Study Hacks on Rethinking What Impresses Employers and being a hyperspecialist

August 18th, 2009 by jose

Cal Newport says people think that the more hard things they do, the more impressive they’ll be to potential employers. He calls this the diligence hypothesis. This is a leitmotiv in his blogging.

However, this trend of getting (and looking!) as busy as possible is not exclusive to undergrads (his audience). I don’t know any academic that doesn’t look stressed. We mostly hoard more tasks that they can realistically accomplish. But academics love their jobs (or so legend has it), whereas most people don’t. People who have day jobs say their long-term strategy for dealing with no life is to amass enough wealth to have more freedom of time to be able to do  things they love. We try to do the opposite: a job we love that invades every corner of our lives.

So the ideal Cal advocates is that of a hyperspecialist, that does one thing well, and that’s about it. This also fit the description of many successful academics: find a corner on your field where you are the undisputed king, and maybe start a fight with someone else on something obscure only the two of you care about. Penelope Trunk (one truly great blogger) seems to agree on the value of hyperspecialization in the corporate world too (and by the way, she does not recommend anyone to do a PhD :) ).

But are academic employers really impressed if you do that? I have no clue. It’s hard to guess what’s in the mind of hiring committees. But by looking at some recent hires on top depts in my field, I’d say it pays off to be an specialist, at least for an early career.

Cal got this very insightful comment (as usual):

I came to the conclusion that being stressed out and busy was for some reason a sought after way of being in western society.

Surprisingly, in the academia we manage to look really busy (as in trying new ideas) and hyperspecialized at the same time… Something doesn’t add up. Is being hyperspecialized a consequence of the market, or a way to alleviate stress (i.e., I don’t care about the theories that work two meters away from where I stand, I have plenty on my plate already)? Do you prefer to be perceived as a deep-but-narrow thinker or a risk-taking ‘trying new things’ explorer? Do you act in consequence with what you prefer?

Study Hacks » Blog Archive » Diligence vs. Ability: Rethinking What Impresses Employers

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2 Responses to “Study Hacks on Rethinking What Impresses Employers and being a hyperspecialist”

  1. Says:

    why not assume that the hiring committee follows its own incentives?

    and what are those?

    probably making the body it represents more powerful.

    this means hiring people who are likely to accomplish what needs to get done.

    the crudest measure of this is pulling in grant money. so yes, if you are doing something very hard that pulls in grant money, then you should have a leg up. you must understand that not everything that is technically hard to do has this property.

    a less crude measure is: are you the kind of person that would help the rest of the department work better, i.e. produce more, better publications (i.e., in the end, collectively pull in more grant money)?
    are you willing to listen to and comment intelligently on other people’s work? do you have the skills to streamline horribly disorganized lab practices?

    not thinking about these issues is what caused my former academic career to come to an end.

  2. jamesNo Gravatar Says:

    I have to say I disagree with the hyper-specialist hypothesis. It makes sense that being known as the world’s expert on x or y can help, but what if no one cares about x or y? What if your field shifts and you can’t keep up?

    My gut feeling is that these people probably do well because they are so incredibly passionate about x or y. But if that’s not your style, then don’t try to change. Instead consider what Stefano alludes to above: there are many academic career paths, of which only one is the hyper-specialist. The jack-of-all-trades is increasingly in demand, particularly for policy relevant research that needs to combine multiple disciplines. And a dedicated teacher can also be valuable to their department.

    I once heard somewhere that your prospects for tenure are determined by approximately 10% research, 40% external profile and 50% “will you fit in here”. Those ratios may not hold everywhere but it’s certainly worth bearing in mind before committing to a single track.

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