Should You Be a Specialist?

June 17th, 2016 No Comments Features


To specialise or not to specialise? It’s becoming a very good question, especially for graduates facing today’s tough job market. Where not long ago it was best to be well-rounded, it is now perhaps smarter to go the technical/vocational route if you want to make any money. But is this really true? Is there any hope for liberal academia, for the polymath-minded individuals who only want to explore and pursue multiple passions? Below we examine the arguments for and against specialising at university, with the help of researchers, experts, and employers who know the issue inside and out.

Main Reasons to Specialise

Greater Chance of Promotion

John-Paul Ferguson and Sharique Hasan, both assistant professors of organisational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that specialising may increase your chances of promotion.

Surveying officers at the Indian Administrative Service (IAS)—the bureaucratic service of the government of India and one of the most prestigious employers in the country—they found that a diverse work history may actually harm one’s chances of being promoted.

Ferguson and Hasan were not only interested in the question of specialisation versus broad experience, but also whether its importance varied at different stages of the officers’ careers. What they found was that specialisation helps at all stages.

Early in the officers’ careers, specialisation seemed to signal general ability. Specialised officers got promoted more, but not necessarily to do jobs in their specialisation. Later, those who had specialised were rewarded for the skills they had acquired. To some extent, specialisation produced a self-fulfilling prophecy, “wherein people who specialise acquire skills and thus have incentives to continue specialising.”

But in that sense, a diverse work history hurt their chances of promotion.

If a person moves around from career to career, Ferguson explains, “you can’t tell if they’re good at everything or bad at everything. For most people, it makes sense to specialise.”

If people want to experiment with different career options, Ferguson says, they should do it during university. “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.”

Less Competition

“As you specialise, fewer and fewer people are vying for fewer and fewer jobs,” writes Lisa Aberie for Get Rich Slowly. “By being a generalist, you may get many different types of jobs, but more people are vying for those positions.”

Justin Louie, writing for TalentEgg, explains it this way: “In general, the more specialised one becomes, the less competition there is for one’s job. Engineers who develop highly advanced skills in very specific fields can eventually find themselves niche roles within their organisations. A niche role is a job that is crucial for a company’s success but that is also extremely specialised, which means that few people will have the training and experience necessary to perform this job correctly. As long as their roles exist, engineers employed in niche jobs have excellent job security.”

Bigger Client Base

“It’s really difficult to market a product or service, whatever it may be, when your target customer is ‘everyone,'” says Hanna Brooks Olsen, co-founder of Seattlish. “If you’re a capable photographer, you’ve probably been approached for all kinds of jobs… but there isn’t really a customer who needs someone who can shoot a wedding and a breaking news event and also a concert. You aren’t going to be one person’s personal shoot-everything photographer. Instead, there are lots and lots of customers, Googling and asking around for one specific kind of photographer. And they are most likely to opt for a photographer who is great at the one thing they need, because they really, really want their photos to be perfect. They don’t care about what else you do; they want someone who’s excellent at what it is that they need, and they want someone whose brand story– their messaging, imagery, social presence, and services– meet their needs.”

Make More Money

“In every professional field, those at the top making the most money and profit are those that specialise and find a lucrative niche,” writes PetaPixel’s Alex Ignacio. “All doctors go to medical school, but typically the speciality surgeon makes much more money than the general practitioner. I’m not saying that’s right or fair, but it’s the truth.”

At the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, students have the unique opportunity to obtain employment with more than 250 global corporate partners, both before and after graduating. The College has helped create and retain thousands of high-tech jobs, with an average annual salary of $81,000.

President Robert E. Geer puts it this way: “Opportunity only knocks once.” And sooner rather than later, if you specialise.

Leaves Time for Passions

“Specialising doesn’t mean you need to abandon your hobbies or passions,” Olsen says. “In fact, specialising in the business aspect can help create a nice delineation between work and life. Skills that you enjoy growing, but may not necessarily be applicable for your business (for example, you run a craft business but are also a great cook or have an interest in botany) make you a more diverse person, and can help feed your soul.”

In other words, specialising can actually be less stressful than not specialising. If you want to keep work and personal life separate, this may be the way to go.

Helps Us Organise the World

“Once upon a time you could be a biologist,” said Benjamin F. Jones, an economist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Now the accumulation of knowledge is such that biologists, for example, must specialize in an array of microdisciplines like evolutionary biology, genetics and cell functions.”

He adds: “At the turn of the 20th century, the Wright brothers invented the airplane; today the design of the jet engine calls upon 30 different disciplines requiring a vast array of specialised teams.”

In the information age, progress often hinges on individuals who have unique skills and specialties. In other words, we need people to process information for us. It’s no longer feasible for one person to do everything or know everything, and so in specialising in your chosen field, you are actually doing human kind a favour.

