Academia is geared towards specialization, with a depth of knowledge in a small, specific area. If you want to become the world’s authority in some minutia of knowledge, just remember that the more refined your specialty, the smaller your career opportunities. In evolution, specialist species that thrive in a narrow range of environmental conditions tend to perish in cataclysmic events. With the emergence of COVID-19, academic specialists are now facing such a cataclysmic event. As Canadian academics now consider transitioning to a non-academic environment, they should consider revising their training to become “versatilists.”
A “versatilist” is a specialist in a particular discipline, that can change to another role with ease. Unlike specialists, who possess depth in one area, and generalists who have breadth but no depth, “versatilists” exhibit both. They apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations. “Versatilists” are highly marketable because they can be redeployed within an organization in response to change.
Specialization can provide stable employment in regions with mature companies that have the capacity to staff many roles within the organization. However, in Canada, there are approximately 2.4 times fewer mature companies per capita than the United States. Our unestablished start-ups and scale-ups cannot support a narrow job scope and favour versatile employees whose work spans many different roles, which evolves with the company.
In regions looking to diversify their economy with developing industries, “versatilists” are needed. As organizations move from research and development to needing marketing and sales, they frequently face a gap between the skills in hand and the skills needed to grow. The difference leads to job loss, training efforts, or failure to optimize growth. If Canada wants to retain and use the specialized knowledge that she generates, then versatility needs to be a priority. Otherwise we will continue to face brain drain as has been occurring in the IT sector.
In our labor market research, we identified project management and customer interaction as two skills that graduate students are missing. A lack of project management skills in new graduates of thesis programs is also of concern. Although students practice project management during their dissertation, they are unaware of it and unable to convey their skills to employers. Along with creating opportunities for students to learn these skills and vocabulary, educators need to provide opportunities for students to interact with the non-academic community, breaking down silos of differing terminology between job seekers and job providers. Through such interaction, students can improve their tacit skills and flex their customer interaction muscles via stakeholder engagement.
As companies are becoming more iterative in product development, changes based upon customer feedback have become commonplace. By retaining “versatilists,” young companies can nimbly adopt iterative design, jumping quickly between feedback and re-prototyping.
Academia is changing, as modes of research are evolving from individual investigator to multidisciplinary teams. Multidisciplinary research is proving to be a problem for many specialists, who have difficulty relating to individuals from diverse disciplines. However, academics who thrive in this arena are those who have a sprinkling of generalist in addition to their specialty. They can see the big picture and they can relate to the value of other team members.
The pace of organizational change has been rapidly increased by COVID-19. A collective effort needs to be made to help position workers to succeed in a changing climate. Educators should provide students with opportunities to develop versatility. By sharing their research and performing insightful interviews, students can explore opportunities to engage with industry. Alumni can mentor students and advise alma maters about skill expectations in their sector. Finally, employers should invest more in employee professional development.
Derrick E. Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.