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I'm an individual interested in multiple academic disciplines such as neuroscience, biological engineering, computer science, history, anthropology, psychology, political theory ... to name just a few. Currently, I have a normal (40 hours/week) engineering job that leaves me enough free time to follow these topics to a moderately satisfying degree.

However, primarily due to intellectual curiosity, I'm considering doing a PhD (in Europe) and would ideally want to move to research later (discipline: something along the lines of genetic engineering, computational biology or cognitive neuroscience - not sure yet, but my background is in computer science). Given the highly specialized nature of modern scientific research that seems to demand intense working hours, one concern that I have is the fear of becoming highly one dimensional: completely failing to follow progress in other fields and in society as a whole, with publish or perish environment creating an inescapable feedback loop, where one cannot afford to read articles and books on topics not related to work, or follow public debates; yet alone write a blog about e.g. social issues.

I realize there are academics out there who seem to be prolific across multiple disciplines (e.g. Chomsky, Pinker ...), but the question still stands: in a modern research environment, can one satisfy multiple intellectual interests that transcend immediate work requirements, or has the game become too competitive and focused for that? What are the main variables?

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Alas, I think that research is making me more three-dimensional. Especially around the waistline and hips. –  mhwombat Jun 24 at 9:00

2 Answers 2

You can do it, but you might not be a professor. I have a PhD in Aerospace Engineering, and I work in CFD, HPC clusters, and BigData/analytics when I do research. My primary job is running the HPC department at a large-ish computing center. If I were a professor, I doubt I could pull this off. My research output is much smaller that professors my age, but I still have a pretty satisfying career.

You best chance for doing lots of different kinds of research is to find a center who appreciates you for your broad interests and to help it grow its mission while pursuing your more esoteric interests when you can.

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Broader skills are much more appreciated/valuable in the National Laboratories than academia, in my opinion. –  Paul Jun 24 at 2:47
Agreed. A US DoE National Lab would be one such center. –  Bill Barth Jun 24 at 3:05

The answer may vary across field and institution and continent. But based on my experience, in short, I would say: Yes, a modern research environment permits and even benefits from broad intellectual interests.

But first let's draw a distinction between what I'll call your "output" and your "input". For most researchers, research output is highly specialized. It can take an intense focus to make progress on the hardest, most impactful problems (http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/). Not only that, your progress is generally a super-linear function of the time you put into a project. You invest in learning past work, concepts tools, developing ideas often over a period of multiple years -- and then connections happen faster, ideas mature, you know the software tools, and overall you produce much more quickly. Good interdisciplinary work is possible and does allow you to use expertise in multiple areas or fields; but, in my experience, this work can be just as specialized.

Your "input", however, is an inspiration for what research to tackle. I find that my creativity in producing good research ideas is substantially better when I explicitly take time to step back and think, interact with new people, and explore new concepts. And the best researchers have a good understanding of society and gut feeling about what will be really impactful in the next few years. If you completely fail to follow progress in your field, in other fields, and in society as a whole, you might produce more papers in the short run but probably have less impactful research in the long run.

As Hamming said:

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, "The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind." I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame.

Finally, as a professor, you have a great deal of freedom to steer your own research agenda; more than in most professions. While it's hard to make progress in wildly divergent fields concurrently, over longer timescales (5-10 years) many researchers do change their focus area quite successfully.

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I'd say as a tenured professor in the US, you have such freedom, but I think you'd be hard pressed to get tenure with papers in 10 different areas than 10 (or whatever) papers in one major area. –  Bill Barth Jun 24 at 3:08
hence the 5-10 year timescale between shifts in area –  Brighten Jun 24 at 3:51

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