Does the Business World Prefer Generalists or Specialists?

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Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

Does the Business World Prefer Generalists or Specialists?

A study on nearly 400 students who graduated from top programs in 2008 and 2009 and went into investment banking revealed that students who had specialized in this area throughout were less welcomed than those who had broader backgrounds and experiences. What's more, specialists were offered smaller signing bonuses, in some cases, they earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers.

Reasons behind the preference for generalists include:
  • In labour markets with strong instructional screening mechanisms, specialization won't be as valuable. In the absence of other information, it's an important indicator of skill, but graduation from a top MBA program is a strong signal to the market that someone is qualified. In that scenario, demonstrating consistency is no longer advantageous.
  • Employers may discount experiences that incrementally extend previous efforts. Experienced recruiting managers said things like "someone who has accomplished a lot of things is better than a one-trick-pony who just keep doing the same thing." Specialization becomes commodified, giving specialists less bargaining power, because they are easily substitutable.
  • Generalists are more likely to be tapped as leaders. They can shift course and manage multiple areas with diverse skills and better flexibility.
Despite of the above findings, the conventional career advice is to find a specialty and people have been training to be dedicated in a focused area since young.

Source: Torres, N. June 2016. Generalists Get Better Job Offers Than Specialists. Harvard Business Review, 32-33.

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