In academia and many other fields, the temptation is to become ever more specialised. Indeed, continually narrowing and paring back the breadth of expertise to be deep in a specific area is one of the requirements of many post-graduate research degrees. Despite this trend and requirement, it is not actually the best thing to be super-specialised at the expense of a broader knowledge base. In fact it is really beneficial to be a broad learner, and in a wider range of disciplines than just your area of speciality.
Professionally, having a strong detailed knowledge of your particular area is important, it is also as important to be able to draw in insights from other fields and areas to leverage on the work at hand. Being able to link concepts together and understand ideas from different perspectives is invaluable. However, even from a broader standpoint having a wider knowledge base will help with being able to explain concepts in layman’s terms, rather than using the specialised jargon of your field. Not only does this make your work more broadly accessible, but it even improves your communication within the field.
So how can this be picked up. Do we need to therefore be experts in every discipline, as some argue for true doxastic justification? No, I would argue that even just a broad understanding of other disciplines is helpful. What is more there are many ways of being able to pick up this knowledge without having to be invested as deeply as with your primary field. Personally the two primary ways I broaden my knowledge base are through conferences and hobbies.
The somewhat more obvious option for being a broad (not bored) learner, as they tend to have a broad cross-section of interest, rather than just your highly specific area. Plus professional conferences tend to be closer to your area of focus which makes bridging the gap easier. Of course here it is tempting to just attend those papers that relate to your specific field, and it is certainly important to be getting the current information for that area. However, it is highly unlikely that these conferences will have a paper on in every time slot that addresses your speciality. So in those time slots that are blissfully free from your topic, then head along to other papers to broaden the knowledge base.
Though, if your speciality primarily has smaller conferences on highly specific topics, then it can be worth heading along to larger conferences, even if they are not super-specific. Or attending other smaller conferences on related topics. This breadth of knowledge base in related fields can be invaluable in inter-disciplinary research and insights.
The other area that can be invaluable for being able to communicate research are your hobbies. Hobbies tend to be far less specialised than the fields that we are engaged in for work, and so the communication for these tends to be more transferrable. For example, I do a bit with yeast, namely baking and brewing. So if I want to talk about how an idea spreads in a social setting I could talk about Berger and Luckmann’s theory of sociological construction, or I can talk about how yeast spreads through dough in a similar fashion. While the former is certainly more accurate, the latter is more communicable to non-experts. Plus, even for experts the different analogies and metaphors can spark a better understanding of complex concepts. Rather than hobbies necessarily being distractions from work, they can be leveraged as insights and analogies for communicating the work at hand.
In short, while our specialisation and expertise in specific topics is needed and required, we also need to have a broad knowledge base underpinning it. It gives us new insights into the topics at hand, and it improves our communication of our expertise. How do you keep your breadth of knowledge. Tell me below.