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Jack of all trades – master of many June 25, 2008

Posted by fetzthechemist in Careers.
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There are patterns in the careers of scientists – paths that are generally followed. The most obvious is that of academic versus industry, with the major third tributary of government service and minor ones of numerous types that get lumped into the catch-all “non-traditional” label. Another less reconized major branching of paths is specialist or generalist.

A specialist is someone focused on working in a very specific field, being the big fish in a small pond. For example, if you are very expert in laser-ablation mass spectrometry or the synthesis of organotin compounds.

A generalist is someone who goes into one of the major subdivisions of a science, and I will use chemistry’s ones of physical, organic, inorganic, and analytical as examples. This person then becomes well versed in lots of aspects of the whole area. As an analytical chemist, you might do spectroscopy, chromatography, sample preparation, data analysis, and other areas. Never good enough to be thought of as an expert, but always thought of as good and profient.

That the model, at least. But is it a valid model? I contend that you can mix both. You can be an expert, someone thought of as one of the best working in that area in many more than one or two areas. If you have the mental talent to think, organize, and understand a topic, you can become a “world class” expert in two to five years. After that you can more readily maintain your expertise while building up in other areas. In the course of a career you will end up being an expert in at least a half-dozen areas.

My proof of this premise is me. I did my grad school work in gas chromatography, but went into industry and chose liquid chromatography to branch out. Within five years, I was asked to be on a journal’s advisory board and to write HPLC review articles.

Then I started braching out further into areas like UV absorbance and fluorescence spectroscopy, the chemistry and synthesis of polycyclic aromatic chydrocarbons, and supercritical fluid extractions and chromatography (actually a throwback to some of my other grad school work). Now I’ve gotten into career development for scientists. In each area I work as a peer to those leading people of the field.

So, how does this translate into career advice? Never stand still. Always look for new (to you), interesting areas to get into. If there’s a need, fill it. Never say “I am not a _______.” – you can delve into many new areas (even if you choose not to become expert, you have fun on these forays into new topics. Mine include astrochemistry. deep-sea hydrothermal vents, geochemistry, organic ion chemistry, phosphorescence, metalloporphyrins, and several other areas.)

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1. Ψ*Ψ - June 25, 2008

I’ve been more or less fighting having to specialize, but am pretty happy with organic materials and a few (read: more than a few) side interests. I am a little worried that I might miss out on something fundamental in another area. Wouldn’t mind knowing a lot more about inorganic synthesis, for example. I’d also want to mess around with laser spectroscopy if I didn’t hate fiddling with optics. Happy to exclude biochemistry, though. Ew.
What exactly does one DO in career development?

2. fetzthechemist - June 25, 2008

Do not worry about getting too specialized or too general. Learn as much as you need to and even more if the area jazzes you. You can never know too much – each area has so much in it and new stuff always pops up – otherwise it is a dead field.

You can do spectroscopy without doing too involved optics. The instruments are pretty sophisticated and computer-controlled. As far as synthesis, organic or inorganic, learn areas that are useful, follow areas that might be or that are interesting. You can spread yourself thin by trying to do and learn everything. Get in the habit of delving and filing things away in your mind, though. They often come back as useful or you can Wow people by pulling out needed expertise that they were unaware of.

As far as career development, I have gotten into things that help people thrive in science – thinking skills, better communications, better people skills, and so on. For some people, this all is easy, but for most the routes are clouded and so people stumble through their careers being less effective than they could be. So I teach, coach, and mentor.


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