How Broad is Broad?

Most conferences provide food for thought and my participation this week in the Global Scholars Symposium in Cambridge certainly fulfilled my expectations in this respect. Although I was meant to be the one doing the talking, there was also time for Q+A and general discussion with the students under the broad theme of Building Impact: Listen, Learn and Act. My day fell under the Listen theme and I gave a keynote talk, was involved in a panel discussion on the impact of science as well as participated in a more informal ‘fireside chat’ with around 20 students (but sans fire).

I want to pick out two strands that we kept coming back to and that the collected scholars (mainly PhD students, but some doing Masters and some who had recently completed their studies) seemed keen to discuss: policy and breadth. They are not unconnected.

A quick look through my publication list would demonstrate I have not spent all my life working in one small field of physics. My lines of research have had abrupt transitions between fields, meandered, had false starts which went nowhere, been kick-started in new directions due to funding opportunities and once or twice I have deliberately stopped a research topic when I felt I’d worked something to the point of loss of interest (for me). In other words, it has evolved in unpredictable ways. With hindsight I can come up with a post hoc logic for the whole trajectory but at the time it was probably less calculatingly thought through than a historical narrative might imply. After all, who believes in a Whiggish history of one’s research career any more than in any sort of endeavour?

So, in totality, I look broad and pretty interdisciplinary. If you are in your early-to-mid 20’s contemplating your next move how is that narrative to be handled? Should it be embraced or rejected? That was the question in essence that was posed to me and the only answer I can give is ‘It depends’. I believe that if you have done your first and second degrees in one place then perhaps it is good to move on to somewhere else to broaden your horizons, cultural as much as scientific. However….….for some people a move may be impossible for all kinds of reasons, often personal. I still believe breadth can be obtained even then and, for future fellowship applications for instance, probably should be sought. Working with a new collaborator, perhaps in a different department or sub-discipline, will provide evidence that you are not a one trick pony. It will also provide a means for differentiating yourself from your PI, perhaps an even more important distinction to make.

To me, reading an application, I am more concerned by what a candidate uniquely brings, than how many grand old (wo)men they have worked with in different hemispheres. But too often breadth is portrayed as the requirement to have globe-trotted. I fear this is another area where a crude metric of number of departments worked in is used in place of a more nuanced version of breadth. Nevertheless, the fundamental question of how broad is too broad remains. It is a question I have heard muttered by someone who has failed to make election to the Royal Society as well as by the disappointed, more junior URF candidates. There can be no simple, right answer (since in this case there aren’t even insane metrics to aim at) so ultimately it is a personal choice. What interests you and how can you find your own niche? For some people a lifetime spent studying every facet of a well-defined problem may be the right way to go, but personally I think that person is a rarity, probably increasingly so. New insight comes from joining dots in novel ways, be it by utilising a new technique on an old problem, or applying the well-established tools and approaches of one field to the questions in another. Maybe even by ‘just’ tearing up an old paradigm by approaching a well-worked problem with new eyes when not steeped in a half century of dogma.

‘How broad’ is equally applicable as a question when contemplating what to do beyond one’s actual research. I was asked how I thought opportunities for students to get stuck into policy compared now with when I set out, a question I found embarrassing. Embarrassing, because I have come to thinking about policy so late in life. As a student I was completely oblivious of the issues; indeed that not very happy state of affairs persisted until recently so I am definitely a late if enthusiastic convert. Having said that, there are obviously wonderful opportunities to be seized now. In Cambridge we have the luxury of all the activities provided by CSaP (the Centre for Science and Policy) and, specifically for students, by CUSPE (Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange): I am, for instance, taking part in a CUSPE event on the ‘STEM skills gap’ in a couple of weeks, discussing the loss of women entering the STEM professions. Students in Cambridge have no excuse for not dipping their toes into policy waters if it takes their fancy, even without doing anything substantial such as seeking an internship through POST (the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) or elsewhere.

But should they? My answer must be yes if they feel that inclination. It is such an important issue and, if we bemoan the lack of scientifically-trained policy makers as I for one do, then the only solution is for science-trained students to engage and contemplate making policy their subsequent career, be it as civil servants or MPs, in think-tanks or in NGO’s. The challenge for research students must be to find an appropriate balance so as not to let their research get derailed (or at least not until after they have their PhD successfully under their belt). I was encouraged by the interest and enthusiasm the students at this conference evinced, wanting to know more about how they can get involved. This was a bunch of students who cared passionately about wanting to make their world a better place and ensuring that sensible policy decisions are made has to be part of that.

There is, as any old fogey will tell you, something exhilarating about talking to those setting out on their lives. It is one of the reasons that working in academia is such a privilege and it is definitely one of the perks of the job of being Master of a Cambridge college. I certainly came away from my half day’s intense interrogation by this bright bunch of students mentally weary but excited. So, as ever, I turn to my blog to put down my half-digested thoughts on the ideas the debates have stimulated.

How broad is too broad? It is an impossible question to answer. Spreading one’s wings into (mixed metaphor) pastures new has to be good for all kinds of reasons beyond simply the CV and the next job application. But, go too far and it is of course possible that glib superficiality will set in. It’s a fine line, but one that every individual has to work out for themselves. And then, no doubt like me, they can write a sensible narrative late in life with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.

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2 Responses to How Broad is Broad?

  1. Elaine Leung says:

    Another thought provoking blog.

    As a clinically trained PhD student, after recently moved from a Russell Group University in London to work in a Russell Group University outside London. The differences in opportunities offered on nurturing diversity and broad interest is HUGE.

    While the chance to engage in national and international debate and policy making for early career researchers is readily available in the Golden Triangle if you look for them, the opportunity outside these areas is abysmal.

    Opportunities for those who want to explore broadly in their areas of interests needs to be looked at.

  2. Ursula Martin says:

    Nice post Athene. You might like this article in somewhat similar vein from the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Career Advice From an Oldish Not-Quite Geezer”, Robert Sternberg from Cornell

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