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Life Sciences Career Plan: Choosing Breadth or Depth?

By: , Posted on: June 30, 2015

planning a career in biomedical sciencesWhen you prepare your career development plan, how many of your mentors and advisors have counseled you to pursue depth in your studies? How many have counseled breadth? Should you acquire a broad education, exposing yourself to several areas of study, or should you hone in on one area and train in it extensively?

You ask yourself which approach will make you more competitive in the job market, be it academic or non-academic, and which will make you a better scientist, providing you with a more solid foundation for launching your career? Furthermore, no matter whether you prioritize breadth or depth, you must also ponder a second question, when during your training might it be best to focus on breadth or depth, respectively?

Broad exposure during your undergraduate years introduces you to a variety of techniques and research models and provides you with knowledge about several distinct biological problems. Breadth may very well make you more comfortable with working in teams and across disciplines. Future potential graduate supervisors may applaud you for your ability to function in several different environments. They may be reassured and impressed by the fact that you have demonstrated that your research success stems from your own research abilities and not from those of a specific supervisor and his or her laboratory environment. You may also send a positive message to future employers that you are comfortable in new and changing environments and that you adapt and learn quickly. Most crucially, such an experience during your undergraduate years may make your choice of an area of interest for graduate work more efficacious.

To gain exposure to breadth you will likely carry out research projects in different laboratories, often in several disciplines. The easiest time to do this during your training is as an undergraduate student. Over several different project courses and summer research opportunities, you may choose breadth over depth.

On the down side, since it does take time to identify and understand a problem, design and carry out experiments, and analyze your data, choosing breadth will make it difficult for you to delve deeply enough into a biological question before moving on to your next project. This will impair your productivity and your ability to demonstrate how you persist in solving a more complex scientific problem.

Proponents of depth, no matter at what time during your education, suggest that you choose an important and interesting problem to work on and delve deep into the issue attempting to produce innovative, high-impact discoveries that add significantly to the biological literature. Practically speaking, at the undergraduate level, this means taking advantage of several research opportunities, project courses, and summer projects to attach yourself to the same lab to provide yourself with the time to investigate a problem in depth.

Felicitously, if you continue with this project in your MSc/PhD studies you can build on your previous work and may achieve your graduate goals relatively quickly. Most importantly, by focusing successfully on depth, even at an early stage in your career, you develop a reputation as an expert in your field of study through your focused scientific presentations and high quality publications. This is certainly an attractive position to be in when searching for a postdoctoral position or future employment.

The question of depth versus breadth training has long plagued scholars in many fields of endeavor. Rare is the individual who possesses both encyclopedic knowledge and great depth; however, such a scholar is greatly prized. Considering the current biomedical and life sciences landscape, I would suggest that you carefully chart a course that mindfully blends in-depth investigation with attention to broadening your knowledge base beyond your primary focus once you have established a primary focus. Having a well-conceived primary focus then provides you with a strong foundation from which to probe broadly. You will not roam aimlessly, instead your in-depth knowledge and accomplishments will provide a touchstone from which to explore broadly. Remember that as Louis Pasteur once said, “Serendipity favors the prepared mind”. So take great care in preparing your mind!

The reality is that as your career advances, you will become more and more focused, so you must be mindful to consciously strive to achieve breadth during your training and later on as a lifelong learner. Read the literature selectively, especially review articles and opinion pieces from leaders in other fields, and attend lectures and electronic media sessions given by experts in new and emerging fields. Attending scientific meetings outside your comfort zone may also fuel your ability to envision interdisciplinary approaches that may shed new light on complex biological problems. Establishing breadth will also help you discover how your own hard earned in-depth expertise may be applied to the investigation of other research problems. Such a mix of depth and breadth is an excellent recipe for innovative transformative research.

About the Authors

Avrum GotliebAvrum I. Gotlieb, MD is Senior Academic Advisor to the Dean; and Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

His book, Planning a Career in Biomedical and Life Sciences: Making Informed Choices is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code “STC215″ at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

Meshulam Gotlieb, MA is an Academic Translator and English-Language Editor based in Beit Shemesh, Israel.


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Life Sciences

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