I’ve heard it said many a time that a doctorate degree is supposed to leave you in a position where you are the expert on your particular research topic; you can end up feeling that you have to know everything there is to know about your particular field. I’ve often wondered and worried about whether this is a genuine expectation, or even possible, given the number of tools, techniques and theories that are often involved in any given piece of work, and the limit to how much one person can actually know. The jack of all trades thing has been on my mind for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve put fingers to keyboard in the hope that others might relate to what I was feeling and assuage at least some of my concerns.
One of the unique things about my PhD was that it was very much ‘multi-modal’ research. I used neuroimaging techniques (Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy and Magnetoencephalography) blood lipid analysis(Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) and psychometric assessments, with both healthy and clinical populations of children.
Learning the theory and practicalities of each of these methods, applying them to my research problem, and getting to grips with all the problems that each method entails often left me feeling swamped under the expectation that I was supposed to be an expert on all these things. I guess it ties in with the imposter syndrome, and that nagging doubt that that other people always know more than you, but I always felt that I could never get to grips with really mastering any one of these methods because it was just too much. I did at times really envy colleagues in the lab who only used one of these methods, but then I guess they felt just as much, if not more, pressure to become an expert.
Whenever interacting colleagues from each area, particularly at conferences, I always felt I was this close to getting ‘found out’ whenever something really technical came up, especially because their was always an expectation of expertise. I felt this most acutely when preparing for my viva as it was not an unreasonable expectation that I should be able to discuss the minutae of everything included in my thesis. One of the things that helped me the most was the liberating acknowledgement of the the limits of what I could know, and the realisation that I could say ‘I don’t know’. That’s not to say it made things too much easier, especially during my viva; it isn’t easy at the best of times to say I don’t know, never mind when you’re expected to be an expert.
I guess it’s about striking that balance between narrow expertise and knowing a little about a lot. This is a very idiosyncratic process, absolutely and intimately tied to your project, interests and ambitions. Multi-disciplinary research is also becoming more and more favourable with funding bodies and universities, so I imagine more students are going to to be doing research that covers lots of different areas. Being able to dip your toes into so many different areas means that you have a variety of transferable skills (to use a key buzz-term), a better appreciation of ‘the bigger picture’, and the ability to turn to turn your research career in lots of directions and have lots of options open. In that case, knowing a little about a lot is definitely a good thing.