It’s the era of the journeyman. With the average baby boomer changing jobs 11 times in the 26 years between ages 18-44 (BLS), it’s clear that the way we think about our careers has fundamentally changed. Even the meaning of the word “career” has shifted. Where it once evoked a thirty-year stint at a company close to home, it now represents an individual’s collected body of professional work. One’s career doesn’t end when they leave a job; it progresses.

At the same time, our jobs have grown more specialized as a product of the burgeoning knowledge economy. With each innovation, the scope of knowledge required to perform well in a prescribed role grows deeper and more unique to each job. As employees, we must learn more and, ultimately, be more skillful at our jobs than ever before. As a natural extension, this increase in unique skills and abilities (and the recognition of this on the part of employers) is making us more valuable and less replaceable to employers.

We are also increasingly free to pursue multiple professional interests as we rapidly change jobs. Career changes are happening more frequently, spurred by a struggling economy and an increasingly accessible educational system. The flow of information online makes learning about a new career faster and easier than ever before. We can fire up the internet and learn expert tips from industry leaders; we can tap into social media to learn from our friends experiences.

We are applying many common skills to try and drive performance in our specialties. More and more, we need to understand how each aspect of a business works in order to fit into any part of it.

But what is more effective in the job search? Should you portray yourself to be an expert in whichever specialty you choose, or show yourself as a generalist more likely to have wide-ranging experience in business?

Real-world analysis

Recent unpublished research by a friend at Stanford University suggests a specialized image as the best route. They analyzed employment figures from the Indian Administration Service (IAS) and came up with an interesting conclusion.

The IAS is a prestigious Indian bureaucratic organization which comprises a good deal of the executive branch of the Indian government. Officers gain entry into the IAS by passing a stringent series of exams and interviews, then almost always stay there for their entire careers. The selection process is meant to be so particular that anyone who passes is at an equal and extraordinarily high level of competence and qualification.

Their rotated around the country into widely disparate fields (from high finance to managing a wildlife preserve), slowly being promoted to increasingly high-level roles elsewhere during their rotations. Their career progression almost entirely consists of attaining or not attaining a promotion, rather than skipping around various firms. The insular nature of the agency provides a fantastic opportunity to isolate variables and carry out statistical analysis on whether or not a degree of specialization is an asset to career progression.

Taking appointment to a prestigious central government position as their milestone, they set about analyzing how likely an officer was to be successful based on their specialization or lack thereof. Their conclusion: officers were TWICE as likely to attain the important promotion when they achieved just one standard deviation more specialization than their counterparts.

It suggests that over time, and in aggregate, employees with more specialized experience were seen as being more capable than other candidates with more generalized experience. It’s an important and data-driven example of a global trend in the economics of seeking employment.

Familiarity is common. Expertise is rare

The idea of specialization being a desirable — and hireable — trait is nothing new. Naturally, companies will want to hire the best possible candidate for a job. It stands to reason (and the statistical analysis of some smart folks out of Stanford) that being a beacon of knowledge in a given field helps you stand out to your future employers.

When applying and interviewing for a job, you find yourself face-to-face with the business end of an important economic principle: opportunity cost. Basically, it’s the trade-off the company makes by hiring you instead of the next candidate in line. They’re forgoing the potential value of the other employee by hiring you, so you’re on a mission to make it obviously worth their while.

Ultimately, over-generalizing your experience minimizes the difference between your skills and the other candidates’. It doesn’t strongly make the case that they can’t afford to pass you up.

Unlocking your expertise

Tailor your resume to emphasize how you’re exactly what they’re looking for. Join industry associations. Get accredited in your specialty. Show off awards you may have won for your work or services. Write a guest blog post; start your own blog. Tailor your resume (did we say that twice?). Do whatever you can possibly to do prove your engagement with your area of expertise. Itís astonishing how far a touch of professional commitment can go in your resume.

You’re specialized. Unique. Worth paying well. Let them know you’re a candidate they can’t afford to pass by.

Isn’t that what its all about?