and bio sciences), age, gender, race, or sanity level. We divided neatly into two subgroups, one of which was comprised of scientists whose research is highly focused on a particular topic, and the other by those who tend to work on a wide range of research topics at the same time.

I think that both modes of research can be quite interesting, successful, and inter-disciplinary, so the issue isn't whether one is a 'better' way to do science than the other. I think that scientists gravitate towards one mode of research or the other depending on what works best for their personality and/or environmental factors (availability of facilities, funds, students). I identify more with the second group because I like working on a wide range of projects - this is the mode of research that I find most enjoyable and exciting.

In the meeting today, some members of the Focused Group put forward the opinion that those who work on a wide range of topics tend to be 'too ambitious', 'too scattered', and 'superficial'. Some members of the Unfocused Group put forward the opinion that those who work on a specific, very focused topic are 'too narrow', 'can't see the Big Picture', and won't know what to do when that topic has been studied to extinction.

I should say that this was a very friendly discussion, and our disagreements were not expressed in a hostile way at all. Nevertheless, we found ourselves at an impasse, and have not yet found a way to reconcile these two different views to the extent of reaching a decision (nor did we have to in today's meeting, so we didn't try too hard).

Surely the answer is that the scientific community needs both kinds of scientists, ideally working together now and then. In our committee, however, we have to choose one species over the other, and that is difficult.

There have been times earlier in my career when I worried that I was too defocused -- that is, working on too many different things rather than concentrating on doing one thing very well. I knew it was what I enjoyed the most, but what were the implications for my career? If you work on lots of different things, is that good because your work is known by more people, or is it bad because you don't have a major body of work in any one topic (so perhaps are not an 'expert' in any one thing)? I never figured that out, but being 'scattered' among different projects doesn't seem to have harmed me at all, and it has been a lot of fun.

I don't know what my committee will ultimately decide, but I think that individual scientists are probably most productive and happiest if they have the freedom to work in whichever of these modes feels best for them. We should value both modes of research and shouldn't designate one as better than the other (and denigrate those who operate in the other mode). I don't know if my committee can get past this issue, but if we do, I am confident that we will find something else to argue about.

16 comments:

Buffalo Sally said...

Scientists need to constantly re-invent themselves. I often see researchers only attending talks/colloquiums that are related to their specific research topic. I was told by a senior professor not to do that as my area of expertise might stop being a hot topic some day. He gave the example of mass spectroscopy which used to be the main thrust of research in our department. Today, this area of research no longer exists in our department. Even researchers that are narrowly focused can re-invent themselves, if they are creative enough. This is what I absolutely love about science. How creative it can be, no matter what your approach is.

Ms.PhD said...

Hmm. I have to wonder if this is a hiring committee.

I tend to be defocused too. When I try to be focused, I get frustrated.

The clear message I've been getting is that it's way too dangerous for women to get labeled 'too ambitious' and 'unfocused'. I've been told that to get a job, I have to at least try to appear very focused.

I don't know how to go about finding departments that don't expect this or even want it.

Most departments have a 1-line description to go with each faculty member's photo.

Come to think of it, when I see a vague/broad research statement from junior professors, I tend to think they don't know what they're doing. When I see it from senior professors, I tend to think they're sitting on their laurels. I'm sure this is totally unfair, but I've been burned before on taking professors' publication records as evidence of their interests- in more than one instance, I learned the hard way that the diversity in the lab came from former postdocs, not from the PI.

I do think that it is possible to be overly focused and narrow-minded, and that this is a very dangerous thing in science. It's especially dangerous on hiring committees. I think by the very nature of being unfocused, it's easier for us to see the value of the other way than it is for them to see ours.

It's like democrats vs. republicans. Democrats are a messy bunch, but we can appreciate the simplicity of the dictatorial republican strategy. They tend to just see us as messy.

EarlyToBed said...

