By: Trishna Patnaik
In building your career, you’re likely asked to choose one of two tracks: to become a specialist or to pursue the path of a generalist. This article takes a look at advantages and disadvantages of choosing either of these two paths, and discusses some grey area in between.
“Transitions themselves are not the issue, but how well you respond to their challenges!” — Jim George
Are You a Specialist or a Generalist?
“There is definitely a seduction to being an expert, an assumption in society that credibility relies on deep (and narrow) expertise. However, for the people operating at the edges, intersections, and overlaps is where innovation thrives, so being a generalist is far more powerful.” — Jess McMullin
Before we attempt to jump into the heated debate, let’s first try to define what each of the ‘labels’ mean!
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a specialist is ‘one who specialises in a particular occupation, practice, or field of study’; whereas a generalist is ‘one whose skills, interests, or habits are varied or unspecialised.’
Which one is better? Is there actually one which is better than the other? These are some of the questions which have been debated over and over.
Jess McMullin quoted above has undoubtedly chosen his position, but instead of alimenting the discussion, let’s get to understand the two categories a little more.
Generalists are the “jacks of all trade” – they have an understanding on 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 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 on 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 Egypt 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 even a simple cold.
On the other hand, if you’ve trained as a specialist, the role would be more defined and you would be broadly speaking, mostly deal with similar cases each day. For example, as a pediatric surgeon your patients would all be children always.
As the roles of generalists and specialists vary within an organization, it is important to consider which route you want to follow. While it is possible to change your career later on in life, either by specializing in or broadening your focus, you should consider the pros and cons of both routes before you make the decision.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, you are nowhere compared to where you can go.” — Bob Proctor
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Becoming a Generalist
There are benefits and even 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 in terms of choosing a wider career path!
The Advantages of Being a Generalist
Firstly, knowledge is power in today’s world—having a good understanding of a wider selection of topics can definitely be an advantage. The world is very interconnected, with different people working together and solving complex issues.
A generalist, with knowledge on a broad range of issues, can see deeper inside the interconnectedness and find solutions that a specialist might not be able to. All the different departments within a business do 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 should not 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 visualise the big picture and think out-of-the-box.
In a fast-changing workplace, transferable skills are becoming increasingly important. Generalists tend to posses more transferable skills. 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 is not a wonder that generalists tend to be the leaders and managers within organizations. This comes down to the transferable skills. If you know how to manage employees, you will be able to do this in different businesses, the industry is not that important after all! The skill-set comprising of project management, effective communication and good people skills are required whether you are leading a team of accountants or IT people.
The other huge benefit of being a generalist is career flexibility. As you have a broader understanding of a subject, have a selection of transferable skills at your disposal so 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 altogether. The career opportunities are far wide and you would be able to swap between different careers. However, if you want to become a professor for the history of ancient Egypt, you will not have the required knowledge.
Finally, generalists may benefit from the fact they are better at navigating through uncertainty. 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
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 for them to have an in-depth understanding of things as by simply knowing the surface you can overlook the brevity of it.
You may 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 too. Replacing a generalist with another generalist can be easier than finding another specialist for a position.
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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 core 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 will rely on their expertise. This not only provides higher chances of a better salary, but also does 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 core 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 definitely become a widely recognized leader in your field. The ability to become a thought leader does improve your career prospect and open up different opportunities in the field. After all most people tend to seek for the experts, rather than generalists, when encountered with a problem!
The Disadvantages of Being a Specialist
Specializing in a single subject can have its drawbacks. Whilst a 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 are not totally confined into a specific job title, but the available job opportunities become smaller in comparison to generalists. You can choose to broaden your expertise later on in your career, just as you could go from being a generalist to a specialist. A surgeon could for example go for an MBA and even 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 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 way tougher. Since you are searching for a narrowly defined job, your available options will also be limited too. In some cases, there are plenty of specialists competing for the same position. As a specialist, you also have to really stand out from the crowd.
Becoming successful is possible. You have to pick up a golf club fresh out of the womb and, before you know it, you’ll have won 15 major championships. Or learn how to play chess starting at the age of four, pave your way to grandmaster rankings. That is how Tiger Woods and the Polgar sisters were able to reach enormous success—by getting a head start on the rest of the world, specializing and honing their abilities until they reached utmost mastery.
However, specializing can hinder success in “wicked environments,” where there is less repetition and far more randomness. Unfortunately, the latter are more prevalent in the complex, rapidly changing world in which we live. That means becoming a generalist that is someone who can embrace diverse experiences and perspectives may be more necessary than ever.
