This is a guest post by Andrea Kirkwood. She is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Science at UOIT, and you can follow on twitter at @KirkwoodLab
Jack-of-all-Trades, Master of Nothing
Recently a topic near and dear to my heart came up on Twitter. Allison Barner (@algaebarnacle) was live-tweeting from the Western Society of Naturalists meeting, and posted the following tweet:
This tweet caught my attention, because it touched on an issue that caused some anxiety for me as I completed my doctoral degree. At the time, I thought my graduate school training was too broad, straddling several disciplines (ecology, phycology and microbiology) across very different systems (lakes vs. wastewater lagoons). Some may view this is a strength, bringing to mind the classical view of what a Doctor of Philosophy should be. Yet at the time I was completing my Ph.D. (circa 2002), I suspected that my skill-set was viewed as old-fashioned, and was being supplanted by the next-wave of sexy techniques. I also felt like I knew a little about a lot of things, but an expert in nothing. Sound familiar? I attempted to rectify this by choosing to do my first post-doc in a lab where I could learn a sexy technique (i.e., applying molecular methods in phylogeny and diversity assessment). Becoming adept at a special skill had to be the right move because several of my peers were getting faculty positions based on their “special skills”. You’re a quantitative ecologist, we’ll hire you! You use the latest molecular technique, we’ll hire you! It seemed that if you had a specific, timely skill-set, you were highly marketable. The message was that Jack-of-all-Trades (JOAT) need not apply.
Still, I wasn’t personally satisfied with just learning the latest sexy tools. When an opportunity came up to do something completely different for my next post-doc, I jumped at the chance. Not only would I get to work in a new system (rivers of the Canadian Rockies), but learn more about theoretical ecology. Here I was expanding my academic repertoire yet again to the detriment of specialization. One could blame my lengthy sojourn as a post-doc (5.5 years) on not having an obvious niche research area. Nonetheless, my academic breadth made it possible to apply to a broad swath of jobs, and end up on interview short-lists. Based on some feedback though, it was apparent that search committees either found it difficult to pigeon-hole my research area, or didn’t think I quite fit the specialization they were looking for.
I was very fortunate to be hired by a new university in Canada that didn’t have the luxury of hiring specialists. They needed someone who could teach a broad selection of biology courses, as well as have an applied research angle to fulfill their STEM mandate. This was an extremely rare kind of faculty hire at a Canadian research university. In the United States, this is apparently the typical hiring emphasis for small, teaching-focused universities as vouched by Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) on Twitter:
Although I breathed a sigh of relief upon securing a tenure-track faculty position, I then had to fret about the views of research-funding committees. I know several colleagues who were denied funding, in part, because they could not convince the reviewers they were expert enough. To add to my angst, the Great Recession had begun and the current government was slashing and burning research funding. Ironically, it was these dire funding circumstances that showcased the strengths of being an academic JOAT. I quickly discovered that I could access a broader pool of funding sources compared to my specialist colleagues. I secured grants in ecology, conservation, and biotechnology. Now one could argue this approach allows funding agencies to direct your research program (i.e., tail wagging the dog), which is true to some extent. Ultimately, the researcher has to decide to what degree they will chase money this way, and perhaps only use this funding model during the lean years. In my mind, if it can keep your lab running and let you and your students continue to do science, it certainly has its merits.
So admittedly up to this point, I have provided a narrative that asserts my credentials as a card-carrying JOAT. What does that mean exactly? Am I really a Master of Nothing? The very nature of grad school is to become a specialist at something, at least compared to the general population. Along the way, grad students and post-docs acquire specialized skills in their fields, some more than others. Serendipitously, I became a leading expert on Didymosphenia geminata (aka “Didymo” or “rock snot”) during my second post-doc, and will unabashedly credit D. geminata for saving my career (a blog entry for another day). Does this mean I lose the right to claim the JOAT label at all?
Brett Favaro (@brettfavaro) sums it up nicely by stating:
Brett cites an interesting opinion piece by Parsons (2012) in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences that certainly extolls the virtues of a broad skill-set in an interdisciplinary field like Conservation. However, it is not enough to know about a lot of things, but to also have a deep understanding of them too. Thus, one needs to have a complement of specialized skills, perhaps at the “expert-lite” level and not necessarily “leading-expert” level. Would you accept your oncologist or cardiologist being “expert-lite” in your treatment options? Probably not, but I think this approach lends itself to disciplines such as ecology and environmental science, where a broad and somewhat deep skill-set can be an asset in research collaboration and communication.
