Specialization and overspecialization through your research: the forest and the trees

In this post, Alex Feldman, a recently completed PGR in the School of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, shares his thoughts on specialisation.

It’s a jungle out there, as the old cliche goes. Although we prefer the seemingly protective ivory walls of academia, we still live by the same law of the jungle. Whether we say “publish or perish” or “eat or be eaten,” some truths endure whether we’d admit them or not. You want to advance in your field, but you don’t want to be disposed when your field’s fashions change; such is the academic’s conundrum.

I’m no expert on academic fashions, but it depends on your circumstantial approach. Whereas conventional wisdom once advised planting your flag in some underpopulated area and holding on tight, you’re also aware we now have newer standards to follow: inter-disciplinary research, cross-field inquiry, discourse analysis, etc.

You need to specialize in something to be taken seriously in that field. And you’ll be taken seriously in that field when you specialize further in one of its subfields, etc. Beginning as a Classicist, maybe you specialize in Hellenistic drama, next Athenian ‘New Comedy’, then pop-culture Menander references in Plautus’ plays, and soon, you’re the world expert in the proto-Marxist grammatical constructions in the gendered rhetoric of the quotation-culture within overlapping Roman palimpsest traditions. Now, you’re hyper-specialized in a narrow field – your research may be very accurate, but its utility will be correspondingly limited.

Yours could be one of thousands of narrow fields, all competing for funding – and the more fields, the less funding. What happens when one field is subsumed into another field for budgetary reasons? You could be like a tadpole caught in a rapidly evaporating pond in the jungle heat. You want to wait for the next rain ($$$), but by the time it comes (if it comes), you could be a victim of your own overspecialization.

Alternatively, many decide not to overspecialize for this reason and attempt to survive in many rapidly changing conditions in the jungle. Maybe you’re researching different traditions of eschatology and you study various comparative eschatologies: Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. You develop your own comparative methodology, which you transfer throughout your work; you avoid getting pigeonholed into any field. You’re hedging your bets to see where the next rain will fall in the jungle as you avoid becoming an endangered creature at risk of extinction in some deep, narrow space.

However, you’re less specialized, and therefore taken less seriously. A senior committee might look at you and ask how you’re not a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none?” Thinking about the field from this perspective, the rainfall must go to the field’s preservation primarily. The jungle’s rainfall flows wherever the rain gods see fit to divert them.

Perched on your branch, you ought to be constantly on the lookout for rainclouds over the forest, but as the climate changes and rains become less frequent, remember the not-so-subtle tension between specialization and overspecialization. Don’t miss the forest for the trees, but don’t miss the trees for the forest, either.

Certainly there’s no single solution – we’re all jungle creatures and resources will always be scarce. Your research must be deep – but not at its width’s expense. As the drumbeat of interdisciplinarity and cross-field analysis resonates louder in the jungle, don’t hesitate to follow the rainfall – you’ll never compromise your position by putting yourself in a better one.

For another take on this topic, see Matthew Flinders’ article published in THE just before Christmas (after Alex submitted this post!). Have you been thinking about specialisation in your area? Are you applying for funding?

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