Science says a common piece of career wisdom may be wrong

Waiting for job interviewJoe Raedle/Getty ImagesAmong MBA grads, generalists may get better job offers than specialists.

Picture two candidates for a job at an investment bank: Steve and Mike.

Both graduated from the same prestigious MBA program, where they concentrated in finance.

Steve worked in advertising before enrolling in the program and interned at a consulting firm. Mike, on the other hand, worked at an investment bank before enrolling in the program and also interned at an investment bank during the program.

Who do you think is more likely to land the position?

If your vote is for Mike because he demonstrates a clear commitment to investment banking, while Steve is more of a dabbler, you might be wrong.

New research, cited in The Harvard Business Review, suggests that, contrary to common wisdom, generalists receive better job offers than specialists do.

For the study, researchers at Tulane University and Columbia Business School looked at nearly 400 students who graduated from elite American MBA programs in 2008 and 2009 and pursued work in investment banking.

Specifically, they wanted to know whether students who had demonstrated more focus in a specific career area before and during their MBA stints were more or less likely to land good investment banking job offers.

After the researchers controlled for factors like gender, age, and academic performance, their results showed that specialists were less likely than generalists to receive more than one job offer from an investment bank. Moreover, specialists received signing bonuses that were 36% smaller than generalists’ signing bonuses.

The researchers can’t say for sure why generalists have an advantage here. One possibility is that most MBA grads are specialists, so generalists stand out.

These findings are especially meaningful given that the last five to 10 years have marked a growing emphasis on building a “consistent profile” in one field, the study authors told HBR.

But the authors also told HBR that experienced hiring managers “said things like, ‘Someone who has accomplished a lot of things is better than a one-trick-pony who just keeps doing the same thing and isn’t taking advantage of what the MBA has to offer.”’

Based on this research, it’s unclear whether generalization is beneficial in other career fields as well. But the study authors did tell HBR that leaders tend to be generalists and are able to manage multiple areas.

Regardless of what industry you work in, perhaps the most important takeaway is to be sceptical of conventional career advice. Do specialists really have an advantage over generalists, or might employers view diverse career experience as beneficial?It’s worth investigating before you assume your varied background puts you out of the running for your dream job.

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