Main Reasons Not to Specialise

Gaining the Full Perspective

“In an attempt to address the nation’s need for a ready workforce, some argue that early specialisation, preferably in a professional discipline, is key,” writes Linda H. Halisky of the College of Liberal Arts at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. “What experience and research are showing us, however, is that such an agenda would likely work against us.”

Halisky cites writer Tony Golsby-Smith as someone who has pointed to the limitations of an education focusing more on skills that prepare us to “control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data” and less on the aptitudes necessary to “navigate the ‘what if’ questions” the real world presents.

She also quotes New York Times columnist David Brooks as saying that talents like the “ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer” and the ability to “see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations” are critical to our future success.

“Such abilities,” Halisky insists, “are honed by the study of such things as literature, history, philosophy, and art.”

If students specialise, they may miss out on becoming “whole persons” who live rich and meaningful lives and address complex problems.

All About Timing

The trouble with specialising, says Peter Cappelli for the Wall Street Journal, is that “nobody can predict where the jobs will be—not the employers, not the schools, not the government officials who are making such loud calls for vocational training.” The economy is simply too fickle to guess way ahead of time, he says, and choosing the wrong path could make things worse, not better.

“The trend toward specialised, vocational degrees is understandable, with an increasing number of companies grumbling that graduates aren’t coming out of [university] qualified to work, but guessing about what will be hot tomorrow based on what’s hot today is often a fool’s errand.”

Cappelli cites the boom-to-bust history of the IT industry as an example: “Students poured into IT programs in the late 1990s, responding to the Silicon Valley boom, only to graduate after 2001 into the tech bust.”

Specialising could be very risky in this sense.

Don’t Pigeon-hole Yourself

“It may be worse to have the wrong career focus in college than having no career focus,” Cappelli says, “because skills for one career often can’t be used elsewhere.”

Focusing on a very specific field also means that you miss out on courses that might broaden your abilities, he says. “Courses that teach, say, hospitality management or sports medicine may crowd out a logic class that can help students learn to improve their reasoning or an English class that sharpens their writing. Both of those skills can help in any field, unlike the narrowly focused ones.”

Researchers Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang have found that more vocationally focused education in secondary school appears to limit adaptability to changing labor markets later in life. “The same thing may be true in college,” warns Cappelli.

In some fields, like engineering, the only way in is with a specialised degree. “Students with one of these degrees will have an easier time getting their first job in the field than students with liberal-arts degrees,” Cappelli admits. “After the first job, though, it is not clear how much advantage that practical degree has.”

Multi-disciplinary Appeal

Josh Payton, Vice President of User Experience at Huge, a digital design agency, says he’s often faced with two types of job applicants. “One has years of experience, an impressive portfolio of work and a specialty that took years to hone. That candidate discusses their job history engagingly, within the parameters of what is known and what has come before. The other candidate is young– sometimes almost ridiculously so– and is only held back by a lack of experience. That candidate never talks about history, but about what she wants to learn, where she thinks the world is going, and what kinds of products she wants to develop there. The second candidate is the smarter hire.”

Jon Stein, founder and CEO of Betterment, agrees. “For the past several decades, the specialist has held sway. Don’t be a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades, they advised. You’ll confuse the people who would hire you. They won’t value the skills you offer, like the ability to bring together facets of multiple disciplines. Instead, they’ll view you as a dilettante, less than serious about your career and intellectual pursuits.”

This just isn’t the case anymore, Stein says.

“Overspecialisation has its victims: think of the unemployed factory workers and mortgage brokers trying to figure out what to do next. Think of the housing experts who did not realise that their economic models were wrong until it was way too late. We’ve been living with the results.”

According to the research of University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Philip Tetlock, the multidisciplined are more likely to sense a general pattern, with the result that they are better at predicting outcomes– both good and bad– than supposed experts.

“The generalist is an idea surfer, riding the waves of various disciplines, synthesising information to create a unique view of the world,” Stein says. “She is polymorphous in thought and flexible in action. She is the person who can handle multiple demands.”

Not the Program But the Perspective

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, says it’s not the program you choose that turns you into a specialist or a generalist; it’s your own personal mission once you’re in a program.

“I don’t think there’s anything ‘liberal’ about specialising in philosophy compared to specialising in business,” he says. “When you have a liberal education, you’re not just a technician. You’re able to move among fields. We don’t want you just to be an academic expert to please a professor. That’s just making believe you’re a mini-professor and you want to grow up to be a big professor.”

In that sense, specialising or generalising is ultimately a matter of perspective. Even within a “liberal arts” college, you can end up specialising, just as in a vocational program you can choose to be a general practitioner. The thing is to follow your passion, and the right path will choose you.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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