Science education: the generalist vs the specialist

Well, here I am. I promised. No funny pictures and weird self-promotion campaigns. Just a blog about a topic that might interest some of us in the sciences.

I was discussing the writing of an “Introduction” for a paper with a student in the lab recently. I found the discussion strikingly reminiscent of the discussion that I had had just days earlier with my 11 year old son, who was in the process of writing a 3-5 minute speech for a school contest. Just as an aside, he chose Stephen Hawking as ‘someone who had overcome great obstacles.’ A wonderful choice, in my view, and I am learning a lot about this fascinating and brilliant scientist.

Back to the point: my advice in both cases was to start broad, and slowly narrow down and zoom in to the topic in question. So for the ‘Introduction,’ I suggested to plan out the writing with an outline, where the first paragraph addressed the topic in the most general manner, and the subsequent paragraphs gradually focused the reader until he/she was familiar with the overall background, and finally the explicit research question or hypothesis being tested–before launching into the ‘Results.’

And with this little bit of background, like a story within a story, I am finally ready to get to the point of this little blog–to address the generalist vs. specialist philosophy in university education. More specifically, I ask whether a broad-based 4-year university education is better than a more focused 3-year education. I know this will be relevant to those of you on the wrong side of the pond, because my understanding is that 3-year programs are the rule–as was the case for my own undergraduate studies in Jerusalem.

There is a joke about people who specialize–that they know more and more about less and less–until they know a whole lot about nothing. Whether that is the case or not, I think the 3-year vs. 4-year system deserves some thought.

In countries such as Israel, with a compulsory 3-year military service for men (and 2 years for women), the university students tend to be older and more mature than students who have come directly from high school. In many cases Israeli students have traveled abroad after the military and worked to support themselves through university–so knocking off a year from tuition and joining the work force (or continuing on to higher degrees) more quickly makes sense.

On the other hand, most US students come directly from high school. Many have never worked and often have barely been away from their parents/home, so the university experience is as much a social experience as it is educational. But even more importantly, many students really have not arrived at a stage where they can easily make up their minds about what they want to do for the rest of their lives. For this reason, the extra year, the ability to change a major and take in a broad array of courses–can be a distinct advantage.

In my undergraduate studies, the ‘biology’ program was a structured program of 3 very intense years. First year had me taking courses in advanced calculus, computer programming (Pascal–anyone remember that?!), inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, physics–and wonder of wonders–in the second semester, finally exposure to ‘biology’ with a course in biochemistry. With all the labs added on, and the chemistry and physics running both semesters, there was no time to add on any additional courses. I was doing all I could to survive.

In truth, having always been interested in philosophy, I enrolled in a course that was at 4 p.m. on the one day when I didn’t have labs that went on until late in the evening. It was at the other campus, and I had to take two buses–almost an hour–to get there. It wasn’t particularly difficult, and I was enjoying the change of scenery, but soon realized that it was impinging on my time studying organic chemistry. So I dropped the philosophy.

In my particular case, being an avid reader with a wide range of interests, and having already read and studied philosophy on my own, it probably wasn’t a great loss. But the situation did highlight the emphasis on early specialization.

As a student, I did have the honor of attending a couple of lectures by the famous Dr. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I believe that he was in his mid-eighties at the time–a legendary doctor, philosopher, neurologist, embryologist, chemist and controversial political activist. Deeply religious, Dr. Leibowitz was unusual for his left-wing views and conclusions that the occupation of Palestinian territory is unethical. He was clearly ahead of his time.

I bring up the case of Leibowitz because such a degree of wide expertise is practically unheard of. This is not only because people of Leibowitz’s caliber are few and far in between, but also because in today’s world, early career specialization is almost a prerequisite for success. And not just in academia.

Children who don’t begin skating or playing football well before the age of 6 or 7 are probably never going to be professional hockey or football players. You can’t learn chess at my age, as I’ve tried to do, and expect to make master rank. If you begin at age 5 or 6, and you are good, it’s certainly possible. But if you want to excel in chess, those piano lessons might take up too much of your time—and you can’t even dream of being a concert pianist without starting music lessons and playing at an early age.

But back to topic again. Does a 4 year program ultimately prepare one better for a career in the sciences? From my personal experience, as well as that as a Graduate/Admissions Committee Chair and lecturer in our biochemistry program, my answer is ‘not necessarily.’ I’ve seen 4-year students with such a dispersed and unfocused background in the hard sciences that they are weakly prepared for graduate school. I’ve also seen 3-year program graduates with such a high degree of focus that they seem to have lost their ability to think creatively.

So what is the answer? I think it depends a lot on the individual. In my case, I probably would have resented being forced to take courses in literature and history (which I love, but chose not to study) at the expense of science. In my case, specialization and a strong background in science has served me well. But I’m also aware that for many others, this might not be the ultimate solution.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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7 Responses to Science education: the generalist vs the specialist

  1. Philip Strange says:

    On this side of the pond, some science undergraduates do a four year degree which includes a year’s placement either in a research lab or in industry. I have always found these students to be better equipped for a PhD, especially practically. The year away from academia also allows them to mature and to broaden their outlook.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I stand corrected regarding the 4-year plan in the UK. But I think the idea of age and life experience–as opposed to the actual number of years that the university program spans–is important for a certain maturity and worldly experience, may be a very important part of the puzzle.

    • Grant says:

      Interesting to read that they do a year’s placement. I’ve advocated that for students myself, but I wasn’t aware that anywhere was making this a course requirement. It would be interesting to know if there are statistics on the success or not of this approach.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    As with everything, it depends – in this case, primarily on the student. I’m one of those annoying people who knew what subject they wanted to study from a young age: in my case, genetics, from the age of 14. The UK system of early specialisation was therefore ideal for me. I took only biology, chemistry, and maths for the last two years of high school, and did a three-year degree during which the furthest I ever got from pure genetics were my first year courses in physiology and organic chemistry. On the other hand, I have friends who didn’t identify what they wanted to do until they were 19, at which point it was too late to get into, e.g. medicine after specialising in economics, English, and history at the age of 16 (real example that happened to a good friend of mine) In their cases, the more generalised four-year degree system would have been better.

    Overall, if it’s not possible to offer students in every country their choice of the two systems, I’d say it’s better to go with the generalist model, even though that wouldn’t have been my own preference. I think it’s better for people like me to go through an extra year of potentially being a wee bit bored by taking classes they’re not all that interested in, than for people like my friend (and who knows how many others) to be told at 19 “no, sorry, you can’t do that – you’re too specialised”.

    Related post, about the effects of generalised vs. specialised high school and undergraduate education on the duration of PhD training, here 🙂

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Cath– I KNEW that the issue of 3 vs 4 year degrees had already been on OT (I should have used shite as a key word to find it!), but my primary concern was that it was ME who had already written about it and forgotten! I went through all of my blogs, twice, and of course it was you and not me.

    In all fairness, yours is more systematic and better written–but I think we came to the same general conclusion. But your title is catchier, too…

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