Does being a “Jack-of-all-Trades” impede or facilitate an early-stage academic career?

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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.

References

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.