Generalist or Specialist? How a Masters in Strategic Communication Enhances Your Career

Mike Kohler

Mike Kohler, Online Faculty

Chances are that most, if not all, Lamb School students have decided that a masters in strategic communications will enhance their career prospects. But how will it help?

My answer is a rock-solid, unequivocal “it depends.”

It depends on which career pathway looms ahead for each student. Many are either already employed in a corporation setting or are targeting one. In those cases, a couple of fairly simple and obvious answers relate to credentials or credibility.

But for those interested in blazing their own trail in the entrepreneurial world, there is an entirely different question to ask – and we’ll get to that later.


Some corporations – often major ones – install policies that require their fast-track rising stars to attain certain degrees in order to be considered for advancement.

How sad.

In those cases, attainment of the degree is all that matters, so an unholy alliance results between companies with lower expectations and institutions that offer online degrees that are “build for speed.” From a purely business standpoint, maybe there’s some sense in such an alliance. After all, if the firm is confident in the employee and they both just need a checkmark, so be it.

Thankfully, the Lamb School master’s program is NOT one of those checkmark options.

Credibility (or Competency)

Master’s candidates in the Lamb School and other quality-minded programs seek the knowledge and best practices that bolster their professional profiles, and so do the organizations that sponsor many of the Lamb School students.

These students and sponsors don’t see participation in the Lamb School program as a perk, nor are they satisfied with showing a sparkling grade report. Yes, the GPA is a key indicator, but the greater value comes from practical applications gleaned from the curriculum and the peer network established over the course of the program.

Generalist or Specialist?

I urge Lamb School students to consider a more salient question about the value of their strategic communication masters degrees – Should I be a generalist or a specialist? In my mind, this question is more difficult for the corporate employee to answer than it is for an aspiring entrepreneur.

As an instructor and as a business coach, I have advised entrepreneurs to position themselves as narrowly-focused specialists as a way of establishing solid reputations. Specialization does not suggest the entrepreneur can’t practice or promote a broader range of capabilities. It only suggests that the best way to gain attention is to be “known for” something special, i.e. “Oh, that’s the guy/gal who ….”

A wise Kansas City-based marketer, Paul Welsh, promoted specialization in his book The St. Bernard Principle. His premise was that if dogs from a variety of breeds show up at your door when you’re planning to cross the Alps, it’s probably a good idea to go with the St. Bernard.

For the corporate employee, though, the decision is more difficult and probably should involve a discussion between the student and sponsor. If the employer has a need for increased strength in a particular facet of communications, then the student should choose electives that bolster that strength.

On the other hand, a broader focus may be in order for students if higher levels of responsibility await them at the end of the program. In other words, a generalist may be more effective in leading a team of specialists.

No matter which path a student takes, the pedigree of a Purdue University degree trumps a Checkmark U. diploma.

Learn More

Mike Kohler is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.