The Ultimate Career Choice: Generalist vs. Specialist
The job market could be loosely divided into two categories: generalist and specialist jobs. If you are at the start of your career, you are probably pondering which route you should take. You might even be well into your career, but have suddenly begun wondering whether you’ve made the right choice.
In this guide, we will look at the differences between generalist and specialist career paths. We’ll examine the advantages and disadvantages of both and discuss what employees are saying about the two choices. Hopefully, this guide will help you understand which route is more suitable for you and prepare you for career success in your chosen path.
WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A GENERALIST AND A SPECIALIST?
Before we start examining the pros and cons of becoming a generalist or a specialist, it’s important to understand the distinction of these two approaches and how they relate to your future career path.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s simple definition of a generalist states a generalist is “a person who knows something about a lot of subjects”. A specialist is defined as “a person who has special knowledge and skill relating to a particular job, area of study”.
Therefore, generalists are the “jacks of all trade” – they have an understanding of a wide range of things. They might be able to solve your computer problem while also programming you a handy little app. On the other hand, specialists are the experts in their specific field. Whilst a specialist might not be able to know how to find the best employees to your business, they can draw up the best employment contracts as a seasoned employment lawyer.
When you are starting out your career path, you’ll often have to consider either of these roles. Would you rather study a wide range of subject or narrow your studies to a specific topic? For example, you might choose to study history as a subject. If you are aiming towards a more generalist career in the field, you probably end up studying history as a broad concept. On the other hand, if you want to follow a specialist career path, you are required to pick a specific focus within the field. You might love ancient Greece and therefore choose to specialize in it.
In terms of the roles, generalists tend to have loosely defined roles within organizations. In the area of healthcare, you might work as a general doctor or a practitioner in a hospital. Your work might include attending patients that could be young or old and have a variety of ailments from life threatening to a simple cold.
On the other hand, if you’ve trained as a specialist, the role would be more defined and you’d, broadly speaking, mostly deal with similar cases each day. For example, as a pediatric surgeon your patients would all be children.
As the roles of generalists and specialists can vary within an organization, it is important to carefully consider which route you want to follow. Whilst it is possible to change your career later on in life, either by specializing or broadening your focus, you should consider the pros and cons of both routes before you make the decision.
THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BECOMING A GENERALIST
There are benefits and downsides to both of these career routes. Let’s first turn our attention to understand what are the upsides and downsides of becoming a generalist – of choosing a wider career path.
The advantages of being a generalist
Firstly, knowledge is power in today’s world and having a good understanding of a wider selection of topics can be an advantage. The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, with different people working together and solving complex issues.
A generalist, with knowledge of a broad range of issues, can see deeper inside this interconnectedness and find solutions that a specialist might not be able to see. All the different departments within a business connect with each other. A generalist can help see this bigger picture and come up with ideas and solutions that benefit the business as a whole.
The world shouldn’t be viewed through a single lens, so to speak. A broader approach and wider understanding of different things can help make better decisions. A generalist can see the big picture and think out-of-the-box.
Overall, generalists tend to have more transferable skills. In a fast-changing workplace, transferable skills are becoming increasingly important. Businesses are constantly taught about the importance of scalability. But this isn’t just important for the organization, it is also essential for its workforce and transferable skills come in handy in many situations.
It isn’t any wonder generalists tend to be the leaders and managers within organizations. This is down to these transferable skills. If you know how to manage employees, you’ll be able to do this in different businesses, the industry is not that important after all. The skill-set of project management, effective communication and good people skills are required whether you are leading a team of accountants or IT people.
This leads to the other huge benefit of being a generalist: career flexibility. Because you have a broader understanding of a subject and you have a selection of transferable skills at your disposal, you are less restricted with your career opportunities.
Consider the example above of studying history as a generalist. You could easily work in the field of media, become a teacher, do research, and write books and so on because you know history as a broad concept. The career opportunities are wide and you would be able to swap between different careers. However, if you want to become a professor for the history of ancient Greece, you will not have the required knowledge.
Finally, generalists may benefit from the fact they are better at navigating uncertainty. A study by professor Phillip Tetlock has studied the topic for over 20 years and found that generalists are better at predicting the outcome of issues, even outside of their specific areas of expertise. In a world, where the future is unpredictable and unknown, generalists could have an advantage.
The disadvantages of being a generalist
But becoming a generalist can have its downsides as well. The most common criticism against generalists is that they are sacrificing depth for breadth. The increased complexity makes it harder to have an in-depth understanding of things and by simply knowing the surface you can easily overlook the brevity of it.
You can consider this through the quirky example of an iceberg. A generalist could be able to see the iceberg and analyze its importance to the ship’s course. But the same generalist, without a deeper knowledge of the iceberg, could be missing vital information on what’s happening below the surface.
Finally, since generalists can have loosely defined roles and work in a number of different positions, their job security might suffer. Replacing a generalist with another generalist can be easier than finding another specialist for a position.
THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BECOMING A SPECIALIST
Similar to becoming a generalist, being a specialist will also have certain advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages of being a specialist
Perhaps the main benefit to a specialist career route is the ability to earn more money. Since specializing often takes longer (in terms of time spent studying, for example) and the positions are narrowly defined, the salaries tend to be higher, even at the starting point.
Specialists have gained knowledge in their particular subject, which is hard to come by and therefore the position of a specialist can be valuable for a company . The organization often has a few specialists operating in different sectors, which means the whole of the organization could rely on their expertise. This not only provides higher chances of a better salary, but can also provide the specialist more internal power. For example, you might be better placed to negotiate when it comes to implementing new management structures or other such issues.
