Sustainable versus Disposable Knowledge

Many postdocs I talk to feel the knowledge they have acquired has made them ill-equipped for anything other than basic research or teaching, often limited to their specific area of expertise. This is understandable, given our often extreme focus on learning methods and creating output such as papers that really only have a meaning to employers within our own research world.

But what if all that was required to open up career opportunities was a shift in the way you think about what you know? What if you found a way to make your knowledge and experience ‘sustainable’ and therefore transferable to a completely different context?
Business coach Roger Hamilton describes a really useful distinction to make when learning something new:
1.    Disposable knowledge: a skill that will become redundant in the future. This may be learning a new technology, a specific scientific method or transient procedures for administration or lab management.
2.    Sustainable knowledge: a skill or capability that is transferrable to other areas of life and other projects, such as critical and analytical thinking, communicating effectively when writing or speaking, and managing people.
Given this distinction, there are 2 key considerations when making decisions about what to learn next:
1.    Is it a disposable knowledge for you? If yes, do you really need to learn it or can you outsource? Acquiring some disposable knowledge is an inescapable necessity – but you can certainly work to minimise it. Outsourcing could take the form of:
a.                      a collaboration with a colleague who already has the knowledge (such as a skills using a specific technique or knowledge of specific literature outside your field);
b.                      a paid service (if you have the resources); or
c.                       taking on a student to do the work. Obviously for the sake of the student you need to have some knowledge of the area to get the student started, but you do not need to be an expert if you can arrange a co-supervision arrangement with someone who has mastery in the area.
2.    How can you turn disposable knowledge into sustainable, ‘evergreen’ knowledge? This is where you fundamentally shift your thinking about your knowledge and skills. Below are a few examples of how this may play out:
a.                      Within your research field and the techniques you use, what is the knowledge that you will still use in 10 years time? And what is the core knowledge you would still be using if you worked in a different field or a different industry? Examples may be: analysing large data sets; exercising flexibility and high-level problem solving skills when working in the field away from easy access to resources; negotiating agreements or coordinating activities in groups; mentoring junior colleagues (students); and so on.
Once you have identified these areas of your existing sustainable knowledge, take the next step and educate yourself on how to improve even further in these areas. Start reading about leadership, how to manage groups, different techniques of solving problems or reaching agreements with others. These transferrable skills are key to many different industries and there are many resources on how to increase your level of mastery of these sustainable skills. 
b.                      You have had to deal with a difficult boss or a student who is not performing. If you look at this as a one-off learning experience that you just don’t want to repeat, you have only gained disposable knowledge. The single long-lasting effect may be avoidance behaviour that has you running in the opposite direction when faced with someone who reminds you of the person you had problems with.
To turn this experience into sustainable knowledge you have to dig a little deeper: you want to find out why this relationship didn’t work. Were there specific points when the relationship deteriorated and could you have avoided the deterioration or managed it better? You may want to educate yourself more about personality types, both your own and that of the other person to understand where potential misunderstandings originated and how you can avoid such issues. Essentially you want to generalise what you learned with this one person and avoid the problem in the future, rather than avoid this type of person.
c.                      You have been involved in extracurricular activities such as organising seminars, contribute to committees or helped organise a conference. What is the overriding knowledge you gained, such as practice in time management, organising people, working and delivering to a tight schedule etc.? Remember not to discard bad experiences. If you were subjected to boring and unproductive meetings as part of someone else’s committee, do some research on how to run a good meeting, so you don’t put others through the experience! Talk to someone who has a good reputation for running meetings or read up on the subject. This will create sustainable knowledge that will open opportunities for you rather than lead to avoidance behaviour.
As you can see there is a large amount of sustainable knowledge that you can distill out of your everyday activities, simply by looking at your postdoc work taking a broader and more future-oriented view. Focusing on sustainable knowledge and improving your skills in activities associated with it will set you up well for any career you may choose.
The aim of our PostdocTraining program is to do a lot of the reading and filtering of information for you, to come up with a practical training that improves sustainable skills to better manage projects and your time for increased productivity and output. We also tackle difficult issues such as negotiation, managing people and effective networking.
If you would like to know more about our program, please introduce yourself on the top of the blog page (go back to 'home' on the top tab) and you will get access to our 19-page free report, covering carefully selected sustainable knowledge that will give your career a boost.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

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