At the recent Computational Neuroscience meeting in Berlin, Jim Bower suggested that theoreticians need to have the experience of actually doing some experiments in order to understand the nature of experimental design and data collection (and their limitations). This, of course, is a two-way street, and experimental Neuroscientists need to be familiar with theory related to neuronal systems in order to appreciate the functional significance of the biological systems they study. Certainly, the funding agencies that be are interested in collaborative efforts. So, to what extent should one person attempt to do both theory and experiment? and to what extent should we allow ourselves to specialize and then collaborate with other experts? Perhaps there can be a number of successful strategies... Should we seek the grass on the other side of the fence dividing theory and experiment? or should we specialize in our own pasture?
Jim Bower's response (transplanted from comments):
Unfortunately, I don't think one really has much choice. The separation between experimental and theoretical endevors in physics (which is often taken as a model for everything else these days) is only relatively recent, and depends on the existence of a sold computational framework for the field. We don't have such a framework, although I hope we are in the building process (sometimes I wonder). That process in Physics required scientists who were as familiar with experiment as theory - it is my view that this will be even more the case with biology.
For postdocs there is, however, another and much more practical issue - what configuration is most salable in the market - having supervised many postdocs with now successful careers, and having sat on many faculty search committees (in biology, engineering, computer science AND physics), candidates with experience in both have always been ranked higher than those without (and not only by me). So, my advice given in Berlin and now here, is that if you want to optimize your success in the job market - you should seek both experiences. Which, in my view, also turns out to be the right thing to do to advance our science.
Last point, when you are a faculty member, one quickly becomes a "master of none" anyway - best to be able to supervise a diverse set of masters = based on one's own diverse training. IMHO
I guess nobody disagrees that some experience in both areas,
experiment and theory, helps to understand the problems each side is
facing and to eventually bring projects closer together.
However, I have seen what was called interdisciplinary research, but
done, to my mind, the wrong way. A well-trained mathematician was
building a rather complicated experimental set-up over about nine
years for his PhD, while a, also well-trained, experimental physicist
was doing theory. Both got it right after some time. Nonetheless, I
suggest to do what you are good at--it might be more than one thing,
though--, and try to merely look over the shoulders of people who do
things you are less good at.
Otherwise you loose valuable time. This would outweighed the benefit,
unfortunately, as far as your academic career is concerned.
So Jim, in his reply, points to an important question: what
configuration is most salable in the market? He is right that
candidates with experience in both fields are ranked higher. But there
is an "if". They are ranked higher, if they are the same age group,
if they are (believed to be) capable to represent the chair they apply
for also in the broad scope needed for teaching, if ...
In short, if most of the other qualifications are the same, it is
a plus to have worked across disciplines.
So the question is what does it outweigh? I can't say, but would be
curious to hear your experience.
Here is another question. What if you are actually really good at
different fields/areas/disciplines? In that case, I really suggest to
work in each these disciplines, but you should be aware of the
side effect that after some point members of faculty search committees
might not know how to frame you.
I, for example, started my career in the field of experimental
physics, but began to complemented this in two directions: by
theoretical methods of nonlinear dynamics and by methods of biomedical
engineering (the engineering approach is different from experimental
physics, plus the biological part). My first post-doc was in a
department of Psychology, and thus I became influenced by
psychophysical methodologies. Than I continued in a clinic of
neurology and now work in an institute of theoretical physics.
Did it any good to me? Well yes. But the important fact, in my case,
was that I almost always worked on a single problem but from using
different methodologies. That made it easy to get funding for I
could use papers from former times to convince the funding agencies.
Also, at some point, I became well respected in my research community
and have lots of contacts. But if you switch both disciplines and
research topics and this even several times, you are in deep troubles
in academia, although you might be very well educated for the world