Specialization and career dynamics: Evidence from the Indian Administrative Service

Specialization and career dynamics: Evidence from the Indian Administrative Service

Administrative Science Quarterly.
2013, Vol. 58, Issue 2, Pages 233-256

In this article, we attempt to resolve the tension between two conflicting views on the role of specialization in workers’ careers. Some scholars argue that specialization is a net benefit that allows workers to get ahead, while others argue that broad experience across several domains is the only way to be truly exceptional. We use rich longitudinal data from 1974 to 2008 on the careers of Indian Administrative Service officers, members of the Republic of India’s elite bureaucratic service, to test both these hypotheses. We find that specialization benefits officers throughout their career. We distinguish between skill-based and signal-based mechanisms that relate specialization to promotion, by exploring the match (or lack thereof) between the skills officers acquire and the jobs to which they are promoted, and we find that both mechanisms operate, but at different points in the career. Specialization is rewarded later in officers’ careers because of the skills they acquire by specializing. Earlier in their careers, skills are less important; it appears that specialization benefits officers because it is a signal of general ability. These results contradict studies that find that specialization helps early in careers but fades with experience, but they also call into question the idea that specialization always reflects accumulated skill. Our results support both types of theories but suggest important scope conditions for when one mechanism or the other is likely to dominate.