The Proboscis

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Why ‘Range’ is timely for students and post-docs

Book review: Range by David Epstein

This book provides excellent case studies for students and post-docs anxious about their next steps in the scientific arena.

 

For PhD students entering their final year, or post-docs thinking about their next move, the choices are stressful. Faced with a hyper-competitive job market and uncertainties surrounding job security, these decisions are tough.

 

What adds to the anxiety is the current push for hyper-specialisation. In science, it is generally assumed that we need to specialise, and we must do this as early as possible. Think of your response when asked what you do. ‘Oh, I’m an ecologist, I’m a tropical botanist, I’m a molecular Egyptologist’. We put ourselves in neatly labelled boxes which give the allure of our specialised expertise. We need to know who we are, what we want to work on, and where we want to go.

 

It is guaranteed that if you go to interview for an academic post, you will be asked ‘Where do you see yourself in five years time?’. For early-career researchers that isn’t an easy question to answer. It isn’t for anyone because, let’s be honest, the path is never linear.

 

The book Range by David Epstein argues against the specialist mindset and provides numerous examples of how it is breadth of experience, and not narrow expertise, that provides the most likely chance of success in today’s job market. It is a counter to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (Gladwell himself positively acknowledges the arguments in the book and provides a promotional quote on the book sleeve). Having read the book last Christmas, I’d argue every PhD student and post-doc should be given a copy.

 

To be clear. Epstein is not against specialisation. He acknowledges that we all must specialise at some point in our lives, going deep and learning vital, unique skill sets. The crux is that most jobs have what Epstein defines as a ‘wicked learning environment‘. Feedback isn’t immediate. Problems are ambiguous, hard and novel. Learning is difficult and slow. These jobs require a wide skill set and people who can take conceptual ideas and apply them to different domains.

 

In science, the general route of travel is to extensively read the literature around a particular topic, learn a specific skill(s) or technique which you can apply to answering a set of well crafted hypotheses, analyse the data, present your conclusions to an audience in both written and spoken format, and generate a new set of hypotheses to test in the context of the broader scientific area. None of this is easy and certainly fits within that wicked learning environment Epstein talks about, but learn these core skills, and ultimately, what you chose to research matters less than the quality of your work – so long as it is in your interests.

 

Of course, it will be much harder transitioning from studying the ecology of UK bumblebees to the properties of atoms spinning around a Hadron collider, and switching to related disciplines (say, from climate science to health) provides some sort of continuity. That said, counter to common groupthink, I’d argue that switching research domains is not career suicide and funders should acknowledge this move away from hyper-specialisation. I think the tide is changing.

 

One of the things that strikes me is that PhD students and post-docs often have a sunk cost fallacy – the feeling that to jettison to another career or even another research domain would be a waste of the massive amounts of time and resources they have ploughed into their work. This is completely understandable but this urgency to find a scientific niche is unnecessary. I had this feeling myself and for years it made me anxious. It turns out – I was wrong to think this way and Range gives an explanation why.

 

Here are three take home message from the book which I think are useful for any students or post-docs concerned about their next move.

 

  • 1. In five years-time you will not be the same person. Think about who you were five years ago and what you were doing. Our values change. Our interests change. In a couple of chapters which weave Van Gough, a West Point Cadet programme called ‘Beast Barracks’ and the remarkable CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, Frances Hesselbein, Epstein outlines the concept of match quality – the degree of fit between our working jobs and ourselves. Switching jobs to something in which you have a higher match quality is the braver choice and often more rewarding than just sticking it out for the sake of it.

 

  • 2. You only truly learn by doing. We are ill-equipped to make long-term plans – it puts the cart before the horse. Often the horse has no experience of driving the cart! The path is rarely, if ever, fixed. What are you motivated in and what matches you right now? That is more important. Keep an open mind. If the job or the choice fails – then fail fast. Learn who you are and what fits you by doing.

 

  • 3. Epstein describes two types of people in the world; frogs (on the ground, looking at the detail) and birds (overhead, surveying the broad picture). The world needs both but science is overflowing with frogs. It is telling that major funders are shifting their grants model to more collaborative and inter-disciplinary science. If you want to apply for research funding in the future, you will need to understand the broader context of your research. This will need a breadth of experience and knowledge in related domains. It’s good to know a little bit about everything else. This is an example of range.

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