What does it mean to be an expert?

Bill Stewart (1923-1997) was one of the most prolific botanists in southwestern Ontario in the second half of the 20th Century. He was co-author of the Guide to the Flora of Elgin County and published dozens of botany articles in his lifetime, including several peer-reviewed articles. He collected thousands of specimens which have been deposited in herbaria around Canada and the United States.

You might be inclined to call Bill an expert botanist, but he had no formal training in botany and his most advanced education was a diploma from a trade school in a small Canadian city. He was a tank operator in World War II and later a tool and die maker before landing a job as a technician at a local university. This got me thinking about what it means to be an “expert”. Some people believe that experts are obligated to have advanced university degrees or be employed in some official capacity in their field. But this seems unfair to people like Bill.

What do you think? Do experts need to be academics or scientists? Can one’s passion eventually become an expertise?


An amateur, is someone who is interested (may have observed for years / decades) but has no formal training.
A naturalist is an observer without formal training.


As someone with three degrees in biology and 20 years as a biologist, I can assure everyone that having a PhD doesn’t make one an expert in anything other than the very narrow topic that they studied (or are studying)–if that. So, I’m inclined to accept Merriam Webster’s definition: “having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience”. Anyone can be an expert in a very limited number of things–it requires nothing but curiosity and motivation.


It’s not that they have to be employyed, it just happens so in most of cases of big experts in a group, as well as you rarely find an expert in a taxon who never participated in any publishing.
As other said nothing required but your knowledge, I can’t find the pic, but there was a funny graphic of a growing botanist, so you can be a local expert on one level and some kind of a plant guru on the other one, an expert is a really broad term and one’s life can be unpredictable.


Amateurs can definitely be experts. An advanced degree can help you build expertise, but is certainly not a requirement. I think the key question to ask of an expert is, an expert in what?

For instance, I do have a PhD for which I studied the interactions between fire ants and fence lizards. However, on iNat my primary expertise is in identifying the species of anole lizards in the US which is based on experience and skills that I did not develop during my PhD. So in this case, knowing I have a PhD doesn’t say much about my expertise for what I primarily do on iNat.

That’s not to say that I don’t think my PhD helped me develop expertise. I definitely learned skills like critical thinking, observing carefully, attention to detail, etc. But all those are skills that people can readily develop outside a PhD program (or even a school in general)!

A PhD or any degree is just one line of evidence that someone may be an expert. The description of Bill’s work provides others: publications, working with museums, depositing specimens, spending time/putting in the work, etc. Based on that evidence presented, Bill Stewart definitely counts as an expert in my book!


That is one very deep question.

I’ve spent most of my working life around people who use what western cultures refer to as natural resources either for subsistence or for employment. The tension between state management bodies on one hand and people who fish, hunt, gather and husband wild things on the other usually comes down to exactly that question. The problem of reconciling putatively scientific methods (some of which are only passingly acquainted with the scientific method) with indigenous or local ways of knowing is central to important problems in fish, wildlife and forestry management in a bunch of places.

Anyway, there are a lot of ways to answer it but for me a true expert is somebody who knows enough to properly recognize the limits of their own understanding. By that definition they are pretty rare.


No, I don’t think so. My favorite example is Frederick W. Case Jr., a school teacher from Michigan, who, along with his wife Roberta B. Case, published the wonderful book Trilliums in 1997. He also compiled the comprehensive section on trilliums in the Flora of North America, and much more. I rely on his expertise daily.


There are many naturalists with formal training. My grad program in Vermont was specifically geared toward professional naturalist training, it’s even in the name of the program, the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning Program.

There are professional naturalist certificate programs at University of Florida, Utah State University, the University of California California Naturalist Program, others in many other states, a well as some coming up in India, like the PRONAT (professional naturalist training course) project offered by Pugdundee and the Wildlife Forestry Services. These certification courses are much shorter than a grad program and serve more to provide the initial professional training, not a comprehensive training like a university degree or many years of field experience does.


In the most simple form and expert is someone whose extensive knowledge on a particular subject is recognized by others who have the qualifications to recognize that expertise.

