Breadth Vs. Depth

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.

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2 responses to “Breadth Vs. Depth

  1. I struggle with this a lot too. I still haven’t found the optimal solution for myself.

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  2. I think you need to follow your genuine interests. It’s hard to will yourself to spend a lot of time on a subfield that you don’t find particularly enticing. Sometimes you will revisit the formerly ‘meh’ questions after you have found a good reason to do so (good reason = you really want to find out why something happens) and learning in this context will be much easier, more rewarding, and ultimately useful.

    And be okay with the fact that there are things that you may not learn now, but there’s time to do it later. I often lament that I wish I had learned more of this and that in grad school. But the truth is I have learned all this other stuff and I have done pretty well, plus it’s not like I am forever done learning. Sometimes it’s the fact that you don’t know the canons of a subfield that makes you an original contributor. Doing science professionally means that you are comfortable not knowing things or half-knowing them, and then refining your knowledge as you move long.

    As for your questions: if you are compelled to tinker with electronics or learn more about computer science, by all means do so. Neither is a waste of time and plenty of cond mat students dabble in one or both. Learning quantum field theory is certainly useful for condensed matter theorists, as the diagrammatic technique came from QFT. In terms of nonacademic employment, being able to write code or knowing how a transistor works trumps fluency in the standard model of particle physics. But these are all much easier to learn if you have a gut urge to do so rather than because it’s proscribed that you should in order to get the broadest possible knowledge.

    Btw, the big picture comes with time and experience, thinking, talking with others, reading whatever tickles your fancy, and teaching! Sometimes the questions from the least qualified folks (like undergrads) spark great strides in understanding.

    Have fun!

    Liked by 1 person

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