Jacks of all Trades

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I was riding a train back from Munich recently and a headline on a free magazine caught my eye. “Einer für Alles”, proclaimed the headline over a picture of youngish German theatre director Florian David Fitz, “Er schauspielert, schreibt, und fuhrt Regie”. (He acts, writes, and directs)

It’s clearly a broad portfolio for one of our cousins in the Arts, and one that few manage to replicate. Yet acting, writing, and directing are essentially different facets of the same process – the writer constructs a part, the performer brings it to life, and the director guides and oversees the process. Shifting between these roles, while undeniably challenging, is primarily a shift in perspective and responsibility (are you taking charge of one character, or many?).

Conversely, a scientist must be an able experimentalist, a good writer, a good presenter, a good teacher, and a good leader and mentor. And these activities have far less in common than writing/acting/directing for theatre – the scientific mindset must be channelled into a wide range of academic conduits, few of which come naturally.

Consequently, and unsurprisingly, it’s very rare for someone to excel in all of those roles. The cliches of the intuitive experimentalist who can’t speak in public, the inspirational lecturer who hasn’t published a decent paper in years, and the gifted grant-writer who can’t refrain from treating lab members as consumable products all abound, and with good reason. It’s very, very hard to get even one of those things right, and getting them all above-par is a challenge for the best of us.

What’s interesting though is that accomplishing all those skills is – theoretically – expected. Actors who cross over to directing, or directors who turn to writing, are (rightly) lauded for their flexibility but scientists don’t even have a choice – they must not only produce good work, but also publish it, raise funds, promote it, transmit it to undergraduates, and forge a research team to work alongside them.

We are supposed to master all these skills, and feel suboptimal if we don’t.

Perhaps, then, the time has come to reconsider whether mastering all these activities should indeed be a prerequisite? It’s already the case that group leaders at research institutes are shorn of teaching responsibilities, and there are a growing number of teaching specialists at universities. It’s also true that a large amount of mentoring is basically already outsourced to postdocs and even PhD students.

Maybe it’s time too for individual departments to maintain specialists for writing papers and research grants? It can only happen though if all those contributions – experimental work, teaching, publishing, grant-writing – are valued equally. Do that, and the unit of scientific selection may well progress from being the individual to being the collective; until then though, we’re all implicitly committed to being jacks of all trades.

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