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Specialist vs Generalist Careers: Differences, Pros and Cons

Specialist vs Generalist Careers: Which is better

Welcome to the perennial specialist vs generalist debate. What’s the difference between the two? Which is better for your career?

Consider these two scenarios.

Scenario #1:

You are stuck in an island with two people who could help you get out. An aeronautical expert who could technically design a flying machine, if provided with a 512 MB DRAM or higher OpenGL-capable graphics card and a 32GB RAM, and another guy who has a fair knowledge of the ocean tides, the great whites, edible fruits in the island and knows how to make ropes from tree bark.

Scenario #2:

You have a choice of heading to the restaurant and have the chef cook you a delicious Duck a l’Orange or let your spouse, adept at cooking up a quick ramen or scrambled egg, take a stab at it.
Two scenarios and two clear winners, Tarzan and the chef. What is the difference? In the first scenario, you are not looking for an expert who in principle can fly you out of the island but has no means to execute it.

Instead you are looking for a guide to help you survive. In the second, you are hoping to be treated with a delicacy and not a five minute meal.

So what did we learn?

It is not necessarily true that you would prefer a specialist all the time. A specialist is one who has mastered the skill of one particular trade while a generalist is someone who has a fair knowledge of all trades but not an expert in any. In other words a generalist is Jack.

Starting out on your career, you may well likely be posed with the question on what to choose? Should you go for a finance MBA or keep it general and teach yourself the basics and try some o’some? Would it be more rewarding to train to be an HR or a Remuneration HR specialist?

While what determines your future success, will depend a lot on your performance and your willingness to improve, a set of commandments won’t hurt you along the way. These are observations and will of course vary based on the particular field.

So, if you decide to not get an MD and ask a patient to let you make a tiny incision, expect a visit from the cops. Leave it to the specialists please.

How will you decide which one of these paths is the more viable option? Which is better – being a generalist or specialist? Let’s review the pros and cons of each career type.


Specialist Career pros and cons.

Go Pro!!

Pro 1: Who you gonna call?

When you want something done and have it done well, you turn to the expert. Specialists generally start early in identifying their core niche. Spending time and effort on one skill generally makes them the go to person to resolve any high level issues.
Pro 2: Show me the money

Although there are some sources on how Management specialization  students tend to get lower signing bonuses than their all-rounder friends, there is data indicating that some of the highest paid jobs in the world are done by especially specialists and not generally generalists.

Of course, once in the organization, experience at the same counts for the biggest bucks. If you think about it, there are jobs only specialists can do and companies will be willing to pay for that.
Pro 3: Employee Training 101

What do companies hate more than a high employee turnover? An employee who will need babysitting. A specialist needs to be shown the reign only a few times. That saves up time to do other important things, like say work! Companies end up spending billions, well ok…some amount of money in training unskilled employees. Not to mention the time and effort.
Le contre

Contre 1: So you have a PhD?

Specialists sometimes tend to be so fixed in their area of expertise that they can in turn become work force pariahs. They won’t be consulted for problems other than their specialization. Imagine an expert in mangoes, at a juice factory, sitting idle for the winter. Who would have thought getting to know kumquats could have been a career saver.
Contre 2: I, Robot. You, Obsolete

Specialists also run the risk of being replaced. History is an abundant resource of instances when some form of human skill was taken over by technology. The entire field of printing technology has been replaced with computers.

In fact IBM has created a computer that can play Jeopardy, against humans. Humans are already in a race against machines and there is a new invention every other day, sneaking up behind us and doing our jobs better and faster than us. What say to that, eh?
Contre 3: The Multitasker

And what about companies who are looking to create no specific job roles, but more complex employee profiles, filled with multiple skills? Where will the focused specialist go with just one?

Generalist Careers pros and cons

Le Pour

Pour 1: Sea of possibilities

Let’s just say you are young, fresh out of school and just beginning to explore your possibilities. You are still trying different cuisines and haven’t settled on your favorite yet. You haven’t even decided if you prefer Classic rock or this New Age Rock thing. Then why do you need to decide your specialization right away?

A generalist career gives you room to join an organization under the broad umbrella of your field and then don on various hats to see which one fits best.
Pour 2: Now hiring…

Some companies dream to have one employee who can do several jobs well rather than have many employees do different ones. Why? Cost and efficiency. There is less time and money spent when skills are transferrable.

There are jobs that still need the technical and professional expertise of a specialist, but someone who has the willingness and aptitude to learn many skills can become quite invaluable to the company.

For the same reason, it is possible that companies would want to hire generalists more to keep their costs low while not compromising on the quality. Studies by Merluzzi & Phillips, Business School Faculties from Tulane and Columbia University have published an analysis on how MBA students with investment banking specialization are less likely to get multiple job offers.
Pour 3: Who’s the boss?

Finally one of the biggest pour of all is that as you begin to climb the organizational ladder, you will need to adapt a more generalist approach. Managers should be able to piece all the puzzle together to understand the big picture and that is essentially a generalist mantra.
Kaunse kaunse cons?

Con 1: Could you get my coffee please?

Generalists may not be as prized as a specialist, to a company. If you are not skilled in a skill, your worth may not be realized completely until you work and prove your mettle.

So, while a specialist will have a shiny focused niche to brag about, on her/his CV, a generalist will need to work harder at recognizing their skill potentials and becoming invaluable for the company.
Con 2: Learning your ABC’s…

Not having a particular expertise will need you to find your skills relevant to the company. Your company may need to spend time on your coaching. In turn you will have to spend time in training, when instead it could be better spent in pulling your weight around the workplace and start contributing.
Con 3: Call 1 800…for the expert

While it is true that specialists may not get hired as quickly, as a generalist, freelance specialists are in abundance and companies are willing to hire them for a short term to do their tricks and make the fix.

Why buy when you can rent, as some wise man has said. Such an arrangement is going to be a little unsettling to generalists looking to expand their skill for job security.
So who wins?

It is not a democratic decision. The answer is more in a mix of both. As this article suggests, 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.
No but seriously, who wins?

Katniss Everdeen.

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3 thoughts on “Specialist vs Generalist Careers: Differences, Pros and Cons”

    • It’s tougher to make that choice when one is a recent graduate, since most jobs would be of a technical nature related to the domain you’ve graduated in (computers, electrical, mechanical etc). The choice becomes more apparent as the years go by and you’ve already built a strong foundation in your chosen field.

  1. It should be “What do companies hate more than a high turnover?” When it is a high turnover, it means HR is churning through employees, too many people leaving in short period of time and HR have to replace them.

    Sorry, I chuckled at that as it is a simple mistake but wanted to point it out for your future reference.

    Good article to help those newly graduated.




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