Two problems with academic specialisation

Two problems with academic specialisation

One theme of this blog is the relative importance of specialising over staying broader in your education while at university – particularly at undergraduate level. Elsewhere I’ve made the case for a broader higher education on a number of grounds.

But let’s say you want to go on to become an academic, the next stage is usually to do a PhD and then to publish papers in learned journals. A PhD must be ‘an original contribution to knowledge‘ and that must be significant, right? And what is produced in these learned journal must also be significant. Right?

It depends what we mean by significant. Most PhDs are only read by 2-3 people (the people that supervise and examine them) and then languish in glass-fronted bookcases along genteel corridors in universities throughout the world, never to be opened again. So although your supervisors must think the contribution is significant, nobody else will. And this doesn’t improve as your academic career progresses. Most humanities papers are very likely not read by anybody. These are academic papers produced by specialists. This situation is sad and strange. There is a clear sense in which specialist knowledge produced in this way is useless and irrelevant. One really must ask what the point of such specialism is. In a common sense way one can argue that nobody cares about this sort of knowledge and its production has been something of a waste of time for all, except perhaps for the individual who enjoyed working on it. In what sense can we say this sort of work – the PhD and beyond – is a ‘contribution to knowledge’?

‘Ah, but this is just in the humanities’, the scientist or engineer can say a little smugly, ‘in the sciences or engineering our contributions are clear and testable.’ It is true that the contributions are testable, and this may be an improvement on the plight of the humanist, but there are still issues to be faced by young scientists or engineers. Ask many science or engineering PhD students and they will reflect that there are, in fact, hundreds, possibly thousands or even tens of thousands, of other students who could have done exactly the same work, produced exactly the same results and arrived at exactly the same conclusions had they been given the same opportunities. Working closely with a supervisor, on closely defined problems, one makes an incremental advance in a well-plotted area. This is ‘normal science’.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. Most scientific advance is incremental and many increments can make for a powerful body of knowledge; but the sense in which such increments are an original contribution to knowledge is one that arises if thousands of other people could have made exactly the same contribution. One of my ex-students, now an outstanding post-doc engineer, recently said to me, ‘anyone could have done my work’. Although this is almost certainly an exaggeration, he has a point. The humanist, however obscure and irrelevant their work, at least can claim to avoid this problem.

This is, in some ways, a sad post. We have reached a rather mysterious stage in the development of human society where so many people know so many advanced, abstract and specialised things that no-one can keep up with a meaningful fraction of what is going on. Some such worries about knowledge are as old as the hills, but things really are of a different order of magnitude now. Perhaps this is no big deal. People can pootle on in their own tiny areas doing harmless work in the humanities or social sciences which nobody cares about or producing incremental results in science and engineering which could have been produced by thousands of other people. If you can get one of these jobs, doing this sort of work, it’s certainly better than being unemployed.

So what am I trying to say? Simply not to fetishize academic specialism or the PhD as something uniquely valuable when it comes to contributing to the sum of human knowledge or to society. It may be such, but it is perhaps more likely not to be. Once you graduate, if you stick at anything at all (academic or not) for 5 years, do it seriously and with focus, you will become a specialist in that area. This is an important point: most things that graduates become specialists in do not depend very much on what they study at university. This other kind of specialism is at least as likely to make a contribution to human society. Hopefully, if you do not wish to be an academic, your higher education will at least help you with becoming that sort of specialist.

One Response to “Two problems with academic specialisation”

  1. Aaron says:

    Another question that we must ask ourselves amidst this mindless amassing of data in many scientific fields is not only whether the information gained is meaningful but whether it is even true. In a better-known specimen of the millions of research papers, John P.A. Ioannidis laid out why the majority of hypotheses verified and conclusions made in academic writing are actually false. In response to this, Bayer Laboratories announced that they could not replicate two-thirds of the positive findings claimed in medical journals. A contributing factor to this worrying phenomenon is certainly the immense and sheer endless access scientists nowadays have to raw data. The U.S. government publishes around 45,000 economic indicators. This generates about a billion possible pairs of indicators between which a causal relationship might be tested for. Only a handful of the ways in which these variables behave to each other will have true significance and predictive power in the world. Filtering through all that noise to fish for a signal is almost inevitably going to lead to insignificant bycatch being published. And alarmingly, this bycatch currently seems to outweigh the signal by a ratio of 2:1. Ioannidis puts it this way: “In the last twenty years, with the exponential growth in the availability of information, genomics, and other technologies, we can measure millions and millions of potentially interesting variables. The expectation is that we can use that information to make predictions that can work for us. I’m not saying that we haven’t made any progress. Taking into account that there are a couple of million papers, it would be a shame if there wasn’t. But there are obviously not a couple of million discoveries. Most are not really contributing much to generating knowledge.” In a bizarre way then, this inflationary spawning of research papers is more of a cancerous mutation of what scientific research stands for. Since publishing research papers has become more of a necessity in order to stay afloat for many academics, their quality has suffered to a point where, perhaps, the quality of the research being carried out has become secondary. This is indeed worrying.

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