Being Broad Learners — Conferences and Other Interests

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.

Knowledge_Base_1Professionally, 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.

Conferences

conference_guide1280The 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.

Hobbies

48_cat_cartoonThe 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.

Chris

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