One of the recurring struggles of being a physicist, especially for those early in their career, is how to balance depth and breadth of topics. In pursuing a PhD, it is necessary to study a particular topic in great detail, read the previous literature on the subject, and in some sense, become an expert in a very narrow area. One then needs to solve a problem in this area. In reality, this is all that is needed to obtain a PhD.
To become a good physicist, though, requires that one has a broad and general overview of, in our case, condensed matter physics and even topics beyond. Obviously, this is not the only trait one must have in order to become a good physicist, but it is indeed one of them.
Colloquially, there is therefore a balance that needs to be struck between “knowing a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing” vs. “knowing everything about something that is almost nothing and nothing about anything“.
Becoming a good physicist therefore requires both a broad physical knowledge and a depth of knowledge in a few specialized topics. It requires one to “zoom in” and focus on a narrow field, and solve a problem. It then requires one to “zoom out” to understand its implications on the grander scale for condensed matter physics or physics in general.
The thing about striking this balance between depth and breadth is that it is extremely difficult to do! There are questions that arise like:
- How broad is broad enough?
- For us in condensed matter physics, is learning particle physics “too broad”?
- What about learning topics like computer science, electronics or economics?
I think that these questions are challenging to answer, partly because the answers will vary from person to person. There are numerous examples of physicists pursuing subjects like economics, biology, neuroscience, philosophy and computer science with great success.
During graduate school, the strategy I employed was to spend the day doing research, remaining narrow, while spending the evening reading widely in attempt to broaden my knowledge and understand why my research was of any importance at all. This was a decent strategy for me, but I can see others pursuing different schemes.
I still struggle with this dichotomy relatively often, and it is not one I see vanishing any time soon. I’m curious to know how others approach this problem, so please feel free to comment.