It has been said that a specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less … until he knows everything about nothing!

When working towards a PhD it is very tempting to try to become that sort of a specialist. Your aim is to become the world’s expert in that very specific area of knowledge which is the subject matter of your thesis. It may seem obvious that, in order to achieve that aim, you will need to focus almost exclusively on that narrow topic, to the exclusion of all others (as long as you both shall live). And, if you are anything like me, you may well have grown up having just a small number of intense interests anyway. But there are good reasons to resist the temptation to over-specialise.

First there are reasons that most people around you would agree with. If you are going to be an expert in one specific thing, you need to know how that one thing relates to everything else. If you are going to be creative in how you approach your specialist topic, your mind will need to be filled with all sorts of ideas from all sorts of areas, so it will always be worth exploring new things. So you should try not only to grasp something of the breadth of your own discipline, but also to become acquainted with the full breadth of what goes on in your university. (That’s the whole point of having a university, isn’t it?)

But there are also some distinctively Christian reasons to maintain wide interests.

Eline mentioned reductionism in a previous post: the idea that something is nothing but something else. For example, biology is nothing but physics, physics experiments are nothing but the experienced sensations in the minds of the researchers, sensations in our minds are nothing but neurological signals, and neuroscience is nothing but a social construct! We can all think that our own discipline is the only discipline that really matters, and look down on other disciplines. A better appreciation of God’s creation as being multifaceted and wonderfully rich can help us to avoid reductionism. It will lead us to appreciate the value of other disciplines in their own right, as legitimate ways of looking at other aspects of all that God has made.

This more “democratic” way of appreciating different disciplines might help us to realise that, when it comes to real world problems, it is rarely the case that one discipline alone can provide the solutions. As we think about turning our theory into practice, we need to consider working together with researchers from other disciplines. This may, for example, be as simple as applying your discipline’s techniques and methodology in the context of another discipline. Or it may be a matter of political and natural scientists working together on tackling some of the big issues of our time.

What has been your experience of interdisciplinary research?

Anthony Smith
Latest posts by Anthony Smith (see all)