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The Academics' Forum: Jack of All Trades Versus Master of One: Views on “Dabbling” With Research

Satoris S. Culbertson
Kansas State University

When I first started my graduate studies in I-O, it seemed like I was interested in everything. I wanted to soak in as much knowledge about as many areas as possible. Like a kid in a candy store (or me in a candy store now, actually), I wanted a taste of everything. As my studies continued, however, I began to discover that some areas were more appealing to me, but others, like black licorice in the candy store, were better left for others to experience.

Over time, I was able to narrow down my research interests so that I am now able to succinctly describe my interests in a somewhat coherent, relatively thematic manner rather than as a long string of research topics. If asked, I usually tell people that my research interests primarily lie in the areas of employment interviews, performance management, and work–family conflict and facilitation. At this point, however, I consciously have to tell myself to stop talking, as if I were being completely honest and kept going, my dirty little secret would emerge. That secret, of course, is that I’m a dabbler.

According to Merriam-Webster, a dabbler is “one not deeply engaged in or concerned with something.” A dabbler is also “a duck (as a mallard or shoveler) that feeds by dabbling.” Neither of these definitions quite fits with how I see myself, though the former is much closer than the latter. My view of being a dabbler is that I like to engage in research that does not fall within the purview of my primary research interests. A quick look at my vita reveals this, with past and recent ventures lying in such diverse areas as individual differences, workplace engagement, and judgment and decision making.

I have a lot of reasons for my dabbling. Of course, the most obvious is that I am fascinated by many different topics. The best part about being in academia is that I get paid to be a lifelong learner! Dabbling also helps me from getting bored or being miserable. Andre Agassi, retired pro tennis player extraordinaire, wrote in his 2009 autobiography, “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.” I don’t want to be like Agassi (other than having the nickname, “The Punisher,” which would be pretty cool). I love what I do, and perhaps it is naïve, but I want to always love what I do. If I begin to get bored with one area, I find that playing in another area can provide me with the reinvigoration that I need. I also dabble because sometimes opportunities present themselves that are “too good to pass up.” For me, simply having a motivated colleague with data in hand and an idea in mind is too tempting to pass up. In my candy store analogy, these would be the chocolate truffles.

Regardless of my reasons for dabbling, and despite there being some great examples of well-respected and impressive dabblers in history (e.g., Nikola Tesla, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Benjamin Franklin), the notion of dabbling seems to have a certain stigma associated with it. The expressions “jack of all trades, master of none” and “having your finger in too many pies” come to mind, each reflecting the view that if an individual is engaged in too many activities, they are not likely to do any of them very well. It is perhaps for these reasons that many students are advised to focus on a single stream of research.

With these points in mind, I decided to turn to a group of research experts for their views on dabbling versus staying focused on a particular stream of research. I sought the advice of five past winners of SIOP’s Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award. This award is presented to individuals who have “made the most distinguished empirical and/or theoretical scientific contributions to the field of I-O psychology.” Seen by their colleagues as having an impact on the science of I-O psychology, these individuals clearly know what it takes to be successful in the realm of research.

A special thank you to the following experts who were kind enough to share their thoughts on the matter: Richard D. Arvey, PhD, professor and head of the Department of Management and Organization at the National University of Singapore; Michael A. Campion, PhD, Herman C. Krannert Chaired Professor of Management at Purdue University; Ruth Kanfer, PhD, professor of psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology; Robert G. Lord, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at University of Akron; and Kevin Murphy, PhD, consulting expert at Lamorinda Consulting LLC, an affiliate member of the Psychology faculty at Colorado State University, and current editor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice.

In order to get a feel for how the panelists view their own dabbling tendencies, I asked them to what extent they considered themselves to be dabblers. As a believer in John Steinbeck’s views that “no one wants advice, only corroboration,” I was thrilled to find that three of the panelists considered themselves to be dabblers. Specifically, in the dabbler corner, we have Campion, Murphy, and Arvey, who each acknowledged, if not embraced, their dabbling tendencies, noting that they have research interests in multiple areas and published on a variety of topics. In Campion’s words, “I am definitely a dabbler. I have conducted studies and done consulting projects on just about every topic, except labor relations and benefits administration.”

