Hyperspecialization ought to be a thing of the past

It is my firm belief that hyperspecialization stifles innovation. That is to say; one can never expect an PHD engineer to design something new, if all they have been taught are electrical engineering concepts.

Let me elaborate.

I credit most of my design ability to time spent in multiple disciplines. Drawing, sculpture, mechanics and photography among others, have all had nothing but positive impact on my ability visualize and design systems. To extent that for those without such experience, I fear for their abilities to design similar systems.

Restated, it is immeasurably more likely that an electrical engineer who has fixed cars in the past, will know what to expect from a motor they wish to integrate in their product. It’s fair to argue that an industrial designer who has been exposed to power electronics, knows what’s practical to fit inside such a thing as a powered cell phone case, and may even attempt such a project. It’s fair to argue that even musicians who have studied physics, are more likely to have less reflection and echo in the things they record.

It’s possible to propose many further scenarios, but what I state is, by forcing students through highly tailored paths during their undergraduate careers, we set them up for failure when it’s time for them to innovate. How can a mechanical engineer be expected to design a new powered scooter for kickstarter, if they know nothing about electronics? Similarly, how can a physicist be expected to create a new particle detector, if all they have been exposed to is mathematics? Especially so, when neither party knows where to begin in such studies!

My philosophy is a simple one; do your best to gain a plebeian knowledge about everything there is to know, past and present. When a problem arises ask upon this resourceful memory of creative solutions, and if something looks promising, go study it in further detail. With the tools we now have available as a human race, we’re beyond the time where an engineer must be able to recite from memory, all there is to know about control theory, or where a photographer must know the granularity of every film available.  

I’d much rather have engineers who know the physics of camera obscura, and photographers who know how to build high-speed triggers from a microcontroller.

That is, I’d much rather have a world where people put forth effort to become jacks of all trades, if they choose to master in one.

3 thoughts on “Hyperspecialization ought to be a thing of the past

  1. While that’s a nice sentiment, we’ve reached a point in scientific development that in order to make truly groundbreaking advancements in a field you must be a specialist. That’s not to say that knowing a variety of things at a high level of abstraction isn’t useful, it’s just that it does not contradict the need for specialization.
    Well run teams of specialists will demolish an equally well run team of generalists

    • I would argue otherwise; innovation happens at the boundary of discipline, and if these boundaries do not overlap, then such scientific breakthrough isn’t likely to happen.

      It takes a creative mind to come up with something as outlandish as laser-produced plasma illumination, creativity not fostered by current undergraduate study sequences.

      • Undergrad (especially at RIT) is not intended to produce a Da Vinci. I graduated in ’07 with a CS degree, and I currently work on bioinformatics research. Others on my team know a lot more about the protein synthesis chain, but I know a lot more about pattern analysis and lexical parsing. Sure, I took the intro Biology sequence, but that prepared me for this work no better than the AP Bio course I took back in high school.

        What I’m driving at is institutional enforcement of intellectual diversity is never going to be exceptionally successful. Just look at the gen ed requirements to hear the bitching and moaning about the same idealism.

        It’s clear that you have a variety of talents and interests, and you are by no means alone in that, but some like to really concentrate in undergrad. I specialized in CS Theory / Programming Languages, which led directly to my DNA research. Making the connections will always be the responsibility of the individual.

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