The Eternal Debate – Angular or Well Rounded?

No, this isn’t about the dreaded question many college applicants have – should they portray themselves as interested in a single subject/area or as someone with multiple skills – but rather with what areas to study and what skills to develop in order to be able to succeed in an uncertain and ever-changing world.

Let’s first look at the angular approach. This can work in highly technical fields where the more specialized individuals, due to the shortage of supply, can command premium wages and outstanding job security. Examples include delving deep into medicine, engineering, or basic sciences. You can even carve out niche positions in the social sciences and humanities by focusing on say 17th century Czech literature. You will be the world authority on this subject and if ever something comes up in this field (say for instance a Robert Langdon style puzzle), you will be highly sought after to help decode it.

The big downside is that the narrower you go, the less choice you will have for work. If you want to make use of all that time spent in study and acquiring expertise, you have to find a job that offers that opportunity. This may not always be available, and the few that exist may have someone like you already entrenched in it. There can be a big letdown if you fail to find or secure that job and instead have to settle for something more menial. When super specialized people fall, they fall hard. They can instantly go from senior management or chief architect to barista. Finally, you are forced to go to where the jobs are. If your lifelong dream is to stay close to your family in rural Wisconsin, becoming highly educated and specialized for a job that’s only offered in global alpha cities (like a cardiologist specializing in a rare rhythm disorder) may not be ideal.

The other approach of being generalized is naturally on the extreme other end of the spectrum. Mind you, being well-rounded doesn’t just mean not specializing, but rather branching out and linking different disciplines that have the potential to mutually support and reinforce each other. For example, you can link business administration and communication, international relations and French language, media studies and marketing. This kind of chaining maintains versatility but also improves your competitive edge.

Compared to someone who only has one degree, having hands in multiple pots increases the range of jobs that you are a candidate for. Furthermore, during the interview can play up synergies between different degrees. In contrast to the highly specialized technocrat, you will mainly be looking at jobs that deal with people rather than machines, and are therefore amenable to people coming from all backgrounds.

This is a better approach for someone who doesn’t yet know what he or she wants to do in life and where to live in the future, for whom it’s important to remain general and not close doors prematurely. This is also a case where doing a “gap year” like JET, Teach for America, or Peace Corps can help with getting into the right grad school or internship.

Don’t be afraid to specialize after picking your niche. Say that you get a degree in politics and philosophy, go on a Peace Corps mission to Bolivia, and return for a masters degree in public health. Then you go around looking for jobs and end up as a junior analyst for the WHO drafting briefs and compiling data. This is a perfect time to improve your long-term prospects by shifting your career in that direction. Whether through a funded PhD in say epidemiology or simply by working at the job for many years, you will acquire specialized skills. That can later take  you to become a manager at the Gates Foundation focusing on vaccine development, for example.


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