An academic background is not necessary. It can help someone become an expert faster, but that’s mainly because an academic setting provides an opportunity and environment for concentrated learning of a particular subject while surrounded by easily accessible resources and other professionals.


I have no degree at all. So far I have published 54 papers, almost all of which are peer-reviewed, and I have been selected to be on two serious scientific expeditions.

I have also donated material to several museums. I seem to be considered an expert in a few different areas.

If you work hard enough and long enough, and are demanding enough on yourself, I would say you can become an expert even without any degree and without any paid experience in the field.


I can’t speak to the specific programs you mentioned, and the program in Vermont sounds very interesting. But I will say that our “Master Naturalist” program here in Ontario is a joke specifically geared towards wealthy retired people, essentially giving them an intro into the identification of various taxa which could barely be considered amateur knowledge. Sure, some people probably use it as a starting point and then take their knowledge farther but the program itself gives the illusion of expertise.


I’m not at all saying that there aren’t bad naturalist programs out there. The certification programs, no matter what the subject, tend to be all over the place. The “Master Gardener” or “Permaculture” certification comes to mind… some are really excellent with in-depth knowledge imparted by reputable instructors, while others are no more than an expensive weekend of playing around.

The University of Vermont grad program is quite good and is a proper M.Sc. program, not a certification program. It’s extremely competitive to get in, very small, refuses to accept anyone straight out of undergrad (you need some real-world experience first) and requires a lot of work and self-motivation. A good experience over all though, and some really great people taking part in it.

@charlie and I went through the program at the same time. Oddly enough, Ontario seems to supply a not insignificant number of folks to the program.

As an aside, if you’re based in Ontario you probably know of the A2A collaborative, but if not they’re worth checking out. One of our classmates was on the board and has now moved into an advisor position, and I used to be an advisor for them as well.

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I understand the desire for experts to be identified and acknowledged. In many aspects of life there are people I respect and admire for their knowledge and wisdom - their expertise - in everything from making pies to modelling ecological communities. On the other hand, I’m not big on labels that all too often exempt their recipients from critical scrutiny and, whether it’s intended or not, reduce others to the category of nonexpert.

I’m a lapsed member of the American Fisheries Society (and several other academic clubs). I belonged for years because membership was a prerequisite for being taken seriously in some contexts. For example, when working as a consultant I was sometimes asked if I was a member by potential clients who believed (erroneously) that it reflected something more meaningful than my ability and willingness to part with the membership fees. I didn’t mind too much because getting the journals delivered to me was convenient. And I was able and willing to part with the fees. The AFS developed a certification program of sorts that allowed those with a certain employment and publication records to apply for their professional designation. Not many people I knew at the time ever bothered although I don’t know whether that reflects how things were in other peer groups or regions. Regardless, I know many people with limited or no formal training whose knowledge of fish, lake systems, wetland communities and whatnot is vastly more broad and nuanced than some of the “experts” revered within that group. They would never have been granted the certificate. I went to some meetings of the association and found them valuable but I’m an introvert by nature and not enthusiastic about parting with large sums of money so I didn’t go often. I am aware that the main thing I lost was a social network that is the main feature of these bodies and a major determinant of who gets called an expert. If you’re unorthodox and outside the club you’re always going to be suspect no matter what you know. I’ve sat through meetings in which profoundly brilliant and widely read people have been savaged by club members who didn’t have even a basic understanding of the work they were criticizing and where decisions were made using stereotypes and prejudices that were wholly unsupported by facts because some “expert” supported them.

If a person has a publication record that means something. The same is true of many other measures of competence employed in academia, business, the law or wherever. There is no formula that agglomerates all of those meaningful criteria into an objective measure of expertise.

Anyway, expert is one of those terms like leader, patriot or freedom-fighter. It’s what some people call other people who confirm their biases. The smartest, wisest, most constructive people I’ve known have all cringed when people called them experts.


