In today’s economy, workers often switch jobs frequently, and even re-invent entire careers. But if your resume includes jobs in a number of industries or professions, does that signal to potential employers that you’re good at many things—or good at none? A jack of all trades or a dilettante? Employers often say they want flexible workers who can assume many roles, but research has long shown the danger of being what social scientists call a “category spanner.” It can be tough to make sense of a person who jumps around a lot.
A new article in the American Sociological Review sheds light on the issue, and suggests that while some variation in work experience helps job candidates, too much diversity on a resumé makes a person less likely to be hired. Ming D. Leung, an assistant professor in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, studied jobs posted to the online marketplace Elance.com. The site brings together firms and freelancers, in professional job categories from website programming to translation services to business plan writing. Since each freelancer’s entire Elance work history is recorded on the site and visible to potential employers, it was easy for Leung to study how much a worker benefited from, or was penalized by, broad experience.
Leung found that the freelances who won the most jobs (after taking past performance into account) were those who moved between related job categories, such as litigation and contracts or press releases and copywriting. These workers, whom Leung labeled “incremental generalists” captured more work than “erratic generalists”—freelancers with work history in a range of unrelated categories. Perhaps more surprisingly, incremental generalists also captured more work than “specialists”—workers who never ventured away from their core job category. For example, freelancers who moved between the categories of package design and logos increased their ability to get hired by 7.6 percent over those workers who stayed in just one of the categories.
Leung also found that the benefit of being an incremental generalist was greatest when the job at hand was a complex one, or when freelancers had a short work history. In other words, employers were particularly attuned to a potential employee’s breadth of experience when the job was going to require complicated thinking, or when the employers didn’t have as much evidence about what sort of worker they were looking at.
Of course, in most hiring situations you get a lot more leeway in deciding how to present yourself to employers. It’s easy—and even recommended—to recast your past work experience as related to the particular job you’re applying for. Still, this study offers a valuable lesson: don’t edit all of the diversity out of your resumé. Yes, a resumé that shows jumping around among jobs and professional roles might serve as a red flag to potential employers, but a work history that is entirely within one narrow domain might not be the best, either.
Career coaches tend to emphasize the importance of telling a story with your resumé, which is one way to have the best of both worlds. Let employers know up front that jobs in different categories are about deliberately expanding your skill set into related areas. Don’t let employers have room to assume that you just aren’t all that talented or committed. Broad experience can be an asset—if you make it work for you.
Barbara Kiviat Journalist and PhD student at Harvard University