On the Dangers of College Degrees and Overspecialization

   (Penn State's Fall Career Days, pic by Penn State Live) 

On Sunday, a strong case for avoiding overspecialization in a collegiate major field was laid out in the Wall Street Journal. Dr. Peter Cappelli, of the Wharton School, argued that a heavy specialization can be, in the long run, detrimental to the return on an investment in college.

read the article here: Wall Street Journal

Over the past decades, the number of very specialized majors has increased significantly. Some of the fields, according to the article, include hospital financing, casino management, and pharmaceutical marketing. There are two major concerns in the article: are such majors certain to be in demand in the years to come? And, if those job areas shrink, will those skills translate to another job area?

Dr. Cappelli argues that, despite efforts to predict the future of the job market, it’s impossible to know exactly what the future will need in terms of jobs. The job market in a certain field may dry up–after all, there’s not much of a market for pinsetters or lamplighters any more. Knowing that changes in the economy may render a job obsolete, it is important not to be overspecialized in a way that hamstrings your prospects and your overall job flexibility.

Yet, it is important to note that not all specialization is equal. Some job fields (engineering is the preferred example for Dr. Cappelli) require a strong degree of specialization in order to enter the workforce. This situation, because of this requirement, varies from most fields.

However, one should note that, even if a job field is in demand (as engineers are), the specialty and job sub-field may still work against the worker. Dr. Cappelli gives an example of the current state of the demand for IT jobs. While IT workers are generally in demand, it’s actually the sub-field of mobile communications that’s driving the overall job field. Certain IT skills are disadvantaged in the current structure of the job market.

There’s a lot more in the article and it’s most certainly worth a read. But, Dr. Cappelli does suggest that there are probably two wise approaches to this difficult situation. For those who want to graduate into a job field that requires specialization, then a specialized degree may be the right choice. However, for those who aren’t as attached to a single field and wish to remain flexible, a well-rounded education is probably a wiser path forward. Having a wide range of skills that translate to multiple job types and fields may comprise a more significant advantage (and return on the costs of education) than hyperspecialization. The latter can be supplemented with real work experience or work experience simulators that can enable the flexibility demanded by the modern economy.