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The Daily

Study: Generalists Win Out Over Specialists in Job Offers, Bonuses

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 31, 2016
SkillsResearchers from Columbia and Tulane Universities have found that MBA graduates who chose to heavily specialize in finance got fewer job offers and smaller bonuses than those with a broader base of experience, according to the Harvard Business Review. The study sorted 400 students from top MBA programs in the U.S. into either specialists (those whose education, work experience and interests were exclusively in finance) or generalists (those who came into finance from other fields and interests) and then looked at how many job offers they got, and how big their signing bonuses were. What they found was that generalists did better than the specialists. They were more likely to have multiple job offers, and to have larger signing bonuses. 

Why? The researchers brought up a few reasons. First, specialists are more likely to be viewed as fungible: when there's a large labor market of people with similar sets of highly specialized skills, it's hard to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Further, employers might be less impressed by experiences that they few as incrementally extending previous efforts, versus taking multiple paths. In addition, the researchers said that companies already view graduation from a top MBA program as a sign someone is qualified, and so there is less that can differentiate a specialist from a generalist who came from the same program. The researchers also suggested, but noted they could not measure this, that specialists may also be more risk averse. 

This is all despite the fact that, according to the research, specialist candidates had higher salaries before entering business school. 

Meanwhile, when asking employers what they thought, the researchers found that they viewed specialists as one-trick ponies. On the other hand, people with a wide variety of skills can be slotted into many different strategies and can adapt better to quick changes. However, the researchers also pointed out that there are many situations where a specialist is preferable: surgeons were one example, as were electricians. However, they said, their study shows that, in the business world at least, it's better to have a wide base of experiences and skills, rather than focusing on one thing to the exclusion of others.