Generalist vs Specialist: Is one better than the other?

There are two broad categories in the job market: generalist roles and specialist roles. Deciding between the two is one of the earliest and most important career decisions you are likely to find yourself making.

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There are two broad categories in the job market: generalist roles and specialist roles. Deciding between the two is one of the earliest and most important career decisions you will find yourself making. Would you prefer to have a depth of expertise in one subject or skill? Or to be broadly knowledgeable across a range of them? Or maybe the answer lies somewhere in between?

Generalists and specialists offer value to companies in different ways, and there are many career options within either role. This article will discuss some of the differences between generalist and specialist career roles, the advantages of each, and how they might overlap. 

What’s the Difference Between a Generalist and a Specialist?

A generalist is knowledgeable across many topics, has various interests and skills, but is not specialised in any particular one. Their scope of knowledge may be broad within their industry or even span across several disciplines. Generalists tend to have loosely defined roles within a field. An example of a generalist within the medical field might be a general practitioner who sees patients of all ages and varying degrees of extremity. 

A specialist is an expert in a particular field of study, occupation, or practice. Specialists tend to prioritise one specific topic and focus their energy and resources on developing a thorough understanding of their niche. An example of a specialist in the medical field might be a neonatologist who solely focuses on treating infants. 

Advantages of a Generalist Role

The diverse skill set of a generalist is suitable for a broad range of responsibilities. In this way, generalists provide plenty of value for companies, particularly in smaller companies or start-ups. Small companies might be unable or unwilling to hire a specialist for each of their tasks, instead, they may rely on generalists.  If your ideal workplace is with a small, tight-knight group of people, being a generalist could offer you more of those opportunities. 
The broad scope of knowledge possessed by generalists can also be valuable when problem-solving. Generalists are often able to understand several different perspectives as well as the connections between multiple disciplines. Generalists are often great at coming up with solutions that offer the best outcomes for everyone. They can draw on a breadth of background knowledge that helps them better visualise the big picture and come up with creative solutions. The flexibility of generalist roles also means that generalists tend to be better at navigating through uncertainty in their careers, daily or long term.

In addition to teaching many skills, generalist roles also teach skills that transfer seamlessly across different jobs. As a result, those working in generalist roles tend to have more career options and more flexibility to change course during their career. Generalist roles are usually for creative people who are curious and enjoy experimenting with different ideas and technology.
 

Advantages of a Specialist Role

If you are confident in your passion for a particular subject or skill, pursuing a specialist role might be the best way to find the career options you are looking for. Becoming a specialist would offer the opportunity to focus your energy on fully understanding your passion and mastering the skills that come along with it. As a specialist, there are opportunities for you to excel in your passion, become a respected expert, or even a leader in the niche of your choosing. Proficient specialists are often highly valued by companies for their rare and thorough insight. 

When faced with an intricate job or problem, organisations usually value the technical input from a specialist. There are more career options for specialists in industries that require a deep technical understanding, such as medicine or IT. Additionally, larger firms usually have a few specialists across different sectors, with the company dependent on their expertise. If you want to create an impact in a big firm, pursuing specialist roles may offer you more opportunities to do so. 

To enter a specialist role, one usually needs to undergo rigorous training. Specialist roles often come with higher salaries, even at entry levels. The qualifications required for specialist roles mean there is often less competition for job opportunities, making it easier for you to land a job doing work you’re passionate about.

Becoming a Specialised Generalist 

As organisations require qualities from both generalists and specialists, it’s worth thinking about adopting attributes from both. It is beneficial for you to be skilled in the ways of a generalist, but also to be skilled across these roles like a specialist.

You might start your career as a generalist or a specialist but later seek opportunities to grow either vertically or horizontally, eventually becoming a specialised generalist or ‘T-shaped’. The best way to understand this is to imagine a capital T. The vertical line represents your specialisation, in which you have depth and expertise. The horizontal bar represents your broad range of other skills that complement your core discipline. 
Some of the greatest minds throughout history have been specialised generalists. Consider Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci is most respected for his art, but he also dabbled in engineering, mathematics, literature, music, and botany. These other interests then informed his art - an example being the application of botany and mathematics in his paintings. Supplementing depth in one subject with the general knowledge of others strengthens expertise by opening new perspectives through which the expert can consider their skill. 

Both specialist and generalist roles have their merits, and whichever one you find ‘better’ depends solely on your personal preference. Most companies will require both generalists and specialists in their day-to-day operations, meaning there are plenty of career options within both roles. If you have a wide range of interests and aren’t sure exactly what you want, starting as a generalist can be a way to explore those interests and find opportunities where you can put your variety of talents to good use. On the other hand, if you know you’re passionate about a specific topic, then don’t be afraid of starting your career by dedicating your resources as a specialist.

Whichever path you choose, it’s also worth remembering to be open to developing your skills with breadth or depth. And who knows? You may eventually find yourself reaping the best of both worlds.  
 

- Wendy Xu, Nxtstep Content Writer

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