Researchers: Should You Be a Specialist?

Written

Researchers: Should You Be a Specialist?

Stanford scholars explore how the path you take affects your career prospects.
Illustration by Sam Island

It’s one of the first questions John-Paul Ferguson hears from the first year students in the strategy course he teaches each year at Stanford Graduate School of Business: Is it better to have a career as a specialist, or take the path less traveled and develop a broad skill set from a range of experiences and areas?

Ferguson and his colleague, Sharique Hasan, had their assumptions as to the answer, and it was easy to romanticize one notion over another. But the truth is, “It’s a very hard thing to know,” Ferguson says. “For most folks, we can’t tell.” There are far too many variables.

Then the professors got excited. If they looked at the officers in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) — the bureaucratic service of the government of India and one of the most prestigious careers in the country — there was a natural data set to study. Here were talented individuals chosen for a coveted sector. And once inside, they moved positions, without their control. That was the key: These more than 4,000 individuals selected for the IAS from 1974-2008 didn’t get to pick how generalized or specialized they were in the career paths to the coveted and highly selective positions within the system.

“The IAS can be thought of a system that sifts through the population to identify individuals with comparable high ability, assigns those individuals careers that vary in the diversity of the constituent experiences, and evaluates those individuals for a common set of rewards,” the authors write in their recent report for Administrative Science Quarterly. Ferguson and Hasan not only were interested in the question of specialization versus broad experience, but also they were interested in whether its importance varied at different stages of the officers’ careers. What they found was that specialization helps at all stages.

Early in the officers’ careers, the authors conclude, specialization signals general ability. Specialized officers get promoted more, but not necessarily to do jobs in their specialization. Later, those who have specialized are rewarded for the skills they have acquired. To some extent, specialization produced a self-fulfilling prophecy, “wherein people who specialize acquire skills and thus have incentives to continue specializing.”

A diverse work history, the study concludes, hurts one's chances of promotion.

Ferguson mentions that, if a person moves around from career to career, “you can’t tell if they’re good at everything or bad at everything. For most people, it makes sense to specialize.” A diverse work history, the study concludes, hurts one’s chances of promotion.

That said, Ferguson also wants to emphasize that one of the benefits of a student’s period in business school is the chance to experiment with different career options. “That’s the time when it doesn’t hurt them,” he says. “This is the chance they have to get a little bit of experience. You want to sample as many different kinds while you’re in business school.”

Given these findings, Ferguson and Hasan are now interested in taking the next step in their research. Whereas the IAS enabled them to explore a pool of employees changing jobs under one employer, the authors would next like to examine this question of specialization among candidates who change both jobs and employers.

John-Paul Ferguson and Sharique Hasan are assistant professors of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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