Letter to graduate students: Broaden yourself

Here is my (first) annual letter to graduate students, just published in Imagine, the Maryland sociology department newsletter.

In the Graduate Director’s office I see a little bit of everything. Fortunately, it is more good than bad: students winning awards, publishing their work, getting grants and fellowships, and finishing their degrees. Of course, I also see some of the downsides, such as students having a hard time with their coursework or funding, or struggling to attain a foothold in the long climb that is a dissertation.

In the process of receiving all of this news and making the small decisions of the day, I look for opportunities to give advice on more general topics as well. (Stop by and let me bore you with some today!) Here’s one piece of advice I have felt the need to deliver lately: broaden yourself.From the first classical theory course and survey methods seminar to the completion of a dissertation, graduate school seems like a journey into extreme specialization. And there is something to that. Developing an expertise sufficient to make a unique scholarly contribution does require concentration in a particular area of the field, always to the exclusion of other things. But this is not a linear trend. In fact, our program is designed to encourage broad exploration as well, requiring three courses in each of two specialty areas before the comprehensive exams.

It seems obvious, but bears repeating, that the best specialists are those who see their specialization as part of the bigger picture. The very act of identifying a narrow interest, and placing it in the proper context – if it is to be successful, and useful – requires broad understanding of the social context surrounding the substantive subject of the work. So breadth itself is an important value.

Beyond breadth, knowledge diversity is vital as well. That is, it is valuable not just to know about your own subject and the surrounding research, but also to dive deeply into other more narrow areas as well. To choose an analogy, athletes who specialize in tennis benefit from broadly conditioning their entire bodies. But they may also benefit – in tennis and in their other pursuits – from developing a high level of skill in a specific other sport, such as swimming or ping-pong. The insights from gaining deep understanding in an area removed from one’s own primary research are not easy to identify in advance, but when such understanding is pursued with an open mind they are inevitable.

So, yes, I am suggesting that you do more work, beyond what is required for today’s project, this year’s comprehensive exam, or even your dissertation. Easier said than done! But that doesn’t mean it’s not good advice. I hope it will serve you well.

Best wishes to all of our students for an enjoyable and productive summer.

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