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Scanners and Divers in Academia

Updated on January 27, 2011

Are You a Scanner or a Diver?

There are two kinds of people in this world (according to Refuse to Choose author Barbara Sher): Those who can commit to a passion and "dive" into it for their whole life and those that have too many passions to pick just one and "scan" different interests over time.

I'm a scanner and sometimes I wonder if it makes being in academia more difficult. Most academics are divers. The whole process of becoming a PhD is diving into a field, exploring its depths, and establishing expertise. After all, academia is all about expertise and the assumption is that, in the 10 years or so from starting graduate school to reaching tenure, you've established yourself as the end-all-be-all authority on subject X.

Scanners, on the other hand, are generalists, not specialists. We're Renaissance Souls, as Margaret Lobenstine charitably calls us. Less charitably, we're dabblers. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. 

Both Sher and Lobenstine essentially make the same point: some people are inherently attracted to the act of learning and don’t want to be full-time, forever experts at one thing. Scanners are like honey bees. They flit from flower to flower, collecting what they need from each one. Success for them is collecting nectar from a variety of flowers, not sticking with one flower for a long time.

How can scanners make academia work for them?

One way is to pick a field that lets you explore lots of different phenomena through a set of established theoretical lenses. I'm in Communication Studies, which lets me study basically anything that looks, acts, or is remotely related to the use of symbols to convey meaning. (Try finding something that doesn't have a communication component.) I would think that other fields provide similar opportunities, especially in the free-for-all that is the Social Sciences and Humanities.

Another way is to use academia as an excuse to explore other interests. This is especially good advice once dissertation time rolls around. You're expected to go someplace interesting to do your research. The way I picked my dissertation topic wasn't based on theoretical questions I had a burning desire to answer. It was based on thinking about what I wanted to spend a year or more studying. Love pottery? Go talk to some master potters, enroll in pottery classes, go to pottery camp, read Pottery Lovers Digest, whatever. There's nothing wrong with coming up with research topics by thinking about what kind of research you want to do.

Finally, if you're completely preoccupied by other interests and/or have lost all enthusiasm for academia, you can always take time off. It's not necessarily the most practical move because it might necessitate moving and finding alternate income sources, but it's certainly an effective way to free up a lot of time and headspace. I took a year off between college and graduate school, and another between my second and third year (though this was partly forced due to medical issues). Sometimes it takes time away to get some perspective and clarity on what you want out of life -- and if academia should be a part of it.


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