PhD students often choose research areas and methodologies in their first or second years. It helps them develop early in their academic careers competence in selected subareas and research methods and distinguish themselves from fellow researchers. But, this seemly rational approach may later turn out to be irrational for a couple of reasons. It is particularly the case when the early decision serves to justify students’ not making much of an effort to learn about other subareas and analytical tools not actively used in their chosen subareas.
Firstly, researchers never know for sure – even if they feel confident at the time of decision – what questions they end up answering in the future. Confining themselves to particular research areas and methodologies in an early stage of their academic careers is like a golfer choosing an iron before seeing where to fly a ball, or an engineer selecting tools before knowing what to make. Secondly, research amounts to connecting dots (a metaphor for innovation used by Steve Jobs in his popular Stanford commencement speech in 2005), and the easiest way of increasing the scope of dots to which one is exposed is to explore subareas within the area they major. If widening the spectrum of dots helps one connect and rearrange them to innovate and, say, an economics PhD student choose to be specialized in industrial organization, it is the most efficient for her to explore other subareas of economics such as macroeconomics, econometrics, and financial economics before turning her eyes to relatively distant areas such as anthropology and chemistry.