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I'm the kind of graduate student that finds many research topics interesting and wants to participate in lots of student organization activities related to science and academia. But recently, one of my professors warned me against "doing too much" beyond my research focus, both in terms of publications and in terms of extra-curricular activities. As I see it, your goal as an academic is to develop a "specialty", so it is important to focus on one narrow topic and pass over opportunities to research other interesting, but unrelated topics. But can research outside of your particular focus in graduate school really negatively affect your ability to get hired in an post-doc or tenure track position in the future? How can "doing more" reflect negatively on one's self?

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It's not a problem of "doing more", but rather where you focus your work. Whenever you're doing something else, you're using resources that you could have used in your "main" topic. –  Charles Morisset Feb 9 '13 at 0:06
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Bear in mind that you have not guarantee to get a good post-doc (or any tenure track position) in your current field. So even if doing other things decreases you change to get in this field, it can raise in other fields (and then people look look very differently at "I'm interested in Y" vs "I'm interested in Y and I have already published a paper"). Source: I'm a quantum physicist, doing stuff in mathematical psychology. (Sure, in quantum physics they treat my math. psych. as no more than an ambitious hobby.) –  Piotr Migdal Feb 9 '13 at 9:58
    
Don't worry, the industry will be much happier to embrace your breadth, and appreciate your ability to talk to people who are not at your level in a specialized field. Doing stuff on the side means that your "main" department won't understand the "side" research, and likewise the "side" department won't care about the "main" research. You will simply fall between the cracks. –  StasK Apr 19 '13 at 19:43
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4 Answers 4

Read broadly, publish narrowly deeply.

This is roughly what I've been telling my students. Now all of this depends greatly from area to area, but here's what I believe to be true. Having a broad background in your area might slow you down initially when trying to publish. But over the long term (your entire career), a broad base will help you more - it will let you be flexible about topics of interest, it will allow you to see connections where others might not, and it will help you place your work in a larger context.

But from your question, you appear to be referring not just to "exposure to outside topics" but "activities related to the larger enterprise of science and academia". With those activities also, you should be careful. Maybe choose one or two outside activities and devote your extracurricular efforts there. The advantage is that by focusing, you're more likely to be able to do something meaningful, and it also prevents you from frittering away time in busy work.

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Shouldn't that be "Read broadly, publish deeply"? –  JeffE Feb 9 '13 at 16:55
    
fair enough :)- good point. –  Suresh Feb 9 '13 at 20:45
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In particular, I'm not convinced that having a diverse publication record is a bad thing, as long as the papers are strong. –  JeffE Feb 9 '13 at 22:31
    
well that's the problem: it's difficult "on average" to be diverse and strong. Not saying it can't be done, but having that as a target can be dangerous –  Suresh Feb 10 '13 at 1:04
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The issue is fundamentally that of "categorization": people want to have a box to put you in. "Dr. X is an expert in field Y." Early on, if you're all over the map, people don't have a clear sense of what your focus really is. That makes it harder for them to feel that you're going to be focused on their needs in your next position. Instead, the worry is that you'll continue to be all over the map.

This is also a problem for young faculty: they need to have a broad enough profile that they aren't trapped in a particular "niche," but not so broad a profile that they don't have depth in any one specific field. If someone can't be recognized as "the expert in her field," where 'her field' is somewhat arbitrary in scope, that makes for problems when it comes time for promotions and tenure cases.

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There's a whole bunch of research in sociology that supports this idea that being categorized is a key to success in labor markets — especially when you're just starting out. An example many people are familiar with is typecasting in films; early on, it's great for a career. –  Benjamin Mako Hill Feb 10 '13 at 3:19
    
@BenjaminMakoHill This sound very interesting. Can you provide some references to this research? –  Dan C Feb 10 '13 at 22:14
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In my original comment, I included a link to an AcaWiki summary of "Robust identities or nonentities? Typecasting in the feature-film labor market." You should also check out some of other work of sociologist Ezra Zuckerman whose body of work shows how people/organizations who are hard to categorize are punished and people who are easy to categorized are rewarded. –  Benjamin Mako Hill Feb 12 '13 at 0:27
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It's true in an abstract sense that doing more is better than doing less, but there are psychological factors at play here.

Regarding extracurricular activities, hiring committees are unlikely to value them much, and they will come across as a distraction from research. For each activity mentioned on your CV or website, someone may read it and wonder whether you might have written another paper if you hadn't been doing this instead. It's not really fair, but you don't want people to be thinking about this.

But can research outside of your particular focus in graduate school really negatively affect your ability to get hired in an post-doc or tenure track position in the future?

Partly it depends on how good it is. If you add a truly excellent paper to your CV, it should only help. However, research outside of your specialty or done on the side is probably less likely to be excellent, and someone who looks at just that paper may end up with a lower opinion of you than you would like.

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So in this case, quality is much more valued than quantity? –  Paul Feb 9 '13 at 3:21
    
Hmm, both are valued, but you need to meet a quality bar from any given job (in addition to a quantity bar). If you apply to a fancy department, they'll want to see publications that impress them, and they won't care how many lesser publications you have if you don't have that. They won't reject you explicitly because of papers that don't impress them, but they might form their opinion of you before they notice there are some gems hidden in your publication record. Different departments will have different standards and preferences, but it generally plays out roughly along these lines. –  Anonymous Mathematician Feb 9 '13 at 14:55
    
So I'd recommend balancing quantity vs. quality by taking this into account. Figure out what sorts of jobs might be realistic, and then try to maximize the amount you accomplish at that level. (Of course this is easier said than done.) –  Anonymous Mathematician Feb 9 '13 at 15:01
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I'll echo what the other answer have suggested and add a little more. On the academic job market you want to be able to explain what you do in a way that people can understand in a sentence or two. Your question seems to imply that already understand that having a focus is important and excelling in it is of utmost importance.

There are two ways that work or research outside of this core/focus can hurt:

  1. Peripheral work may leave you with less time to make the core/focus really shine. You may simply have less achievements or publications than you would have if you had focused more on your core research. The issue is not only that people reading your CV might think this. It might really be true!

  2. The second issue is that this peripheral work might be seen as a signal that you are not serious about your core body of research. Do you really care about devoting your life to the field, topic, or question that you are asking someone to hire you to work on? Are you likely to leave your career for this other thing? The core of your work might be seen as less focused than it actually is if it looks like you've got all these others things going on.

This second issue is a real risk, but it's possible to deal with this. Basically, it's your job to convey to people that although your extracurricular work is there — and although it may even constitute some impressive achievements or skills — you don't treat this other work as seriously as you treat your research.

This often means leaving irrelevant stuff off of your CV and website — although there are limits to what you can leave out. It also means organizing your CV so it's clear that the central thrust of your research is your priority. Many people have "selected papers" on your website or other personal materials. You can get to make that selection.

For example, I have written several technical books, served on several non-profits, and given hundreds of talks at (non-academic) technical conferences. I mention these things in brief and in passing at the end of my CV and on other pages on my website reserved for my non-academic work. I don't hide these achievements as I think they speaks to my skills and qualities as a researcher. But I make sure that when speaking to academic audiences, I — quite literally — place the core of my academic work first.

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