Overall, as a specialist, you have the opportunity to become a true thought leader in your area of expertise. If you are passionate about the subject and you are willing to learn more about it as time goes on, you can become a widely recognized leader in your field. The ability to become a thought leader can further improve your career prospect and open up different opportunities in the field. After all people tend to seek for experts, rather than generalists, when encountered with a problem.
The disadvantages of being a specialist
However, specializing in a single subject can have its drawbacks. Whilst generalist can often enjoy a wide range of career options, specialists tend to suffer from career inflexibility. Your narrowed focus and expert skills in a particular area mean you can only find work in this narrow field.
You aren’t totally confined into a specific job title, but the available job opportunities become smaller in comparison to generalists. You can naturally choose to broaden your expertise later on in your career, just as you could potentially go from being a generalist to a specialist. A surgeon could for example go for an MBA and switch into a management role.
Furthermore, although you are likely the “go-to” expert in your organization in your field of work, as a specialist your opinion on other issues might not be as valid. Your opinion and input are probably mainly appreciated if the topic at hand involves your area of expertise directly.
Finally, while specialists can expect better earning opportunities, finding suitable positions can be much tougher. Since you are searching for a narrowly defined job, your available options will also be limited. In some cases, there are plenty of other specialists competing for the same position. As a specialist, you also have to stand out from the crowd.
WHAT ARE THE EMPLOYERS LOOKING FOR?
Although it is crucial you follow your heart and your passion when making the decision in terms of the subject you study, you should consider the requirements of future employers when deciding whether to become a generalist or a specialist. The job market is constantly changing and it is auspicious to prepare for what the future might hold.
Therefore, you want to ask what employers are looking for in today’s market. Is there more demand for specialists or generalists?
Some people say the modern job market is all about specialists. Several business thinkers believe people should focus on a particular section and gain “expert” status in order to advance further in their careers. On the other hand, the consensus among employees might be shifting slightly towards a new appreciation for generalists.
A 2013 study in the UK found employees believe specialists are under a threat. Around half of the respondents told they have a generalist position in a company, even though they were originally hired as a specialist. Both employees and employers told researchers a more generalist skill-set is often required in order to advance to senior positions within a company. Companies also pointed out they are hiring fewer specialists.
But the increase in generalists might not be as appreciated as one could think. In fact, the same study found employers worried about the impact of hiring fewer specialists and even employees said they feel less motivated as responsibilities have become more generalized. Furthermore, the researchers pointed out the study was done at a particularly tricky time in the economy. Companies might have turned to generalizing, as finances required fewer people to perform the majority of the tasks.
Specialist should also be aware of the way jobs are changing. A number of traditional jobs are currently facing the threat of automatization. Specialist jobs, such as a stockbroker, can already be performed to some extent by robots and programs. The job climate is rapidly changing. While the changes to workplace will affect all of us, generalists and specialists, specialists stand to lose out more. This is down to the narrower skill-set of a specialist, which might mean in order to find a new job, a specialist has to re-educate.
But it doesn’t mean the respect of specialists is diminishing. As mentioned above, most employers and employees still believe specialists are an essential part of the workplace. Therefore, the future job market is likely going to require both.
Interestingly, some are suggesting the future career path might look more like generalizing-specialist vs. specializing-generalist. Lev Kaye, the founder and CEO of CredSpark, wrote about these two categories. The definition of these new career paths states:
- A generalizing-specialist is someone who starts out as a generalist, but also has in-depth knowledge over a particular area.
- A specializing-generalist is someone who is specialized in a particular field, but also has a broader understanding of other aspects of the business.
It is easy to see the appeal of both types. They allow the organization, as well as the individual, to enjoy the best of both worlds. You’ll take the advantages of being a specialist and a generalist and limit the negative aspects of either profession.
Future companies are likely to require both skills. In fact, Dr Joos Meyer thinks it’s more about the synergy between the two groups. Organizational structures will require both types and the question shouldn’t be about which is better. Both provide value to an organization and communication between generalists and specialists is needed. In terms of personal choices, Dr Meyer wrote in his article, “I think we are here to see how we fit in best and how we can contribute the most value to create positive change in the world”.
Finally, watch the YouTube video below for another view on the debate through the eyes of Ido Portal, a professional dancer and performer:
THE BOTTOM LINE
When deciding between generalist and specialist career paths, you need to carefully consider the type of person you are. What are you looking for from your career?
If you are passionate about a specific niche topic, you should consider turning it into a career. Passion is needed for success and if you love learning more about a particular topic, then don’t be afraid to become the expert on that subject. On the other hand, if you have broader interests and you don’t quite know what you want from your career, starting out as a generalist can be a good way to find your desired career path.
You should also consider the broader subject of interest and what type of careers it offers. Certain domains, such as the hard sciences, are still filled with specialist positions. For example, in medicine, specialization is often the preferred choice. Physicists are also more often specialized in a particular topic.
The more uncertain and loosely defined domains, such as social sciences and business, can offer more options for generalists. These subjects often provide people with transferable skills, which could be used in a broader manner.
The key thing to remember is that the choice isn’t a matter of intellect or ability. Specialists are not smarter than generalists and simply by becoming a generalist, you don’t turn down the option of becoming a specialist later on. Both career choices require hard work, dedication and passion if you want to succeed.
Ultimately, the advantages and disadvantages of either path depend on your personality and drive. If you work hard towards achieving your career goals, you can do so as a specialist and as a generalist.