Why Generalists Succeed
The benefits of sacrificing depth for breadth for children learning music, sports, math, and art; college graduates trying to find their way; mid-career professionals searching for a change; and would-be retirees trying to find a new vocation.
It is true that specializing at a young age can push children ahead of the curve temporarily. But replacing intensive training with an approach focused on curiosity, creativity, and experimentation is what often leads to a permanent growth instead of short-lived success.
“Mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power,” Epstein says, “and head starts are overrated!”
Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity. Although a generalist approach may be beneficial in the classroom, how can it be applied to the broader world? It is by attaining breadth in different forms, you are more likely to both thrive in your workplace and be more satisfied with your job.
So Who Wins?
It is not a democratic decision. The answer is more in a mix of both. It is better to find a hybrid of the skill sets and be flexible and eager enough to be able to don on any hat as and when the situation calls for it.
To be able to find your secure position in a company, you not only need to find yourself being useful in more ways than one but also be respectably skillful in all.
The roles being termed as Generalizing Specialists – ones who are skilled in one but willing to learn skills in other trades, and Specializing Generalists – ones who are knowledgeable in many trades but also willing to increase that knowledge base to a proficiency.
Be a Specialist in Your Topic for Sure
It is helpful to have worked in a variety of industries, and over the course of your career, you will naturally have worked on a variety of business issues. But for the employers you’re talking to, you want to show a level of depth in that industry and role that will be competitive with a Specialist. This means that you have to exhaustively research your prospective employers. You can’t sell an employer on being a talented Generalist who will learn that in an industry – no one wants to pay you to learn!
Be a Generalist in Your Very Skills
While you want to deeply understand the industry and the role, you also want to put forward a breadth of skills, especially if you are aiming for a management job. In addition to the functional specialty (for example, branding, direct response, digital, etc. that is if you’re working with marketing), you need to be able to relate to people, communicate well, perhaps manage people and/or budgets, forecast or model scenarios, and other skills broader than your specific role.
Be a Specialist in Desire
Just as the employer expects you to know their business like a Specialist knows the business, they also expect you to want their business (and the role at hand) as if it’s the only thing you’re after. You do not want to put all your eggs in one basket, and surely the employer is looking at other candidates, but you need to make them feel like this is your very first choice. To convey this effectively, you need specific reasons that this role, the company and the industry is the ideal next step for you.
Be a Generalist in Your Approach Thereafter
At the same time that you want to show a very singular desire, you don’t want to seem narrow-minded, inflexible, or display a void in creativity. So your desire is specific to the role at hand, but your approach is out-of-the-box and drawing from a wide expanse of interests and knowledge. To convey this without sounding like you’re a bag of clichés, you want to be ready with specific examples on how you solved a variety of problems.
In one case, you leaned onto interpersonal skills. In another, you had an innovative idea. In another, you efficiently managed a complex project and a cross-functional team. You are flexible and even willing to use a variety of tools to get the job done.
A generalizing specialist has a core competency which they know a lot about. At the same time, they are always learning and have a working knowledge of other areas. While a generalist has roughly the same knowledge of multiple areas, a generalizing specialist has one deep area of expertise and a few shallow ones. We have the option of developing a core competency while building a base of interdisciplinary knowledge.
Many specialists excel in their area of expertise, and with time, become highly valuable assets. On the other hand, many specialities become obsolete as technology moves forward. Design methodologies, programming languages, and development platforms fade into obscurity as years go by. Furthermore, many creative people have trouble forcing themselves to specialize in a specific area. They are curious by nature and they love learning about and tinkering with many different concepts and technologies. The truth is that for some people specialization ends up being a blessing, and for others it is a prison.
About the Author
Trishna Patnaik, a BSc (in Life Sciences) and MBA (in Marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. A self-taught artist based in Mumbai, Trishna has been practising art for over 14 years. After she had a professional stint in various reputed corporates, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful. She found her true calling in her passion that is painting. Trishna is now a full-time professional painter pursuing her passion to create and explore to the fullest. She says, “It’s a road less travelled but a journey that I look forward to everyday.” Trishna also conducts painting workshops across Mumbai and other metropolitan cities of India.
Trishna is an art therapist and healer. She works with clients on a one on one basis in Mumbai. Trishna fancies the art of creative writing and is dappling her hands in that too, to soak in the experience and have an engagement with readers, wanderers and thinkers.
Featured image via Unsplash.