On becoming an expert outside your direct area of expertise

This week I received feedback that I need to act more confident in my role as expert. I recognize myself in this feedback, because often when I'm in a discussion about something neuroscience with someone who is not a neuroscientist, I come with all these nuances and considerations and find it hard to make very concrete statements. However, that is something that is needed when decisions need to be made about how to measure something or how to interpret literature.

This lead me to think about the difference of what you consider an expert on a topic in academia vs in industry (at least in my line of work).


My interpretation of the difference between being an expert in academia vs in industry. Not drawn to scale. Also, the yellow is a drawing from Little Brother that I thought would not be visible but clearly is.

In academia, after having completed a PhD thesis and some time as a post-doc, you can consider yourself an expert in those topics (even if it feels like there are others who are even more expert). I definitely feel confident making statements about subjects in those incredibly tiny circles. However, now that I am in industry I am supposed to be an expert in much larger areas in a group of people who know even less about this topic (along the lines of: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"). I have always been more of a generalist, so I like reading and thinking about these bigger areas (with dotted lines in the drawing because the areas change every now and then).

But I guess what comes next in this transition from the left circle to the right is to stand up in a meeting and either say:"I know that this is such and such and that's why I recommend this" or "I need to analyze this further and will come back to it". I need to figure out how much knowledge and analysis is needed to fulfill this role, because it is impossible to take the time to reach the expertise level from the left circle in my current job. And in academia, I feel I've been trained to withhold from any firm conclusions until you've looked at a topic from different viewpoints.

And I guess for a part it comes back to the question of how you become visible and get your opinion heard if you don't look like the prototype expert...?

2 responses so far

  • David says:

    Personally, I hate the fools who throw out concrete statements. Yes, they get attention (and often jobs/funding/etc), but they are also more often then not wrong. The world would be a better place if we could handle and accept uncertainty better.

    That said, I have also confused people by providing nuance that they didn't need or weren't ready to comprehend ("sand blasting a soup cracker").

    I agree with your two statements, when you know enough to have a recommendation, you say it. When you don't have the info, you say that. I think it's the most true to yourself and best for your company (in the long run). People respect that delineation, at least in my experience.

    The hardest part is getting started, as you say, when people don't automatically look for you when a problem needs a solution. Wish I had recommendations for that

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thanks for your comment 🙂 I guess the hardest part is to know when you know enough to get to a recommendation when you have limited time to search for information. Still work in progress for me at least.

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