Specialization and career dynamics: Evidence from the Indian Administrative Service

Administrative Science Quarterly58(2), 233-256.

(with John-Paul Ferguson)

In this article, we attempt to resolve the tension between two conflicting views on the role of specialization in workers’ careers. Some scholars argue that specialization is a net benefit that allows workers to get ahead, while others argue that broad experience across several domains is the only way to be truly exceptional. We use rich longitudinal data from 1974 to 2008 on the careers of Indian Administrative Service officers, members of the Republic of India’s elite bureaucratic service, to test both these hypotheses. We find that specialization benefits officers throughout their career. We distinguish between skill-based and signal-based mechanisms that relate specialization to promotion, by exploring the match (or lack thereof) between the skills officers acquire and the jobs to which they are promoted, and we find that both mechanisms operate, but at different points in the career. Specialization is rewarded later in …