Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Rise of the "Expert Generalist"

Swiss Army Knife


I've always appreciated the value of having a very broad range of knowledge, but recently I've observed many cases that reminded me how important it is. Growing up I worked on tractors and engines and rebuilt many mechanical devices. Later I learned how to machine metal and weld. As it turned out all of those skills and the knowledge gained have been incredibly helpful in graduate school since I happen to work with large hydraulic and mechanical systems that have all custom parts!

It turns out that as our fields all become more connected through increased interdisciplinary collaboration we all must become an "expert generalist". As geoscientists, we are always faced with writing new code, logging new types of data, or becoming GIS experts. Knowing just a little about many fields opens up entirely new ways that you can start to approach a problem. If that approach looks promising then you can become an "expert" or consult with one, but this novel approach would likely have remained hidden without any knowledge of the field.

The main message of the 99u article (linked at the bottom) is:

One thing that separates the great innovators from everyone else is that they seem to know a lot about a wide variety of topics. They are expert generalists. Their wide knowledge base supports their creativity.

As it turns out, there are two personality traits that are key for expert generalists: Openness to Experience and Need for Cognition.

Let's take a look at the two qualities mentioned and see how we can apply them.

Openness to Experience
Creating new content and ideas is really just a merging of concepts that we already know into a complete framework or mental model of examining the problem at hand. That means that we need a large body of knowledge to draw from. While this sounds like a good idea in practice, it isn't easy to do. We have to be open to meeting with people and learning about concepts that may seem completely irrelevant right now. We have to read papers that are out of our fields and realize that we all work on the same field, just different parts of it.

In an effort to broaden my knowledge I've added a component to my Friday review process: the fun paper reading. Every Friday morning while organizing the end of the week and setting up the next week I find a paper that is out of my research area and read it. These papers range from the geometry of parallel parking, to lightning science, to the fluid dynamics involved with sinking bubbles in a pint of Guinness.

Need for Cognition
The second characteristic described is one that most of us already have. It is the drive to be that person always asking "why?". When driving down the road on a hot summer day and you see the road "shimmer" do you keep going or wonder what is happening? Most of us would go look it up and read all about autoconvection. While some may call this going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, it is essential to build time into our schedules to allow this kind of free exploration.

What can we as geoscientists take from all of this? We should always be broadening our horizons, making many connections with people in all areas, and not forget that we are all working on the same problem... understanding our world.

99u: Picasso Kepler and the Benefits of Being an Expert Generalist

NSF Graduate Fellowships - Some Thoughts and Tips

While this post may not appeal to the general audience, I thought it would be useful because it is an important topic to any senior undergraduate or first/second year graduate student. Today I want to briefly tell you my experience applying for the NSF Graduate Fellowship in 2012 and 2013.  I learned a lot in the process of applying for this prestigious fellowship and hope that I can pass some of that knowledge down!

Application 2012 - No award

My first year at Penn State, I applied with the traditional three documents of research statement, personal statement, and research proposal.  I sought the edits of those who had been awarded the fellowship in the past and thought I had a convincing packet assembled.  After reading, re-reading, and re-reading, it was time to submit.  I submitted the application, then made the mistake of reading over it again a week later and finding things I wished I had changed.  Months went by and seemed to drag on until the award announcements came.  I was not selected for an award.  While I was of course disappointed, it was time to kick it into high gear and make an even better application for my next (and final) try.

Application 2013 - Award Offered

For my second application I had lots of debates with myself.  Should I change my research proposal topic? Were my personal and research statements too similar? How can I improve the writing? Should I include figures?

To settle these debates, I turned to the wealth of online information that I hadn't sought out the previous year.  I talked with those who had received the award, I read funded research proposals from various professors and researchers, and I went down to the bare bones of the document.  While I'll discuss specific tips below, I'll just say that I started earlier, took more pauses between writing sprints, and sought more people for reading.

My tips

In writing two proposals, I learned a lot about how to effectively structure my research and emphasize the specific angle of attack I'll take on a research question and why it's different.  Here are some things I found to be helpful:


  • Start Early - Think it's too soon? Wrong! You need lots of time to organize your thoughts, revise, rewrite, and think about your application.
  • Read the Announcement - Print out the announcement document and read it critically.  You can look at the 2014 announcement here.  Don't just read it, mark on it. Highlight what they specifically are looking for, underline the buzzwords and key phrases of the call.  Also, draw a big box around the application deadline and then plan to beat it by one week.  Why? Computer problems, server crashes, unexpected medical emergency, etc.  You don't know what could happen, so make sure that your application gets in early!
  • Make a FastLane Account - Go to the online application and make an account.  Get familiar with FastLane, you'll use it for most all of your NSF proposals unless they change sometime in the future! Look at the application.  Go ahead and fill in the boxes with your name, address, etc.  Now you can mark down progress on your application and have momentum to move forward with the hard work.
  • Write the Requirements for your statements out on Paper - This one is huge.   In the application, pull up the research proposal and background/personal statement "prompts."  Print them, read them many times, and finally write them down on a notepad.  Break the prompt up into small chunks and then think about how to answer each piece.  Don't worry about flow, just think.
  • Brain Dump - Now write each one of the pieces of the question on the top of a page and begin to outline the points that you will make to address it.  Again, don't worry about order or how many points you have! Just write and write and write.
  • Organize into an Outline - Take a break, a day or so, then come back to your brain dump afresh and think about how you can piece it together into one coherent story - your story.  The story of a proposed research project and the story of you and your life in science.
  • Make a Draft - It does not need to be pretty, organized, the right length, etc.  Just get complete sentences onto the page.  Do this on paper or in a plain text editor.  Don't worry about formatting, length, spacing, margins... Those are things for later in a word processor.  I like using Textastic, Sublime, TextWrangler, or Editorial.
  • Read it and Have Lots of People Read it - Don't be afraid to ask everyone to read and edit your document.  Do not ask them to re-write the document for you! Remember this needs to come from your brain, but it is fine to gather suggestions and comments.  I also went to the graduate writing center and had some great suggestions from the coach there.  As scientists, we are not used to marketing ourselves and we often think the need for our research is obvious.... That won't work.
  • Talk to Your Reference Writers - You'll need letters of reference.  These take lots of time to write, so make things easy on your mentors and writers.  They have done a lot for you and are about to help out again.  I went through the application, figured out what I thought would be important to my application reviewers and then composed an email to my writers (see below).
  • Do NOT Cram - Whitespace is a dear friend to someone who is reading many pages of documents... like your judges.  Don't pack every single word you possibly can into the pages.  Economy of words shows great thought and restraint when writing.  Edit down over and over.  Leave white space between paragraphs.  If you use figures, text wrapping is a fine way to reclaim space, but leave a sufficient margin.  Look at books and other professionally formatted documents for inspiration.


Here are links to documents I produced for both applications, of course don't plagiarize, but hopefully they are helpful!

NSF 2012 (No Award)
Personal Statement | Previous Research | Proposed Research

NSF 2013 (Award Offered)
Research Statement | Personal & Background Statement |
Letter to Reference Writers


There are several other helpful webpages out about the application process.  Remember, what you read on the program site is the final word, but these pages have more useful tips.

GRFP Essay Insights (Missouri)
Alex Lang's Website
Jennifer Wang's Website
Reid Berdanier's Website
The Official NSF GRFP Page
NSF PAPP Guide Book

Remember, if you don't get the award, take the feedback you get and start improving! Try, try again and don't be afraid to seek help from mentors, writers, friends, and family.  Please leave any useful comments below. Best of luck!