Future of Work

Generalists or specialists: who do employers value more?

A cup of tea is seen on an office table at the Tregothnan Estate near Truro in Cornwall January 15, 2013. Tregothnan is bucking an historic trend by growing tea in England and exporting almost half of it abroad, including to tea-growing nations like China and India. Owned by a descendant of 19th century British Prime Minister Charles Grey, after whom the Earl Grey tea blend was named, the Tregothnan estate has been selling tea since 2005 and currently produces around 10 tonnes a year of tea and infusions. Picture taken January 15, 2013.

In some cases, specialists earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers. Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Rosamond Hutt
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Is it better to acquire a broad range of skills and experience across a range of disciplines, or to become an expert in one field? It’s a question that many of us ask ourselves. Not only as students weighing up college options, but also throughout our careers.

While generalists vs specialists is an age-old debate, it turns out that one type is more attractive to employers. Someone who can ‘wear many hats’ is more likely to be offered a job than someone who is highly skilled in one area.

Jennifer Merluzzi, an assistant professor at Tulane University, teamed up with Damon Phillips, a professor at Colombia Business School, to study the records of nearly 400 students who graduated from top US MBA programs in 2008 and 2009 and then went into investment banking.

Merluzzi and Phillips built up a detailed profile of each person, including academic results and work history before, during, and after business school. Their research suggests that students who had specialized in investment banking throughout were less likely to get multiple job offers than students who had broader backgrounds and experiences.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Merluzzi explains how the specialists in her study were “penalized” in the jobs market: “Not only were they less likely to receive multiple offers, but they were offered smaller signing bonuses,” she says. “In some cases the specialists earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers.”

 Which hires did investment banks value more?
Image: Harvard Business Review

So who exactly are specialists and generalists?

For the purposes of her research, Merluzzi defined a specialist as “someone who’d worked at an investment bank before school, concentrated in finance at school, and did an investment-banking internship”.

An example of a generalist would be someone who’d worked in a different industry – like advertising – before their MBA, then focused on finance, been an intern at a consulting firm, and ended up in investment banking after graduating.

After categorizing people in this way, Merluzzi and Phillips compared job offers and salaries, and found the specialists fared less well.

Although young people are often urged to find a specialty, or a niche, it appears this advice may not translate well to the jobs market.

“Among MBAs, there’s now a strong emphasis on building a consistent profile as a finance person or a marketing person,” Merluzzi says. “You end up with many similar people in the market. Specialization becomes commodified, giving you less bargaining power, because you’re easily substitutable.

“Plus, when the firm is used to hiring a lot of people like you, it’s easier to calculate your value compared with someone with diverse accomplishments.”

Asked whether the people who specialized in one thing tended to be less accomplished than the jacks of all trades, Merluzzi says the opposite is true.

We actually found that focused people were usually higher-quality job candidates. They were more likely to have additional graduate degrees, higher undergraduate GPAs, and higher salaries before business school.”

Surely some workers must benefit from specialization? Yes, says Merluzzi, there are many areas where being a specialist is an advantage – critical, even – to career advancement.

“If you needed surgery for a life-threatening condition, you’d want a specialist who has done it 100 times. If you had to replace the wiring in your house, you’d want an electrician, not a handyman.

“When you’re good at something, you tend to continue getting better at it. But at business schools, the shift to specialization is not as beneficial.”

So does this mean generalists are more likely to land the leadership roles in organizations? Although specialists do not receive as many job offers as generalist candidates, it’s unclear whether they are penalized once they’re inside an organization.

“It will be interesting to see how this plays out within firms,” says Merluzzi. “My prediction is that generalists continue to do better, because they are more unusual, have diverse skills, are redeployable, and are more likely to be tapped as leaders.”

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