Are we more attractive to the market if we know “a bit of everything” or as a specialised professional? Should I take a new course of study that gives me depth or scope? These are all recurring questions that remain unanswered. But new research may help shed some light on the matter. We tell you about it.
What will I read in this article?
- Specialised professional vs. generalist professional
- Which profile is most affected by dismissal and resignation?
- Profile T, the hybrid that’s gaining in popularity
Specialised vs. generalist professionals
The academic literature presents contradictory theories and results regarding the relationship between specialisation and labour market outcomes.
On the one hand, there are theories and scientific evidence that indicate that it’s better to be a specialised professional, since it is through depth of knowledge in a field or area that value and productivity are provided. This is associated with a high quality of work, together with a clear work identity.
Medical students, for example, seem to agree. There’s a widespread tendency to assume that specialisation is better than being a generalist. According to a recent study published in BMC Medical Education, medical students associate specialist doctors with a higher salary and the context of academia, while they associate general practitioners with less prestige and the primary care environment. For them, breadth is less prestigious than depth.
On the other hand, however, there are theories and evidence which indicate that being a generalist is more positive in the labour market than being a specialised professional. Diversity of knowledge and a wide range of skills can be applied in many work environments, facilitating communication between different actors and areas of work, which, in turn, enriches the generalist’s network of contacts, privileging him or her over the specialist.
Which profile is more affected by a dismissal, the specialised professional or the generalist professional? And what about a resignation?
David Epstein’s best-selling book, Range, explains why generalists succeed in a specialised world. According to his analysis, range is not an enemy, but a great ally, as it allows the holder to roam and navigate through many fields while learning from each one. The book explains, for example, how Roger Federer benefited as a child from playing many different sports before entering the world of tennis.
Other authors point out that perhaps the contradictions between the different theories depend on the context or are due to a lack of in-depth analysis to interpret them. In this vein, Professors Byun and Raffiee set out to understand what happens to both specialist and generalist practitioners when jobs are lost.
To do so, they looked at a really interesting sample: the employees of the US Congress. Congress employs more than 14,000 people who work with the 535 members of Congress (435 in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate).
These are highly competitive jobs, with very committed people who believe in the idea of bringing about change through legislation and who depend, to a large extent, on the fate of congressmen, as their jobs may disappear if said congressmen are not re-elected.
This is why the authors took this sample of employees as a “quasi-natural” experiment to understand the employment implications of the specialist or generalist professional becoming unemployed after an election. Did specialists or generalists have more difficulty finding a new job?
Byun and Raffiee examined a sample of 58,314 observations of 27,772 employees who worked with 1,028 congressmen during the years 2000 and 2016. Their results revealed that faced with the same situation (not being renewed), specialist employees had a certain disadvantage in finding a new job compared to generalist employees. In turn, these disadvantages decreased among specialists as the size of their speciality category increased. That is, professionals specialising in large-market specialisation categories suffered less than those in smaller specialisation categories.
In relation to earnings, generalists in the same situation (leaving the job involuntarily) had a slight advantage in the salary of the new job compared to specialists, probably explained by the urgency of specialists to “choose” a job that was not exactly the best fit for their profile.
However, the researchers also wanted to understand what happened if resignation from the job was voluntary. In this case, the big winners were the specialists. Meanwhile, it seems that when the job disappeared involuntarily, specialists suffered more in terms of search and new salary. When the change was voluntary, the implications for specialists were more favourable.
The T-profile, a hybrid that is gaining in strength
There’s no clear-cut formula. Both ways of approaching a profession are valid and necessary. However, there’s a certain tendency to think that perhaps a possible solution is the T-profile. But what is a T-professional or a T-profile? The name comes from the graphical arrangement of the letter T, where the horizontal bar represents the ability to work inter-disciplinarily, and the vertical bar represents the depth in an area. Because that‘s exactly what a T-professional – also labelled as a specialised generalist – is: breadth and depth at the same time.
The T-professional became popular in the 1990s in response to the need for hybrid managers in the field of computing where, on the one hand, they had the ability to see the big picture, but at the same time remain deeply expert in their area of specialisation. This T-profile is also needed in the scientific field, where very specific research teams need to be managed, and both qualities are vital.
The T-professional is no longer only found and sought after in computing or science, but also in all types of businesses and sectors. Research on these new profiles is very preliminary, although everything points to the fact that their demand is growing and the benefits for organisations could be very significant. At the same time, it’s essential to bet on new educational models and paradigms that reward and facilitate this new way of understanding professional development and growth.
- Byun, H., & Raffiee, J. (2023). Career Specialization, Involuntary Worker–Firm Separations, and Employment Outcomes: Why Generalists Outperform Specialists When Their Jobs Are Displaced. Administrative Science Quarterly, 00018392221143762.
- Epstein, D. (2021). Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. Penguin.
- Johnston, D. L. (1978). Scientists become managers-the’T’-shaped man. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 6(3), 67-68.
- Misky, A. T., Shah, R. J., Fung, C. Y., Sam, A. H., Meeran, K., Kingsbury, M., & Salem, V. (2022). Understanding concepts of generalism and specialism amongst medical students at a research-intensive London medical school. BMC Medical Education, 22(1), 1-11.