Generalist or Specialist: Who Should You Become?

With the job market growing only more and more competitive by the day, what can put you on top; being a generalist or a specialist?

Millions graduate each year, faces lit with huge smiles, all possessing the I believe they can take on the world. And you might very well be one of them. And while you clean up after your graduation party, you might also find yourself constantly checking your email for any updates regarding that one dream job. Or maybe you’re still enjoying the safety net the student title offers but want to make some extra ‘ch-ching’ to spend during your summer break. Although both scenarios are quite different, what can be common is that the acceptance email just isn’t showing up. Why? 

Millions graduate every year… all believing that they can take on the world and working their hardest to prove that right. What can give you an advantage? Could it be being knowledgeable in many different topics/fields? Or could it be being an expert in a particular field? 

Is it better to be great at one thing or good at many things? This question has been debated for many years. I think it’s time to finally find an answer to it. So, without further ado, let’s dive into each of the two paths and examine them for potential advantages and disadvantages.

 

Being a Generalist

The easiest way to define a generalist is someone who has a lot of general knowledge in various topics and fields (hence the ‘general’ in generalist). Not only does this broad scope of expertise allow generalists to develop a great understanding of the industry they’re in, but it also teaches them various skills that can be applied to a multitude of jobs and industries.

What could be some of the advantages and disadvantages of having a broad scope of knowledge in various industries?

Pros:

  • Career Flexibility

One key difference between generalists and specialists is that the former’s knowledge and skills are transferable. For instance, a generalist’s writing and communication skills can be applied to countless jobs and industries. In contrast, a specialist’s skills and knowledge can only be applied across a narrow range of jobs, usually in the same industry. While this advantage might not seem significant to everyone, career flexibility can offer some people freedom as they need constant change, new settings, and new challenges to keep motivated. 

  • Adaptable

Another advantage generalists have is their ability easily adapt to any scenario, issue, or setting. Because of their broad knowledge and skills they can market themselves as the best option for a job when applying, their ‘unique selling point’ being the fact that they’ll be able to complete a range of tasks, saving the company money spent on specialists that can only do a handful of tasks.

Cons:

  • Higher Potential of Burnout

Because being a generalist means performing a wide range of tasks, sometimes never really having a clear job title, many become exhausted after wearing too many hats at work. To solve this issue, choose a position with clear and consistent expectations and ask for help when the workload becomes too much to handle alone. Your skills should not be exploited. 

  • Lack of Job Security

While being a generalist can offer a career flexibly, making the job hunt easier, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to keep those jobs for long. Unlike specialists, generalists and their comprehensive skill sets are easy to come by, and thus you can easily be replaced. However, that doesn’t mean you are doomed. What differs between generalists, even if they happen to have the exact same skills, is that they are different people. Make sure to let your employer know how you’re of use to them even outside your vast knowledge.

 

Being a Specialist

Simply put being a specialist means acquiring a specific skill set as you aim to become an expert in a particular field. Usually, they spend years learning their specialty, gathering degrees and qualifications. While they might not have the general knowledge generalists have about multiple industries, they are masters in theirs, knowing all one needs to know to survive and thrive.  

What could possibly be some of the advantages and disadvantages of being an expert in one field/ industry?

Pros:

  • The potential of a Higher Salary

Unlike generalists, specialists aren’t that common. This is because it takes such a long time to become an expert in an industry. And while the time spent earning degrees, certifications, and learning their specialties could have been used to make money if they chose to work instead, by becoming a specialist, they can charge more for their services and knowledge. This is because, more often than not, they target niche markets with little competition. 

  • Recognition in the Field 

Another advantage of being a specialist is that you could easily become recognized in your field as you grow more and more of an expert. Unlike generalists, specialists have the possibility of becoming thought leaders in their industries. Not only can this fill them with satisfaction as they witness the fields they love get impacted by their achievements and knowledge, but it can also open up various opportunities.

Cons:

  • Career Inflexibility

One thing to be expected is that after spending years specializing in one field, you might find yourself with a narrow range of jobs to apply to, as your knowledge and skills can only be utilized there. While you can still move around in your field, it can be more difficult to come across job opportunities.

  • We Live in a Wicked World

While this point might sound very pessimistic, it simply means that we do not live in a world that can provide a kind learning environment where one can learn by simply taking part in an activity repeatably until they grow better. Nowadays, our world is growing more complex, and rapidly changing daily. Consequently, becoming a generalist who embraces diverse experiences and perspectives may be crucial for survival. That is what David Epstein explains in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

 

Final Thoughts 

So, who should you become? Well, it all comes down to you and what you are interested in. Some jobs demand becoming a specialist. That is the case if you want to become a specialized doctor with immense knowledge of a specific body system/ part. Others might find that their field of interest needs generalists, such as those dreaming of working in the media industry. 

However, what’s more important than deciding whether to become a generalist or a specialist is realizing that your decision will not rule the rest of your life. Generalists can become specialists just like specialists can become generalists. 

 

Photo: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

 


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