© 12 Jan 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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To specialize or not to specialize?


I had a lovely post written here, and then my editor crashed and I don’t anymore. So I’ll just summarize some of the high points of the vanished post.

Many people push me to sepcialize, to focus on one thing and one thing only. But many of the people I admire intellectually, both famous people and my own personal acquaintences, are diverse, with at least two widely-separated specialties and often a whole wealth of areas in which they are equally expert. Why this disparity?

My context here is academia. I had some stuff for other areas in the lost version, but they weren’t good enough to be worth re-writing.

My guess (based on a rationale I don’t feel inclined to re-write) is that specialization reduces the overall output but focusses it in a controlled and predictable stream. Hence, the manager prefers specialization because it reduces risk and simplifies coordinating resources and interactions. The employer and client prefers specialization because they can aim it at the particular problem they want solved. The overall academic community, however, would be benefitted more from academcs free to do whatever they wish.

The key to this concept is that people ought to strive to contribute, not just ot browse, but ought to do so where their current interest dictates. Interest is key to engage the whole mind, the stray cycles in idle time and sleep as well as the whole attention in the office. A focus on contribution means work: work to understand what needs doing, work to do it, and work to leave clear indicators for the next person to see it was done.

I’ve seen this concept work. It’s worked in my own research; it’s consistent with the work of the intellectual giants I know; it explains why some of the best papers in fields I’ve studied are the first or second papers of their authors in that field, created when it was their field out of personal interest, not out of specialization lock-in.

And thus we end where we started: to specialize, be paid, and please your boss or not to specialize, be a pauper, and confuse everyone?

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