Moving to the other side of the continuum, in the focused interest corner, is Lord, who noted, “I’m very much a focused person. I’ve been doing research on leadership for about 40 years and research on control theory for over 30.” He continued by noting, “That doesn’t mean that my understanding of these areas hasn’t changed. For example, rather than just control theory, the focus has changed to the broader idea of self-regulation. Carver and Scheier (1998) have followed pretty much the same path. Also, I’ve been able to synthesize a more recent interest in self-identity with both topics. Underlying both interests is an understanding of cognitive psychology and information processing.”

The final panelist, Kanfer, considered herself in the middle of the two extremes. She noted, “Although my primary research focuses on issues related motivation and self-regulation, I am interested in and have done work on the topic in multiple contexts (e.g., job search, skill acquisition, teams, aging) and with respect to multiple issues (e.g., personality influences on self-regulation, contextual influences on retirement intentions, etc). In essence, I consider myself a use-inspired dabbler”

Pros and Cons of Dabbling Versus a Focused Research Stream

One of the first things I learned in graduate school was that there was rarely an absolute answer to a question. Instead, the answer was most certainly going to be, “it depends.” So rather than ask which is better—to dabble or be focused on a particular research stream—I asked the panel of experts for their views on the pros and cons for each.

Regarding the pros for dabbling, the most frequently cited advantage was that it would help build and maintain interest in the field as well as result in potentially fruitful research opportunities. As Arvey explained, “The pros for me are that I do what interests me, and when opportunities come along to investigate some new phenomenon or relationship, I can pursue these with no guilt. It helps to preserve my interests in the discipline.” Murphy echoed the sentiment by noting that an advantage of dabbling is that “There are usually things in the field that are likely to be interesting and worthwhile.”

Taking a broader view of the advantages related to dabbling, Campion summarized the main pros as “(1) you often have your best insights when you approach a new field for the first time, (2) it broadens you out so you know more things, (3) it helps your teaching, (4) it helps your consulting, and (5) it provides variety.”

Despite the pros associated with dabbling, there are also several cons. For example, Murphy noted, “It is very hard to master a number of research literatures, and dabblers often have a hard time identifying important problems and promising ways of solving them if their interests are too broad.” Similarly, Arvey cautioned that, “Other professionals [may] think of you as a dilettante and not a serious scholar.” He also reinforced Murphy’s views by noting that, “It is difficult to keep up with current literature in the separate domains.” This difficulty of having to learn other areas of literature, other methods, and so forth was also noted by Campion as a disadvantage to dabbling.

Of course, there are also pros and cons associated with having a focused research stream. Although you can broaden your interests and see what excites you by dabbling, the key advantage mentioned for maintaining a narrower focus is the depth of expertise that one obtains. As Lord noted, “focusing on a research stream allows you to move up the learning curve, which typically follows a power function—large increases early on. You also have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.” He further suggested that this greater knowledge can have practical implications, noting that, “the real pro [of having a focused research stream], is that as you get into an area your understanding deepens and you are more able to make a contribution to the field, which means that publication is more likely.” Along these lines, Arvey similarly suggested that being more focused can lead to becoming well-recognized as having deep knowledge and expertise in that area.

Kanfer expressed similar sentiments, stating that, “A focused research stream typically builds a cumulative base for new knowledge. It often involves studies that evaluate particular tenets of a theory. During this process, one may obtain unexpected results that yield a new direction and insights. There are many examples of how people focused on a particular research stream contribute to the science and practice. But that does not mean they don’t dabble. In this context, dabbling might mean testing the framework in a new context or trying out a new method. Controlled dabbling.”

In terms of disadvantages for having a focused research stream, the main one mentioned was that you could lose interest in the area. As Lord, the panelist who attested to dabbling the least noted, however, “I find it interesting to have a theory develop and get richer. If my leadership research was the same as 40 years ago, then I would be bored. But it’s not.”