Here’s what I think - and since I’m always right, it is the correct answer :laughing:
There is a huge gradient implied in that question. For example, I am more expert now in moth identification than I was when I started on iNat. But there are a number of people who have pored over the taxonomy of moths than me. I know at least one is a professional, but since I don’t know everyone’s background, I can’t say. So I’m less of an expert than they are.
I have argued for some time that ‘Amateur’ is a term that needs to resurrected. Much of the groundbreaking work in Natural history was done by people who just loved their subject. They learned by doing, and by thinking. It’s a noble term, because it encapsulates all levels of non-professional activity.
As @susanhewitt says, it’s possible to be a non professional and still be a highly skilled Amateur.


Perhaps that explains for me, beyond the USA, why iNaturalist uses a word that for me feels Victorian. On Walden Pond sort of thing.
I wish that training had been offered when I battled with zoology and botany.


That’s exactly why my response to the question posed was:

In the most simple form and expert is someone whose extensive knowledge on a particular subject is recognized by others who have the qualifications to recognize that expertise.

As for a person being published having additional meaning, in my experience that’s not necessarily the case, even if they are the lead author rather than a background contributor whose name was tacked on to the publication out of politeness or some contract requirement (I’ve seen that letter situation happen often).


I consider experts people who take the time to tell me why my ID was wrong, and explain it in detail, and I don’t understand a word they say. I love those people because their explanations gives me the concepts and words I need to continue learning. People like Nancy Collins who really knows her tree crickets, Valia Pavlou who may be 18 and live in Greece but is an expert on North American bird feathers, Ian Toal, who doesn’t like being called an expert, but has helped me learn a lot about moths, Ken Allison who is my bird guy and says he isn’t an expert too, Will Van Hemessen who shares his plant knowledge and many many other people willing to share their hard won knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm for nature. They may not agree they are experts in their field but they are experts at willingly sharing their knowledge and time with those eager to learn. I thank those named and the countless not named who have helped me learn.

PS. If you need a more concrete example of an expert that would be Chris Schmidt. I am sure he would find this amusing as well.



Not my point. My point is that publication record and other achievements are demonstrable facts but they don’t combine in any predictable way to provide a metric of actual expertise.

For the most part, the most accomplished people I’ve worked with over the years see themselves as perpetual students, not experts. Are there people who are bona fide experts, humility notwithstanding? Sure. Not a one of them has precisely the same qualifications as the rest or manifests “expertise” in exactly the same way. Are they all amazing people? Hardly. Expert excellence is about the work not the person.

My comment was prompted by the discussion of expert certifications. Certifications are inevitable for a bunch or reasons, not least because certificates are doled out by somebody who gets to set a price on receiving one. They will never be a reliable indicator of expertise; they will always miss a bunch of people possessed of deep insights on the subject being certified and they will always give some certificates to cronies, backslappers, blowhards, bullies, posers and frauds. Even the Nobel committee gets it wrong pretty regularly. Gold standard certificates will always be swamped by discount versions that offer framed proof of brilliance to any hack hanging out in a basement lab anywhere on the planet, as long as they pay. Most people won’t know the difference. That’s just life.

If you want to know who the real experts are you have to pay attention. And be prepared to be told you’re wrong by people whose standard of excellence is clearly wrong, at least to you.

They say, for musicians, that the difference between a beginner and a virtuoso is 10,000 hours of practice. I’ll simply suggest expertise applies to anything to which you’ve devoted 1000s of hrs of work, study, or practice.


I’m often called an expert, and at things for which I don’t believe I am. And I see that “expertise denial” often in others (and mentioned above as well…). In almost all cases of this, it is those less knowledgeable in a subject that are calling those that are more knowledgeable to be experts… so…

Expert(ise) is a qualitative measure of the knowledge differential between two persons.

Consider two people in a room, both having considerable knowledge on a subject but one more so than the other. The less knowledgeable person is going to refer to the other as the expert on the subject.Now imagine a third person who knows very little of the subject walks into the room… they are going to view them both as experts.

Where the “knowledge differential” is negligible or relatively small, one might refer to the other as a colleague or associate. Where the differential is great, it might be “teacher/student” labels that one refers to… or a host of other labels that put magnitude on the knowledge differential…

So while I am reluctant to think of myself as an expert, I will concede to being an expert relative to some, and a novice relative to others. But I much rather prefer to view it as:

"I can learn from many others, and share learnings with many more"