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Article

Specialize or Generalize: What Makes Jobseekers Choose One Career Strategy Over Another?

Human Resources
Published on:

The world of employment is undergoing a period of rapid change, with major technological developments, economic turbulence, and shareholder activism all contributing to a fast-moving and unpredictable context. To adapt to this new employment landscape, what kind of career strategies do (and should) professionals adopt, specialization or generalization? Professor Roxana Barbulescu of HEC Paris and Rocio Bonet of IE Business School offer insights for jobseekers and employers. 

Choosing whether to pursue a specialist or a generalist career profile is a case in point. Pre-2020 studies indicate that professional specialization, such as product management in marketing or ethical investments in finance, can help jobseekers fit their skills to employer needs and demonstrate commitment to their field of expertise. Specialism is associated with better productivity and return on human capital investment for employers, too.

But under certain circumstances, generalizing may prove to be a better strategy. What kind of labor market conditions or personal circumstances could prompt a jobseeker to switch from specialism to generalism – and can we still take it for granted that specializing is the way to go? These questions prompted us to undertake a new research study.

What happens when we can’t predict the future?

It feels intuitive that building on your existing skills and strengthening your reputation as a specialist is the way to succeed. Once you become skilled in an area and have a proven track record, say, the intricacies of a supply chain subdomain, you are more likely to be selected for future work of the same kind. It’s a self-reinforcing process. 

However, this pattern relies heavily on an underlying assumption that things will remain stable. The skills you build up early in your career must remain useful throughout your working life, otherwise the investment will not fulfill its early promise. When roles, skills and expectations change, you must be able to adapt. In that context, it makes sense that employees are keen to broaden their skillsets, and that increasingly flat companies, especially in fast-moving industries, favor managers who are flexible and versatile.

A focus on decision making

While there is plenty of research on what makes specialism or generalism more profitable once a person’s career is established, little attention has been paid to the decision-making process of employees. Our interest is in what makes individuals choose to pursue one path or the other early in their careers.

 

Our interest is in what makes individuals choose to pursue one path or the other early in their careers.

 

To explore the question, we focused on data from MBA graduates from a prestigious institution. Because an MBA is a generalized qualification, and one that is often taken by people who want to begin a new career, it provides a kind of level playing field for our study. MBA graduates going into management roles will likely have multifaceted jobs that require skills and knowledge across a range of domains, including people skills, technical knowledge, and organizational knowledge. As a result, there’s no foregone conclusion about whether they will specialize or remain generalized. 

Opportunity-enhancing generalism 

The decision to specialize or generalize is likely to rest on an evaluation of one’s prior experience with an eye to the future: the career benefits that one can imagine will occur in the future should one continue in the same area of experience going forward. If individuals have skills and a reputation in a specialized area already, those career benefits – which may include for instance a good pay grade, promotion potential, or attractiveness in the eye of potential employers – need to be weighed against the potential benefits of broadening their skillset. 

Where the anticipated benefits of this pre-existing career capital are deemed as relatively low, an individual has less to lose in opting for a different, more generalized career strategy.

Of course, these are partly subjective assessments on the part of the individual. A person may be more or less confident in their past experience or feel more or less optimistic about their potential to command future success, depending on their outlook and personality. 

On a more concrete level though, an employee might think about how ‘future-proofed’ their prior experience role is. Sticking with a specialism might depend on the industry a person has worked in, the type of roles they’ve held, and the level of prestige commanded by their previous employers.

Exploratory versus exploitative job searching

Careers in sectors that are considered prestigious by MBA graduates, such as investment banking or consultancy, may feel like a safer bet for specializing. The same may be true of work experience in large, prestigious firms with strong reputations and visibility. 

We considered these factors – firm and sector status – in developing our hypothesis. We also considered how these two factors might intertwine.

  • We expect that prior experience in higher-status sectors and employers will be associated with exploitative job search behavior, i.e., seeking roles that will exploit the already-accrued career investment.
  • We expect that prior experience in lower-status sectors and employers will be associated with exploratory job search behavior – seeking new opportunities and letting go of existing career investment.

What we find

Overall, exploratory job searching was the modal result across our sample. 78% of the MBA graduates carried out exploratory job searches. 

Our analysis separated the graduates into four mutually exclusive categories based on their pre-MBA experience:

  • Lower-status employer, higher-status sector: 87% of these engaged in exploratory search.
  • Lower-status employer, lower-status sector: 79% engaged in exploratory search.
  • Higher-status employer, lower-status sector: 73% engaged in exploratory search.
  • Higher-status employer, higher-status sector: 68% engaged in exploratory job search.

The results showed statistically significant differences between the higher-status employer / higher-status sector group vs the three others, which supports our main hypothesis that high-status backgrounds make exploratory search less likely. Lower status backgrounds, in contrast, favor exploratory search – and embark more readily on a generalist path.

 

To balance specialisms and narrow professional niches, employers can offer their people incremental moves that broaden their skills.

 

We also found interactions between the other variables that show separate effects being exerted by lower sector status on one hand, and lower employer status on the other. Of the two, employer status seems to have a stronger influence in promoting exploratory search behavior.

 

Methodology

We collected data from 1,255 students taking part in a one-year MBA program at an international business school. Institutional data gave us demographic information such as age, gender, and prior work experience details which formed the first part of our dataset. Data on the job search process was collected via a survey, to which 836 graduates returned usable responses. A second survey covered job-search preferences. Our final data stream was employer ranking data from Fortune and Vault.

Applications

Our work has clear implications for job seekers, providing a framework for evaluating and comparing career strategies. It also offers insights for employers. A company’s internal labor market might default to a promotion strategy that enhances and reinforces specialisms, taking employees further into narrow professional niches. To balance this, employers can offer their people incremental moves that broaden their skills. When considering promotions and internal appointments, they should look not only for the most able candidates, as indicated by related prior experience, but for those who have an appetite for trying new things. This approach might go hand in hand with finding overlooked talent in the business. By allowing employees the chance to try different contexts and roles, firms can build experiential diversity and capitalize on the resilience and adaptability people build through change.
Based on an interview with Professor Barbulescu on her paper “Looking for Greener Grass? Prior Status and Exploration-Exploitation Decisions in Job Search”, co-written with Rocio Bonet, published in the journal “Organization Science”, February 2023.

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