Do What You’re (Not) Good At
Avoiding the tendency to over-specialize in science
“What do you want to work on?”
This is one of the most expected–and sometimes dreaded–questions that prospective graduate students encounter during the interview process. Because, as they say, “it’s a trap!”
It’s not an innocent way to determine your area of interest. Rather, it’s a means to evaluate your degree of specialization. If you give an answer that’s too broad, you’re dismissed as ‘not focused enough.’ But if you give an answer that’s so specific that it doesn’t overlap with the interviewing professor’s research, that’s equally bad! In that case, you’re dismissed as being inflexible or irrelevant by the professor in question.
So, when prepping for graduate school interviews you have to carefully carve out your circle of interest. It has to overlap with the research areas of many professors, but yet at the same time be as well-defined as possible. Often this involves using careful language with each interviewer to tailor your statement of interest and make it clear it’s consistent with their area of interest.
This is true even in graduate programs that require you to try out several labs before you officially join one! And, typically, your proposed project ideas bear little relation to the project you end up working on.
On some level, I can understand the reasoning behind this type of evaluation. Professors want students that demonstrate a certain degree of scientific thought and insight. Moreover, they want students who are going to fit well in their research group. The dreaded question would seem to address both of these concerns in one fell swoop.
The problem is that it artificially pigeon-holes students’ interests, and reflects a larger problem with academia: over-specialization.
Think of it this way. When you’re an undergrad, there is no expectation of prior experience and you can quite literally do research in any area you choose (assuming you can find a lab). When you’re a graduate student, however, your options are more limited. You can technically do research in any area… but if you want to shift gears and do something that’s doesn’t build on the skills you picked up in undergrad, things will be that much harder. There’s a certain activation energy barrier that comes with switching fields, and graduate school is your last ‘easy’ chance to do this.
Now let’s imagine that you didn’t love your graduate work, and want to do something different in a post-doc or in industry. How can you justify that you are of value to a lab when you have no relevant expertise that said lab can take advantage of?
Short answer: you can’t. You need something, some relevant skill, that you can bring to the table to be a valuable addition to the lab.
And that’s why I recommend the following: do what you’re not good at.
In graduate school, you have the opportunity to oppose the drive to over-specialize. There are classes and clubs and events and hackathons and so many other opportunities to branch out! For example, I came into graduate school not knowing a damn thing about programming. I initially joined a lab where programming wasn’t necessary, and just by sheer luck decided that programming was a skill I wanted to learn. I took a couple classes and taught myself from there. When I needed to change labs a year later, lo and behold that programming skill opened up a whole new set of options for me that I never would have considered otherwise! Now, looking forward to a post-doc or industry job, I’m interested in shifting fields even more and doing more computationally-focused research.
Your advisor, consciously or subconsciously, will tend to encourage you to spend your time in pursuits that are directly related to your current projects. But you don’t have to sink a ton of time into something all at once to learn something new. Is there a cool lecture on campus? Is there a class that you could sit in on as a listener? Is there a student club that helps you explore an area of interest? These are all low-commitment ways to explore and even résumé-build.
Even if you never waver from your original answer to the question “what do you want to do,” such skills can prove useful in unexpected ways. Cross-talk between fields is often beneficial and can lead to novel creative ideas.
Science is full of specialists–and that’s fine–but just because you’re looking in one direction doesn’t mean you need blinders on to everything else. Take a moment, look to the side–you never know what you might see.
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