Musings on learning a new (to me) subfield

The other day, a student left my office, beaming. She and I had just finished discussing some project ideas she might pursue, with me serving as a technical mentor (and mentor in general). I was also beaming—the projects and the potential collaborations sound exciting! There’s lots of stuff of interest to pursue!

Then I put my head on my desk and groaned, as the Impostor Syndrome and doubts started to creep in.

For much of my career, I have been a Networking Person. Not as in “someone who schmoozes and hands out business cards” or “one who is always on Facebook” (ok, maybe that latter one is true), but as in someone working in the field of computer/communications networks. I was a Networking Person when I was still an electrical engineer. I was a Networking Person in my Master’s project and PhD dissertation. I was a Networking Person in my post-doc. I am “the” Networking Person at Carleton. I do research in the broad areas of Computer Networks, publish most of the time in networks-related conferences, journals, and workshops. I always have, and continue to enjoy, networks as a field (other that the dismal percentage of women)—I find the field fascinating, the possibilities endless. I geek out on RFCs and traceroute; an afternoon playing with Wireshark is my idea of fun.

However, lately I’m finding that I have a new passion in an entirely different subfield. It started off as mainly a teaching interest: a module in a Software Design course, a dyad, and eventually an A&I (freshman) seminar. At some point I realized I was actually doing some of this stuff in my research. And then I started working on a project where this other subfield is as much a part of the project as the Networking part. And started getting excited about other projects—like the one at the start of this post—that are clearly and firmly in this subfield.

I think this means that I’m not just a Networking Person anymore. I’m well on my way to being a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Person.

When I was just “dabbling” in the field, or just teaching it, I felt more comfortable with this dual role—perhaps because Networking Persona was still the dominant persona. But as time goes on, that’s becoming less true. It’s definitely not half-and-half, but it’s getting close. HCI Persona is here to stay, and is growing. I’m just as fascinated, and sometimes more fascinated, with the HCI research questions in this project (and in general) as I am with the networking questions.

And this has me somewhat panicked. Philosophically, I’m thinking about the point of the PhD. Is the point more to make you an expert in a tiny corner of your chosen subfield? Or is it more to teach you the skills you need to become an expert in a tiny corner of any subfield? Some skills obviously do transfer—how to do a literature search, how to evaluate sources and conferences and journals, how to learn something quickly, how to envision further extensions and applications of a concept. But a lot of your time in graduate school is learning a particular piece of a particular subfield: what are the seminal works and ideas? what is the main corpus of knowledge and main skill set that everyone in this subfield should have and know? what are you going to be the expert in?

To what extent are you “stuck” in your subfield post-PhD? And how far afield can you go, successfully?

In some respects, this whole internal discussion and line of questioning is moot, because I’ve clearly already headed down the HCI Persona road and don’t particularly want to turn back. But it is something I continue to reflect on, as I work hard to catch up to speed on something I have never, ever formally studied.*

Have you gone far a(sub-)field of your dissertation subfield, or discipline? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

* The irony is not lost on me that I’m choosing to stress about switching subfields within the same discipline, when in fact I switched an entire FIELD and have never formally studied the field in which I now work.