I am also a scientist who likes to work on a variety of different types of projects. This approach, like most approaches, has its strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths is that I have studied--deeply--a wide variety of subjects, and can understand and appreciate a lot of other scientists' work. However, I have also been criticized for being spread too thin.

I agree with you--there are many ways to do superb science. And excellent scientists can have many different types of personalities and come from a lot of different backgrounds. Once those ideas are acknowledged, then it is easier to tolerate a diversity of approaches.

landsnark said...

I really like the idea of scientific progress as being like a spider web. There are people who work along straight lines, advancing one area forward, like the spokes radiating outward from the center of the web, and there are people who fill in the connections between areas, who keep an eye on lots of things so that they can make the leaps between the spokes, closing the gaps. I think both approaches are important--to be structurally sound, a web needs both. It's one more kind of diversity.

Or to put it another way, some people push back frontiers, some people make tables. We need advances, but we also need to be able to look stuff up in tables.

And of course, there are lots of kinds of spider webs.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I am co-advised by one Unfocused person and one Focused person. While it can be frustrating to please them both, it is immensely valuable for my training. One is super creative and always sees the big picture while the other doesn't let the details slide. Although I think I have the brain and personality of a Focused person, I think both modes are equally useful and really important.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

My research group overall falls into the unfocused category; however, we are a very large group, so individual projects are very focused. It's a nice blend.

Anonymous said...

Just curious: Was there a gender divide between the two approaches? (assuming you can judge this from those who were present at the meeting).

Female Science Professor said...

There was no gender divide : ".. that transcended our differences in scientific field.., age, gender, race, or sanity level."

Brenda said...

Is it possible that unfocused scientists would be more accepting of both ways of approaching science whereas focused scientists would be less accepting, as sort of an implication of being focused or unfocused? If so, what implications does that have?

Matt said...

Any thoughts for a graduate student with a wider interest then he'd like to admit? Does it make sense for me to work on a inter-sub-disciplinary project that requires a lot more background knowledge. Or does hyper-specialization make sense to start out in, and one can diversify later?

Female Science Professor said...

Matt, I think you need to know your field and your own abilities, and strike a balance that takes both into account. If you can diversify a bit and still build deep knowledge in at least one aspect of your research, that might serve you well (and be interesting). If such diversity isn't valued in a grad student in your field, perhaps you can follow these interests later, as a postdoc or professor, if that is your desired career path.

Angry Lab Rat said...

I'm one of the "unfocused" group - a generalist who has worked in biotech and developed products used in a diverse array of fields. But I have often had moments of admiration for the focused sort, who dwelve ever deeper into their sub-discipline. But it's just not me.

I have to admit that scientists like myself cannot exist without the focused sort supporting us, but then the unfocused sorts like us are necessary to pull their findings together into general theories, and get a "broad view". At least, that's what I tell myself.

BTW, I blogged on another "unfocused" researcher today: astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson
http://angrylabrat.blogspot.com/2008/02/african-american-scientists-neil.html

iGollum said...

I try to have a very specific area of focus as well as a few side-projects of a more interdisciplinary nature. Shuttling back between the core project and the satellites keeps me sane and enthusiastic about my research...

Off-topic comment: you might like this week's xkcd cartoon, which I think captures really well one major aspect of The Gender Issue in science. http://xkcd.com/385/

Josie said...
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chemcat said...

Kind of following up on MAtt's comments, could you give some advice to a defocused assistant prof? I have pubs in three main areas, and funding in two (although one is a seed grant), but the subspecialties are different enough that I am concerned each of my potential reviewer would not appreciate the whole of my work. Similarly, I got a two years extension for various reasons, and several people have expressed to em the concern that reviewers might expect more of me because my clock is longer -- never mind that it's longer for good reasons (I had no lab space).

chemcat said...

adding to my previous post: this is a problem when I give talks too. A single project is not enough to "fill" a talk, plus I'd like to give a sense of what I do. On the other hand, covering all three areas is a lot of changing hats for me and the audience. I tried recently to do 60/20/20, picking a project to go more in detail, but I'm not sure it works...