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  • carlgombrich


Updated: Feb 6, 2021

What is expertise?

‘Expert skill and knowledge in a particular field’.

What is a field? That is much harder.

Is this woman an expert in her field?


I asked this question of a group of students. The answer was, ‘Yes, she’s an expert because she has a PhD’. But her PhD is in Physical Chemistry – and this is certainly not her field any more. Is running a country a field? I think it is, but it’s not something you can get a PhD in. I think Merkel is an expert in the field of running a country.

Is this man an expert?


I can’t think of anyone who has more knowledge or skill in setting up and leading a technology company, but his particular knowledge and skill set is famously wide, including a love of liberal arts alongside programming skills and an unconventional leadership style. He doesn’t seem to have the narrowness required of academic expertise. Nevertheless, I think he is an expert in the field of technology innovation.

Expertise in work vs academic expertise

What about leadership itself? Can one be an expert in that? And how about being an expert in Customer Services or Organisational Development and Learning or Liaison and Diversion or Digital Planning or Strategy, Research and Evaluation? I think you can be an expert in all these things. And I think that it is in these sorts of things that most of us become expert. Yet we still think of expertise as something tied to academia, with the PhD as the principal badge of expertise.

This is a problem for academics who can struggle to see that the young people they teach will very likely go on to be experts, but not in an academic discipline. ‘Oh, well unless you study a, b and c, you’ll never be a real expert in X’, where X is some well-established academic discipline, known to the teacher. This then worries the student: Am I getting a proper education if I’m not becoming an academic expert at the age of 21? Even though such narrow academic expertise will be irrelevant for more than 95% of our graduates.

Malcolm Gladwell popularised the notion that 10,000 hours of practice of just about anything can get you mastery in that thing. Although there has now been some backlash against this, it seems it holds up more or less in most fields and quite clearly in some areas such classical music and certain sports. 10,000 hours is quite a lot, but not really that much. If you do something 40 hours per week, that’s roughly 2,000 hours per year. So in 5 years you could become something of an expert in that field. People as young as 30 or 40 can then quite legitimately say that they have acquired expertise in 2,3 or 4 fields over their lifetimes – and none of these fields may be very close to what they studied at university.

My experience

I think of this in my own career. Nearly 5 years ago I started out on leading the creation and development of UCL’s Arts and Sciences BASc degree. At the time I knew little about ‘interdisciplinarity’ and not even that much about the history of education, current business practices or curricula design. Now, after 5 years and well over 40 hours per week (!) of practice, reading, writing, conversations, teaching, speaking etc. I know a lot. I’m starting to feel like some kind of expert. But is ‘setting up and leading an interdisciplinary degree at university’ a thing? Well, yes, thankfully, it is very much a thing; a thing which now takes me to wonderful places in interesting parts of the world to talk to fascinating people about education, the future of work, the nature of modern research and so on. But even this thing, based as it is in a university, is not really based on an academic discipline – at least not on just one discipline. I was certainly helped in being able to do my job by having studied and being interested in a wide range of human knowledge. But my field, ‘the setting up and implementing of interdisciplinary programmes in HE’ is not well connected to any particular academic discipline.

Education and expertise

My broader point here is that my education counted, what I learned, in many different areas and at different parts of my life, was important. But the particular discipline was not important – in fact, being interested in only one discipline would have been counter-productive. And some kind of similarly broad education will be helpful for the large majority of jobs, just a few of which are listed above, that our students will go on to do in their lives. If they stick at something and do it properly for about 5 years, they will become experts in one or more the hundreds of things that people do outside university that are not very closely aligned with academic disciplines. They need a good education to start them off well on this road, and that education can take many slightly different shapes, depending on the individual. They need not worry, however, that by studying a wider range of disciplines, they will not become experts. It is not a necessary condition of expertise that one studies only one academic discipline. In fact, the route to expertise later in life may be eased if one has a broader, more comprehensive base of education from which to start.

All photos under free license from Creative Commons

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