Friday, January 10, 2014

Specializing ourselves to death?

Last week I had a conversation with a program director at a major midwestern public university. One topic discussed was the state of educational specialization in the US. If you read the requirements of almost any job positing at a college and university and you'll see a list that can often seem excessive. Understandable, yet excessive. This in not a phenomena only found in academia.

“Requires a degree in social work.” “Must have at least three years experience teaching at a US college or university.” These are two of many items past colleagues, friends, and I have noted during employment search. All of these have been positions they or I have looked at and thought, “Matthew can totally do this!” or “This is exactly the work that Matthew does/loves to do/would thrive in!” I'm sure I'm not alone in these experiences. The question is this: Functionally, are these postings merely maintaining high standards or unnecessarily narrowing the field of potential candidates?

As the aforementioned program director explained, his university has taken an interesting approach: reducing the number of requirements to those that are actually necessary. They do not see it as a lowering of standards but rather as a way of broadening their search. They don't want to disqualify excellent candidates with diverse intangibles who are simply unable to be pigeonholed into narrow, overly-specialized sets of “requirements”, many of which are not actually prerequisite and could be learned on the job.

This issue of over-specialization can directly impact the mission of schools, organizations, and companies. Do organizations overlook new solutions to problems by insisting staff possess narrowly defined educational or professional backgrounds? Do companies fail to innovate by creating homogenous groups rather than dynamic teams? Could the creativity of employees be stifled by a dearth of skills, knowledge, and interests?

And what about students? Do schools do a disservice to students by overly narrowing the pool of candidates from which teachers, lecturers, and instructors are selected? Do we do a disservice to students if we push them into majors too early? I never speak poorly of doctoral students or the work they do to earn that distinction, but should doctoral study be the model? Should a Ph.D. be the standard to which academics or teachers aspire and by which society judges ability or success?

A decade ago I knew a young woman who graduated with a music degree and a business minor. After graduation she worked as a manager in a Wells Fargo branch. The job required a college or university degree, but she admitted that her particular degree was of virtually no use to the job she was actually doing. I remember thinking that this was a form of institutional discrimination. I remember wondering how many excellent managers were ignored because they lacked the degree.

Is this the way it should be? Is this the way it must be? Could we reimagine job requirements in a way that maintains or even improves quality yet empowers a greater number competent applicants?

Follow Matthew on twitter at @MatthewTShowman

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