Generalists and Specialization
- Recent PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
- Self-taught in software development, with skills honed in a professional environment.
What kind of experience is my PhD?
I’m proud of my Ph.D. and it’s worth a lot, but it requires more explaining than a normal advanced research degree. Doctoral programs are almost entirely specialist programs, which means that you complete a research project that fills a so-called gap in an advanced body of knowledge, as defined by experts in the field. If you need examples of what I’m talking about, think subfields like this or, in the sciences, this. My Ph.D., by contrast, is from an “interdisciplinary” program, and aspires to do something a little different than produce the traditional academic specialist.
What are universities for, if not to acquire specialized knowledge?
Explaining the liberal arts
Here’s why that is valuable: there one side of what universities do that gets less recognition; or if it gets talked about it is often misunderstood, usually by the vague term the “liberal arts.” The liberal arts are really about the concern that universities have become too specialized. This has been a concern for some time. Big questions that many people think and care about–sometimes philosophical stuff like “what is justice” and “what is friendship,” or questions very relevant to technical problems, like “when is a computer intelligent” or “what does data collection say about our privacy” are not answerable through any particularly specialized body of knowledge. There’s no particular gap in any scholarly literature that includes these questions. Rather, they are questions that are constantly being asked and re-asked. This is because the circumstances under which people ask these questions is continually changing, because new evidence comes up, and because the past is always subject to revision in light of present needs.
To venture an intelligent answer from these sorts questions, you need to think hard about what it is you really want to know (which is the domain of no particular discipline), then you need to use the right specialized tools for their job, plus a lot more interstitial knowledge from no particular expertise.
To take an example of work I admire in this spirit, look at Shoshana Zuboff’s work.
My Ph.D. is a byproduct of the idea that there’s a number of big and important questions, some of them perrenial (e.g., “what is justice”) and others more novel (e.g., “how is an algorithm like a law”) that are important but lost from view in the modern university. These questions would more often be passed over by specialists–or at best answered by specialits, for other specialists–because it’s no one’s job to put all the different pieces together.
An academic generalist
From the perspective of other academic researchers, I’m a very strange and somewhat suspicious thing: a generalist. I like that idea and take it on proudly, even if it’s often a term of derision in an academic setting. The best you can do is call it “interdisciplinary,” but that still starts from the premise that real knowledge hails from a discipline.
But make no mistake, to obtain an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at a major research university in the modern era, you’ve still got to take on a lot of specialized skills and methods. You certainly have to be able to work with other specialists to get across the finish line.
Ways of being a specialist
Obscure literature, worth preserving
I’ve done academic work on a piece of early-nineteenth century German literature, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre), which is so strange and sui generis that no one at the time (1819) could make much of it; even today it’s considered so strange that academics invented a genre for it (the Archivsroman, or “novel of the archives”). But I went through it so many times, and reviewed so much that had been written about it in the last 200 years, and wrote so many drafts of work on it, that I am one of a relatively small number of people who can claim to know it well, even to like it. The value of specializing is that now I’m equipped to preserve that little piece of cultural terrain, to keep writing about it, to pass that knowledge on.
The specialist view has its advantages
I’ve lived and worked in the world of academic disciplines and sub-disciplines, and have learned how to use that mindset selectively, when it makes me better at other work. Specialists are default skeptics, people who are socialized and trained to be gatekeepers to a very specific patch of intellectual terrain. They are known to ask “is this really true?” and “is that right?” and “how do we know this?” Specialists are the experts, the ones with the hard-won training and impressive credentials. The value of carving out a sliver of expertise is that for some narrow set of questions, you can really know what is new, true, and interesting–and what merely appears to be all of those things. Specialization is most valuable when we already know what we want to accomplish (e.g., building a payments system, launching a rocket), or when the effect of being wrong is more serious than the potential upside of imagining alternatives. The world needs both more generalists and more specialists. What it really needs is a better appreciation of each skillset, and the ability to weigh their advantages.
The Ph.D. dissertation, or the hard slog of gaining expertise
I wrote a dissertation to get my Ph.D., one of the more hands-on methods for learning how to specialize. A dissertation is really just a rough draft of a book based on research, but the hard part is that one begins from a place of inexperience. Imagine wanting to become an expert on some topic, say a single part of the life cycle of one insect, or a one-year period in the life of a distinctive person who lived 500 years ago, or a single property of some experimental material that only exists under laboratory conditions–how would you go about it? The simple answer is that a person has to learn enough from others to get started (by learning the broader situation, by taking on the right people as advisors), and then getting started. Given the right conditions, you’d be amazed how quickly you reach the point of knowing a lot. One little secret about expertise is that there are so many experts because it’s not that hard to get there as it first appears: with consistent effort, knowing when to reach out and ask questions, and the confidence to trust one’s judgment, just about anyone can create his or her own niche.
