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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.

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