Should You Go Broad or Deep?

Are you specialized?

Greetings from Mid Michigan! And welcome to my inaugural blog entry. To specialize or not to specialize? This is a question many young professionals ponder. Some in academia have mulled over this issue. I recently came across a 2008 working paper from Professor Ofer Malamud from the University of Chicago, Harris School of Public Policy that deals with this topic. The paper discusses the effect of early vs. late specialization (with regard to wages) for English and Scottish undergraduates in 1980.

In the paper, specialization was defined in terms of the number of courses taken in a given field. Early specialization refers to a student deciding on a field and taking courses strongly associated with that field: while late specialization meant a student would take courses in multiple fields before deciding on one. The author extended his analysis to occupation switches soon after graduation. The author used empirical data and statistical modeling. Here are some findings:

  • The wages an individual earns after graduation is linked to his/her skill and match with a given field.
  • Individuals who chose their fields later are expected to have less specific skills but a better match; thus their wage would depend on the balance of the value of their skills vs. their match with their chosen field.
  • Individuals who switch to an occupation unrelated to their field of training earn lower wages at first (compared to those who did not switch) but make up the difference in about 6 years.

Some of the author's findings are intuitive and would apply to young professionals. If one switches to an unrelated field, he/she would be entering that field as a trainee and would not be expected to earn the maximum wage in that field. However, I found the difference between the rates of wage increase (faster wage growth for those who switched) interesting.

Was it because, as one gets more specialized, the competition from similarly gifted colleagues makes it more difficult to stand out and get noticed? I would favor the side of some career switching (dependent on each person's unique circumstances).

What are your thoughts on this subject?

Do you feel that finding a specialization later in one's career is better? Or Earlier? Do you have any personal experiences related to this topic?


Stuart Krueger's picture

As a young person going out into the work world I was concerned about one thing - getting a job! By default I've taken the stance that I will work and gain experience until I find what I like most. As a B.S.E. ChE, it seems to me that 'going deep' would involve more formal education. Avenues for technical specialization exist (such as becoming a discipline expert for, say, Solids Handling) but such specialization does require that I deviate significantly from the normal career path for my current position. A certain amount of specialization is expected.

I have always been worried about specializing too early for a few reasons. I don't have a field that I am super passionate about, more have an interest in everything. Hard to make a decision and be sure that I will still be interested in the field in 10 years. Then if you are already specialized it is hard to make a change. I agreed that these decisions are highly specific to each individual. I have made one major career change. My motivation was that I was looking at people that had been doing my job for 10 years and they were doing the same work I was doing, though on a larger scale. I knew I didn't want to be doing that in 10 years and if I kept doing it for that long I would have few transferable skills. Now I have made the move and am getting exposure to a variety of different processes and while I will likely have to pick a specialty in a few years, I think I will have a much better information base to make that decision. And if not, I'll have a broad range of skills that will be transferable to other fields.

jvasko's picture

I really believe that it's all about transferable skills, knowing what they are and knowing how to sell them.