Specialization versus diversification: A trade-off for young scientists?

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Abstract

Owing to the inherent links between the fields of study that make up the environmental sciences (e.g., terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric branches), and because of the growing need to better understand how human actions translate into global change, there is increasing demand for interdisciplinary research where Earth scientists with different academic training or backgrounds come together and approach projects in novel ways. In theory, interdisciplinar research teams are composed of researchers with complementary skills and are thus able to tackle larger research questions or problems. In this essay, we discuss the perceived trade-offs that young scientists face when specializing or diversifying their research programs to best prepare for participation in such interdisciplinary research.

An effective member of an interdisciplinary team should have expertise in at least one discipline. For a young scientist at the start of his or her career, a period of specialization is necessary in order to be perceived as an expert by potential collaborators. At the same time, the success of an interdisciplinary collaboration may be enhanced by an individual's ability to understand and communicate about subject matters outside of his or her immediate area of expertise. For a young scientist, this implies that one should also broaden the scope of one's field of expertise and diversify. Thus, young scientists may prepare themselves for participating in interdisciplinary research projects by either specializing or diversifying their research programs, although a potential trade-off between both may exist.

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