Don’t hyperspecialize, you rarely know what will be useful in the future
These questions come up a lot. What should I study? What should I learn? My answer: anything.
Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2022). Don’t hyperspecialize, you rarely know what will be useful in the future. Zenodo https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5902242
I was once contacted by a prospective doctoral student who was inquiring about joining my lab. The student was quite experienced. They conducted research at three institutions in different countries, albeit on the same plant pathogen species. This was part of my reply:
I want to take the liberty of offering you a mentoring advice. It looks like you have always worked on the same plant pathogen in 3 different labs and now also considering a PhD on the same pathogen. This is perhaps a bit too hyper specialized for someone at your career stage. Think about it this way. Would you be competitive for jobs on other topics once you graduate? Are you dramatically reducing the potential of options you would have looking forward 5+ years from now. I’m saying this because my advice to students at your stage is to spread wide and build expertise in multiple areas to develop an antifragile profile and increase the odds of success. Specialization can come later at postdoc or Group Leader stage.
I’m pleased to report that the student responded positively to the unsollicited advice and moved on to do a PhD on a different system.
From calligraphy to computer fonts
The story is now the stuff of Silicon Valley legend. In 1973, Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy course while he was hanging around Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In that course — perhaps the best calligraphy course offered in the US at the time — Jobs learned typefaces and what makes typography great. As he said in his famous 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, he found the course fascinating:
“I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”
What wasn’t obvious to Jobs in 1973 became evident when he unveiled the Macintosh on January 24th, 1984. Beautiful elegant typefaces in different shapes and forms were part of the wow factor of that iconic computer.
The reason all of this happened is because Steve Jobs was exploring new knowledge without any cold careerist calculations. He didn’t even formally enroll in that calligraphy course. He was simply generous in his learning effort. In retrospect, it sounds brilliant. But in reality, it just happened because he was simply open to new experiences. As he said in his Stanford speech:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
Incidentally, calligraphy is an amazing visual art form that is worthy of more attention especially as it combines art with writing, one of the main medium through which humans communicate. In my native country of Tunisia, there is a revival of Arabic calligraphy, which is led not only by modern artists like eL Seed (The Lion) or Mohamed Kilani Tbib better known as “Inkman,” but also by the country’s president Kaïs Saïed who for better or worse enjoys writing official correspondence in traditional script. Whether this skill will be helpful for President Saïed to solve the country’s deep political and economic crisis is unclear. But, who knows.
You rarely know what will be useful
There are several examples closer to home of unexpected benefits of skills and knowledge gained independently of one’s professional training.
My colleague Hsuan Pai is a highly skilled artist. She has been combining her drawing and design skills with her knowledge of science to generate stunning science artwork. Watch her video explaining the story behind the cover art on how a pathogen molecule slows down aging and turns plants into Zombies. I doubt it that she developed her artistic skills as part of a strategy to advance her science career. It just happens that two of her skill sets have now converged into an impressive combination.
I purchased my first computer when I was an undergraduate student in Paris. At that time, the 16K Sinclair ZX81 was all the rage. I bought the ZX81 on a holiday visit to London around Christmas 1983 along with a book on the BASIC programming language, which served as the computer’s operating system. The ZX81 didn’t do much — mostly some pathetic and time wasting computer games — but it exposed me to computer programming in a way that the biology curriculum at the Pierre & Marie Curie University failed to do so.
Fast forward to the 1990s. When my lab absolutely needed to adopt bioinformatics to exploit the emerging genomic data, the basic notions I started developing with the ZX81 were good enough to give me the confidence to delve into this new and at that time intimidating field of biology. This has enabled us to make best use of the sparse genomic data of the time and launch our work on effector biology.
A similar narrative runs through my long-held interest in natural history and evolutionary biology. Although, I majored in molecular genetics both at the undergraduate and PhD level, I took as many evolution courses as I could in Paris and later at the University of California, Davis. The Paris courses were optional after hours sessions. I also read a lot about the topic. Although it may now seem evident that a biologist should learn as much as they can about evolution, I didn’t see many other molecular biologists do that at the time. Some molecular biologists even looked down at these “softer” fields of biology.
And for many years, all that interest in beetles and evolution was disconnected from my gene cloning research in molecular plant pathology.
But then again genomics came along in the mid-1990s, and soon enough we had multiple genomes to compare. And when you’re comparing stuff in biology and delving into the natural world’s diversity, you simply cannot ignore the evolutionary perspective whether you’re collecting beetles or genes. Indeed, comparative genomics is fully integrated with evolutionary biology. You can’t really do one without the other. And, these days, my two major interests have converged with evolution becoming a central driver of my lab’s research programme on plant-pathogen interactions and plant immunity.
Just do it, anything
The overall message is to experiment widely. You rarely know what skill will be useful in a different context. What piece of knolwedge you learn today will be handy in the future. Avoid being overly calculating when deciding what to study and learn.
As with Steve Jobs’ connecting the dots narrative, experimenting widely will ultimately allow you to develop a Unique Selling Point (USP), a personal career narrative. Once you develop that personal brand and narrative, it will be much easier to pitch a unique angle and explain what you bring to the table.
With all the new technologies that are shaking up biology to its core — protein structure prediction, CryoEM, gene editing, SynBio, and a few others— and the grand challenges that humanity is facing — climate change, food insecurity, pandemics, polarized national and international politics — who knows what future skills will be required. Your answer is not to stay idle. Just do it, anything.