Being a scholar by definition implies being a specialist. We spend our careers digging about in one itty bitty little area.
But I have a theory; The best scholars are specialists in one area but generalist in others. Tim Ferris (author of The Four Hour Work Week) talks about this in general, but every one of his points is valid for academics as well.
My mentor is periodically surprised by where I find relevant articles to our research. He doesn’t know how I find things that he doesn’t. The answer is that I’m not afraid to look outside our specialty. He looks at education journals. I look at education, economics, history, political science, law, sociology, psychology and business journals. In the process I find information that he doesn’t. More importantly, I make an effort to keep up on all these areas as they relate.to my field or things only peripherally related to my field.
I am working on finding time to read the Economist every week so that I can keep up with the world outside of the ivory tower. Heck, it was my knowledge of philosophy that allowed me to convince someone to hire me to work on their computer’s 20+ years ago. I could explain the connection between the two (formal logic) and see the possibilities.
This seems critical to me. The most successful academics in many fields are those who are excellent at their own work but also put it into the larger context of society and other academic fields. They know what is going on beyond their limited area of research and are able to make connections to new work in other disciplines that can inform or enhance their own. Education researchers often REALLY resent economists for sticking their nose into the area, yet they have some interesting findings and approaches that can be incorporated, refuted or enhanced. Yet I am the only person in my department who pays any real attention to that literature.
Where am I going with this? We live in an interdisciplinary world. On the one hand work is
becoming more focused and narrow, while on the other the innovators are
able to see beyond that. To me it is a real disservice in graduate
education that we force students to focus so tightly and encourage/teach them to put blinders on. A PhD needs to be broadly conversant as well as possessing deep knowledge of their chosen research area. Thus I refuse to put the blinders on.