To Dabble or Not to Dabble: Expert Advice

I asked the panelists what advice they would give to students and academics early in their careers regarding dabbling versus staying focused on a particular research stream. Several noted the need to dabble in order to better understand where you want to ultimately focus your interests. For example, Lord noted, “Students have to dabble a bit to find out what really excites them.” Of course, like any good academic, there are caveats, as he noted, “Yet there are advantages for staying focused. In both my research and that of most dissertations I’ve supervised, research usually doesn’t work out as well as it should on the first try. Conceptualization or methodology often needs refinement. Indeed, I often try to have students avoid doing a dissertation in an area that is completely new. If they do pick a new topic, then often a couple of pilot studies are required.”

Kanfer suggested that controlled dabbling is best in the early part of one’s career, noting the importance for students to pursue their scientific questions “in multiple ways: through a cumulative research stream and through the investigation of the science issues in practical contexts.” She added that, “Sometimes that takes you into new areas that can be very rewarding. Controlled dabbling can be energizing and lead to new insights. Uncontrolled dabbling can lead to an inability to create a coherent program of research. Think before you commit to dabble in an area about what you can learn, the resources you are willing to commit to the project, and how it may advance your broader program of research.”

Despite the belief that dabbling is not entirely bad, there was a consistent view that one should hold off on such activities until later in their careers. For example, Murphy advised that dabbling is not a good idea in the first 5 to 6 years, noting that, “It is important to build visibility, which requires a concentrated set of publications in a particular area.” He continued by advising students, “Build strength in some particular area first. Successful dabbling is usually a more senior faculty activity.” Similarly, Campion highlighted the importance of having one or more themes, especially early in one’s career, noting that “staying focused is important to establishing a thematic aspect of your publications so people can identify your contribution when it comes to getting promoted (and later in your career for fellowship).” Further extending the view that it is important to hold off on dabbling until later in one’s career, Arvey stated, “I would advise students to stay focused initially to get their careers jump started. Post tenure, do whatever you like. Follow your interests. Personally, I get bored if I stay in one content area too long. If you want to prevail in this career it is important to keep up your interests.”

Finally, a consistent theme that emerged in the advice from the experts was the need for continuous learning. As Kanfer noted, “In my opinion, a solid, well-rounded, and continuous learning approach is key to being able to dabble successfully while maintaining a cohesive research focus. The process of becoming an expert in a substantive area probably takes at least 15 years. Proactivity in creating connections between your areas, advances in other areas, and new practical problems probably contributes powerfully to sustaining interest in the area later in one’s career.” Of course, staying current on research, especially if you choose to dabble, is not necessarily an easy task. As Murphy, a self-proclaimed dabbler noted, “I read a lot in order to keep up with multiple interests, which can be a challenge but is also an opportunity to keep it interesting.” Then again, having this broad knowledge can be a source of pride. As Campion noted, “In the early stages of my career (first 10 years) I let my thematic areas drive my research for the reasons above. Since then, I have let my consulting (and availability of data), my student’s interests, and opportunities drive my research. I believe it has made me more productive. Also, I take great pride in knowing about a lot of different areas.”

Finally, Lord offered a great parting comment, regardless of whether one chooses to dabble or remain more focused on a particular research stream. He noted, “It is also important to recognize that doing research is a social process, so having fun at it also depends on the people you work with. I’ve been fortunate to have many really, really good colleagues—both at the faculty and graduate-student level. Further, with the development of the Internet, you can have colleagues all over the world. That makes research quite exciting.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules Winnfield, said in the movie Pulp Fiction, “If my answers frighten you, then you should cease asking scary questions.” I must admit that I had hoped to hear that dabbling was wonderful and that we should all go forth and dabble away. Whereas this was not the view of the panel as a collective, I was relieved to hear that there is a time and a place for dabbling, especially for controlled dabbling.
Now, off to work on some research. As for whether it is research in my primary interest areas or not…well, that’s a secret.