Offering an intriguing new layer to this discussion on the JOAT phenomena in academia, Britt Koskella (@bkoskella) pondered on Twitter:
Britt cites an article by Wang et al. (2013) that assesses the role of gender in influencing career choices in STEM vs. non-STEM fields. The authors determined that individuals with high ability in both math and verbal skills tended not to pursue STEM careers. In contrast, individuals who had high math skills, but moderate verbal skills tended to choose STEM careers. This suggests that having a broad-skill set (i.e., being a JOAT) offers more career options, and thus an increased capacity to choose a career outside of STEM. What is also notable about these findings is that the group with high math and verbal ability included more females. This raises interesting questions about the underlying cause(s) of fewer women than men entering STEM careers. Is it ultimately about inherent freedom to choose a career path rather than ability?
Overall, I think it is clear that there is no clear-cut answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post. In my own personal experience, I can say that being an academic JOAT likely helped or hindered me at different points along my career path. Based on the unique experiences of every academic, I imagine there is a multitude of views on the JOAT phenomenon, and whether it matters or even exists. I think it exists, but is defined by perception on a sliding-scale.
Parsons, E. C. (2012). You’ll be a conservationist if…. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-2.
Wang, M. T., Eccles, J. S., & Kenny, S. (2013). Not Lack of Ability but More Choice Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Psychological Science, 24(5), 770-775.
13 thoughts on “Does being a “Jack-of-all-Trades” impede or facilitate an early-stage academic career?”
Great post Andrea. I did a PhD in glacier hydrology and became an expert in forest disturbance and hydrology (long & winding road!). You echo many of the same thoughts I had as I wrapped up my PhD and moved into a postdoc. And again as I searched for academic jobs but was often told I didn’t have a ‘sexy’ specific skillset, or couldn’t be pigeonholed into a particular disciplinary box.
I, too, have found that my Jane-of-all-trades background in environmental science has made it easier to manage the funding crunch. It took 4 tries to get an NSERC – but in the meantime I had funding from provincial & federal government environment/sustainability departments, conservation groups, and more.
One thing that remains difficult to manage is the disdain some colleagues have for those of us who are multi-disciplinary. There’s an assumption that you’re automatically a ‘master of none’. I like the idea of being ‘expert-lite’ – in my mind I think of it as knowing a lot about the intersection of a number of disciplines (in my case, hydrology, forestry, cold regions processes, ecology), but referring to others for specific expertise in hydrology or forestry etc. alone.
Thanks for writing this – amazing how much better I feel knowing it’s ‘not just me’ :)
Wow Sarah, I had no idea that we shared such a similar career path, albeit in different fields. Thanks for sharing your experience and commiserating about the pros and cons of being a JOAT. I am curious to know if the minority or majority of academics think they are a JOAT, even if it is just a self-perception. Sometimes people meet us at different stages in our careers and have no idea about our circuitous backgrounds. They think we are “specialists”, yet we think we know nothing (although that may be getting into Imposter Syndrome, which is a whole other topic! lol). Hopefully others will share their stories to get a sense of how prevalent the JOAT dilemma is in academia.
Thanks for writing this post! I’m a graduate student and also consider myself a JOAT (photobiology, algal physiology, microbial ecology). I’d love to get a post-doc position in microbial ecology; however I feel the least qualified in this area. This post has me thinking that this self-perception might be more of an impediment than actually being a JOAT at this stage in my career. Maybe I should be looking at a post-doc position as an opportunity to expand my microbial ecology skill set.
Thanks again for this thought-provoking post!
Hi Jenna! Sounds like we have a lot in common:) In my opinion, postdocs are a great opportunity to expand your skill-set. In fact, one could argue that a Ph.D. project is uber-specialized, and therefore a postdoc or two can provide an opportunity to broaden your marketability. It is important to keep in mind that most potential postdoc supervisors do not want to hire a complete newbie in their field, as that would take up valuable training time and resources. Think about what you can bring to a lab, as well as what you could gain from your experience working there. Much of my first postdoc involved isolating algae and running ecophysiological assays on them, which was very similar to my Ph.D. work. However, the added element was the molecular work that I was able to get trained on. In this respect, both parties are getting something out of the working relationship that may only last a year or two. Good luck with you future endeavours and feel free to DM me if you have any questions.
