The Problem of the 12 Hats

I can’t think of any other profession that requires quite the diversity of skills as a scientific academic. By the time you’re a tenure track professor, you are expected to be proficient in a dozen skill sets, each of which is sufficient for a profession in of itself [1]:

  1. researcher and expert
  2. statistician
  3. grant writer
  4. non-fiction writer
  5. public speaker
  6. diplomat
  7. visionary
  8. classroom teacher
  9. mentor and trainer
  10. accountant
  11. office manager
  12. recruiter

Note that I say proficient and not excellent. You need to be proficient in most of the core 12, but you need to be excellent in at least a handful of these 12 to make it to the tenure track in the first place. But how is one supposed to learn all these skills? As I pointed out, excellence in just one or two of these would qualify you for a (probably higher paid) job in industry. And yet, academics are supposed to master the whole suite.

In theory, that’s what graduate school (and postdoc positions) are all about: learning these skill sets – the things that will make you an excellent professor. But graduate school (and postdoc positions) are typically very skewed in the skills they teach. Here’s my rough break-down of typical training [2]:

  1. researcher and expert: classroom training, apprenticeship, trial-and-error
  2. statistician: classroom training, apprenticeship, trial-and-error
  3. grant writer: apprenticeship, trial-and-error
  4. non-fiction writer: apprenticeship, observation of others, trial-and-error
  5. public speaker: observation of others, trial-and-error
  6. diplomat: observation of others, trial-and-error
  7. visionary: trial-and-error
  8. classroom teacher: observation of others
  9. mentor and trainer: observation of others
  10. accountant: none
  11. office manager: none
  12. recruiter: none

And this leads to the 12 Hats Problem: namely, that academics are expected to be proficient-to-excellent in an impossibly wide range of skills. They’re expected to wear 12 big hats. And yet, it’s unachievable for one person to have mastered all those skills by early-to-mid career, and I don’t know anyone at any career stage who is excellent in all of them.

I think the most prominent tension is between the skills that are considered the skills of a scientist and the so-called soft skills that are the skills of a teacher. These days, a professor is typically expected to be quite good in both. R1 universities stress the former and primarily undergraduate institutions stress the latter. But I’ll argue that it makes a lot more sense to allow academics to specialize much more than they currently do.

For starters, classes on teaching are almost never required by graduate programs – and they’re often not even offered. Teaching is an acquired skill. Science pedagogy is an entire area of research. For many (most?) newly minted assistant professors, the first year’s teaching learning curve is brutal. Taking people who are excellent in a wide range of science-based skills and hiring them to perform a job for which they are novices is ludicrous. But somehow we think it’s normal.

I think there are many benefits for universities to start to hire people for narrower job responsibilities. Science might be more efficiently done if research scientists had lighter teaching loads. Students would almost surely benefit from having instructors for whom teaching isn’t a secondary job. Science teachers might feel more fulfilled, as they could justify spending more time on learning, pedagogy, and classroom prep. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that specializing would help with diversifying science. For those whose time and energy must be split between professional and non-professional endeavors – be they dependent care-giving, management of personal health conditions, or diversity advocacy – wearing only a half-dozen professional hats increases the feasibility of juggling academic and non-academic duties.

I’ve seen this begin to happen at the University of Minnesota. For the many general biology courses, the university is hiring Teaching Professors. These positions are tenure track and teaching heavy. Like at many liberal arts colleges, there is the expectation of some research during the summer. But in the case of Minnesota’s Teaching Professors, the research is expected to be pedagogical rather than domain-oriented.

I think this is great, but we could go even further. Do great teachers of general biology really need to have PhDs? I don’t think so. Why not create paths that combine a Master’s level research project with a teaching certificate? These would be professionals who have a good command of science knowledge, who understand research, who have connections to the research community, but who also understand pedagogy and are focused on teaching. We need both things, of course: scientists who are professional undergraduate-level teachers AND good-quality positions (i.e. permanent with benefits) offered by Universities. I think everyone would benefit.

I’ll end by saying that I’ve really only talked in depth about separating two major academic hats. I think there’s a lot to be gained by even further specialization. I expect that established academics will balk at the idea. After all, it’s (sometimes) fun to have so many hats, and change is always hard. But in academia, we know that subpar mentoring is a problem. Science outreach is a problem. The lack of tech transfer within academic science is a problem. And these problems all stem from the expectation that professors be experts in too many domains. To solve them, professors may need to doff some of their many hats.


[1] ^ And there are additional skill sets for which an academic might also show proficiency: editor, fundraiser, publicist, mathematician, computer programmer, construction engineer… You can probably think of more. I list the 12 core skills above that I think are generally required of everyone.

[2] ^ Definitions: classroom training = actual classes on skill set; apprenticeship = significant one-on-one training with an established academic; observation of others = witnessing others performing the skill set or the results of that performance of the skill set; trial-and-error = the chance to practice the skill set during grad school/postdoc years

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  1. Steve Heard

    We have Teaching Professors at the University of New Brunswick, too. They need not have PhDs (although some do) and the ones in my Department are excellent. But I think there’s an optimal level of separation of teaching and research: as an undergrad, I think it didn’t matter to me at all whether my 1st-year profs were doing research, but it mattered very much to me in upper-year classes. Of course, I will very carefully not specify precisely where the optimum lies!

    I’m less sure that we can doff many of the other hats. Collaboration helps to some extent; but I’m not sure how I’d be able to remain strong at research without being reasonably strong at stats; and who other than me could write grants and papers about my work? I won’t go through the whole list, but I think the key is training more hats, not (much) taking them off.

    I share your impression that academics wear more hats than most. But I wonder if people in other careers would agree – I wonder how many hats politicians wear, for example?

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      > there’s an optimal level of separation of teaching and research

      Totally agreed. I had some wonderful upper-level classes as an undergraduate, where cutting-edge research was integrated into the classroom. I think this would have been difficult to achieve if the classes were taught by someone not actively practicing research. And yes, I’m not sure exactly where the optimum is, either.

  2. David Mellor (@EvoMellor)

    My instinct is that people who work in start ups, small businesses, and non-profit organizations also suffer from (or are enamored with) multi-hat syndrome. One difference is that in academia, there is this supposed period of training to prepare students for a position that has many more hats than the training covers. This is both better than the start-up or non-profit world, where training is almost exclusively none or trial and error, and worse, because the training academics receive is billed as comprehensive preparation. I’d be interested to learn more about the personality types that are attracted to and excel in positions that require many hats, and the range in “hat numbers” between different professions and industries.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Agreed. The many hats problem is not unique to academia. I come from the computer sciences, where jobs are highly specified. I also worked for a bit for a family business. That required a number of hats: domain expertise, accounting, strategic planning, marketing, etc. But I don’t think I could get up to 12.

      I am definitely someone who likes a diversity of jobs. But the older I get, the more I realize that there are other people who are much better than I am at Thing X, and that I am more *efficient* at my job if I develop a collaboration, rather than try to learn Thing X myself. (Although I really *enjoy* learning.)

      1. Alex Bond

        As a non-academic scientist, the only one of those hats I don’t wear is “classroom teacher”, but slightly analogous is “partner development”, which is teaching in a different context. I also tend to play a role in large organization-wide projects (either providing direct scientific input, or representing the views/experiences of some of our scientists).

  3. Simon Leather

    Interesting post, but you left out the ability to write fiction – a skill apparently required when writing grant applications, certainly my impression from reviewing many of them 🙂

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