The specialist’s meta-skill: iterative writing, to solidify and document knowledge
I’ve thought a lot about the practices and habits that lead to effective mastery of practical problems. When I write about something, I tend to go through a lot of drafts, because each successive draft is not just writing about what one knows, but a new jumping-off point for thinking–with any luck, a half-step ahead of where one was yesterday. I have been cheered and interested by the renewal of interest in software knowledge management over the last few years. I’m one of those people who spends time every day studying something, reviewing his thoughts, and organizing them for future use. Specialized knowledge is, at least in part, about doing extra mundane work after one has learned something: documenting it, organizing it, and thinking about what it means. What can appear to be a specialization is often just the work of someone who has been more thorough and conscientious about making use of what he or she already knows.
Still, the accomplishments I am most proud of are in generalist’s wheelhouse.
Ways of Being a Generalist
I’ve worked in academia, think tanks and the private sector, and made big career transitions where I managed to get up to speed and make contributions fast. Before I was an academic, I worked in the think tank world, where the value of an idea is measured by standards like “impact,” “reach” and “exposure.” I learned that there are a lot more people who care about ideas than first appears, but you have to do the work to sell it–yes, this is the right word–to them, to explain why it matters. The next big change I made in my professional life was from the academic humanities to the technology industry. When you combine two professions whose work and goals are so different from one another, you are forced to think hard about unconventional sources of value you can bring, to work hard to make what you know real for other people, and to take risks–not rest on your accomplishments–because the real payoff from your path is still ahead. Being a generalist requires a certain kind of humility, accepting that work is a series of “starting over” scenarios, and remaining optimistic amidst uncertainty.
Product teams, startup problems
I’ve worked on a product team in technology at a startup designing a new generation of a flagship analytics product, where my job looked a little different each week: I learned the ropes by writing code with the engineers, did user research with current and prospective customers to understand what they wanted, and spent time interviewing our on-site engineers, data scientists, analysts. I spent endless time at the whiteboard, and traded design and conceptual docs around to everyone else on my team. It was a good all-around experience, and gave me the idea that technical writing could be a more niche and sustainable way to work across the organization.
Generalism as a social and civic value
I believe that being a generalist is not just an underrated asset in academia, technology, and business. It’s also a social value. The world does better when it has more people who don’t “stay in their lane,” or who have a more fluid understand of their role and job such that they don’t have a lane in the first place. I like people who ask questions they are not supposed to ask, especially hard ones. Being a “generalist” is just another way of saying that you trust your own imagination and use your own judgment.
Teachers as the ultimate generalists
I’ve been a teacher, mostly to college students. Most teachers have a specialization, a subject that they are known for. But most teachers know that to get a point across, you don’t always end up teaching or talking about what your would expect. You do whatever you can to reach the students. This is probably one of the most valuable lessons that people in other professions could learn from teachers: if generalists are just people who want to get the job done by any means possible, then teachers are the classic generalists.
On the interplay of generalists and specialists in professional life
Generalists work across departments, org charts–even companies or industries. They get uncomfortable and restless at the idea of a fixed role across the long stretch of a career. They are natural innovators, inevitably coming up with more new ideas than any organization can possibly explore–the good generalists realize that. They adapt quickly to organizational change. I have been all of these things in my career. But I also knew that because I was trusted to get up to speed on a challenge quickly, there was no reason to be worried about sitting tight, diving in and mastering a more narrow stretch of ground for a while. There’s a concreteness to mastering very specific, narrow details that can be a stimulant to the imagination. Something new will come along soon enough.
When you have looked at the “big questions” first, it becomes more obvious what a specialist, someone with long-acquired specific domain knowledge, will be able to offer. Some of the worst recent applications of technology have occurred because specialized knowledge became trendy or in-demand thoughtlessly, without thought to what it can actually accomplish. Generalists have to know when they can no longer reason throughly about a complicated problem, and call in a specialist–but they are also in a better position to recognize what effects the specialist is having, where the specialist is delivering and where they’re over-promising.