I’d definitely consider myself a JOAT, though I am working hard to become an expert(lite) at some. My PhD work straddled hydrogeology, surface water hydrology, and geomorphology in a specific, unusual environment (volcanic landscapes) and I promptly moved to where there were no volcanoes anywhere around. I faced some setbacks in early funding attempts, being criticized for lack of experience in the proposed study system, but eventually discovered that there was a real need (and dearth of scientists) in urban watersheds. Since moving that direction, I’ve been reasonably successful, to the point where in my new position I am labeled the urban hydrologist. But fundamentally, I still work at the boundaries between hydrogeology, surface water hydrology, and geomorphology…I now just add humans to the mix, rather than volcanoes. There are times when I feel a bit light on the theory and techniques in each field and I get imposter syndrome reading some paper titles, but if I push past that it seems that my JOAT+windy road is working pretty well. And I wonder how many greybeard academics are still doing the same specialist thing they were when they started their careers? Not very many, I’d wager. Us Janes are maybe just evolving at a faster speed than the specialists.
Hmmm, small sample size, but seems to be a prevalence of female JOATs here lol. I can relate to much of what you have written. I find it particularly interesting that some of your peers have labelled you as a “specialist”, yet that label reflects just one small part of your academic repertoire. I think most people are comfortable with putting people in “boxes” to make sense of who they are and what they do. Like you, I have managed to carve a diverse complement of research projects in my lab. Some have been driven by funding criteria, but I have attempted to have at least one common research theme that can connect them all, even if it is not that obvious to everyone.
I’d like to think of myself as a JOAT, but I’m not sure if I am or not:
Brilliant post Andrea – a question I have asked myself time and time again! I like your expression of expert-lite. Like any ecosystem, I think academia and science benefits from having both generalists and specialists in the community. If specialists are lucky enough to find their niche during a time of little change, they may do very well indeed. But generalist may have the opportunity to fill many niches, although they may not be a perfect fit for any one.
My overall goal is to improve my skills to do good science, and secondarily gather knowledge. Skills include critical thinking, writing, communication, questioning, and quantitative methods. These skills can transcend from one subject to other fairly easily. As for knowledge I have my core (ornithology, behavioural ecology, conservation biology), periphery (macroecology, biogeography, landscape ecology, ecosystem functioning), and a lot more tiny bits and pieces here and there. Personally my problem is that almost everything is interesting to me! So I have tidbits of knowledge that an expert would scoff at – but these little nuggets may one day inspire a great idea in one of my core or periphery fields, you never know! Thinking outside the box is always easier when you already have one foot out of it.
The long and short of it is that I love science in general and am truly passionate in certain aspects of science (for the time being). There is always someone out there that knows more than I do (hello imposter syndrome, my old friend), and many also that know less. I will focus more on building my skills that will take me a lifetime grow – as for knowledge, well I’m a researcher! What I don’t know, I can certainly learn. For your example with a MD, I would change the question slightly. Would you rather have an MD who considers themselves an expert and prescribes treatment without a second opinion, or one who decides to read up a bit more on the latest research and talk to a colleague before giving their diagnosis?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I agree whole-heartedly with your points, particularly the importance of being a scientist first, and mastering those skills before becoming particularly knowledgeable in any given field. I think in your academic area, which is highly interdisciplinary, your described path for professional development is the best option. If you’re like me, and frankly lots of scientists I know, you have a wide variety of interests that drive your curiousity to learn about new and different things. You’re going to want a job that encourages that type of learning and research anyway, and I think there are lots of jobs (including academic) that fit that bill. Good luck with your future endeavours. Sounds like you are on the right track!
Great post – I just re-read it this morning, and thought I would wade it – I think I’ve become more of a JOAT the longer that I’m in the job. I was quite specialized after my PhD and (remarkably!) was able to remain a ‘specialist’ (to some degree) after being hired as an Entomologist at McGill. However, as years go by, I find myself having to become an expert (or, rather, develop some expertise) on more things than entomology, I have had to start working in a more interdisciplinary manner, and I have been teaching in broader fields than my original mandate. I like this, and it’s been great for me, personally and professionally. I think in part this is a personality trait (I get bored easily), but also because the academic landscape is shifting somewhat, and we are in a phase where it’s valuable and valued to be more of a JOAT.
Thanks for sharing your comments on this topic. It is interesting that you bring up the fact that you have become more of a JOAT over your career as a professor. I was going to include that aspect as well in my post, but it was starting to run long. I think the duties of a professor, with a split of teaching:research:service (mine is 40:40:20), inherently requires one to become a JOAT. Over time, you also acquire skills in mentoring and outreach too. I think anyone in this day and age who wants to become a professor must in some capacity gravitate towards being a JOAT, even if they are labelled as a specialist (and hence hired for that specialty). The only thing I lament now is not having enough blocks of time for deep-thinking and maintenance of all those skills I acquired during my career. Hoping to fix that problem during my first sabbatical:)