Andy Jones

Pitfalls of over-identifying with an academic discipline

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Academics – professors, postdocs, and graduate students – are organized into departments, like math, computer science, or biology. These disciplines serve as coarse umbrellas that group together researchers with similar interests. This sort of grouping is useful and necessary in many ways: it makes it easier to collaborate and share resources.

However, applying these labels too strongly to individual people can have unhealthy consequences. Once a person is sorted into one of these departments, they tend to build an identity around that discipline. This is natural. But often people begin to over-identify with that discipline, and they pigeonhole themselves into a narrow intellectual circle. They start to see other disciplines as foreign and inaccessible. They say things like:

“I’m a computer scientist, so I don’t know anything about biology.”

“I’m a zoologist, so I don’t know anything about statistics.”

These sentences convey a stay-in-your-lane attitude that is unhealthy and ultimately restricts one’s own growth. Sure, it’s likely that the computer scientist doesn’t know as much about biology as a biologist, and a zoologist doesn’t have a statistician-level mastery of statistics. But the phrasing of these sentences implies that one can never achieve any sort of knowledge in another discipline simply because it’s not their discipline. In reality, your academic identity shouldn’t bar you from learning about a seemingly unrelated discipline.

Of course, it’s worth having some humility about the amount that you know about other disciplines. You don’t want to parade around thinking that you’re an expert in every field. However, it’s worth having the attitude that each discipline has ideas that you can learn if you try and have interest, not that it’s some impenetrable subject.

People often use over-identification with an academic discipline as a psychological tool. It helps them feel better about not knowing about other disciplines and relieves any pressure there might be to learn about them. I feel insecure that I don’t know anything about field A, the thinking goes, but I don’t have to feel that bad because I’m a member of field B, not field A. However, there’s no reason to feel insecure about not knowing about another field, and a person in field B should feel empowered to begin learning about field A at any time.

A more healthy version of the hypothetical quotes above might be:

“Although a lot of my work has been in computer science, I’m in the process of learning about the foundations of biology.”

“There are some interesting intersections between zoology and statistics that I want to understand better.”