Generalist vs. Specialist: Which Is Better?
Updated July 21, 2022
When pursuing a career you can either be a generalist, who knows many skills and ideas, or a specialist, who focuses on becoming an expert in one area. Depending on how much training and the depth of study you undergo can determine which one you are and how marketable you are in the job field. Learning the differences between being a generalist and being a specialist can help you determine which level of responsibility you want and which one is best for you. In this article, we define what a generalist is, explain what a specialist is and compare the two roles and weigh the pros and cons of each.
What is a generalist?
A generalist is someone who is knowledgeable about many topics and has various interests, skills and hobbies. People in leadership roles may be generalists since they perform multiple tasks, sometimes across departments. Generalists understand all the moving parts of an industry and work well negotiating between departments. For instance, a veterinarian may be a generalist who practices on multiple animals and has a wide knowledge of various species.
What is a specialist?
A specialist is someone who is an expert in a certain field of study, occupation or practice. These individuals focus on a certain area or topic and build up an understanding in a specific niche. Companies may hire specialists to be the lead on projects with new processes or technological developments.
An example of a specialist may be a marine veterinarian who practices specifically on aquatic life and focuses their area of study on marine creatures, rather than various species. Even more specific could be a veterinarian who works solely with dolphins to understand all their individual dietary, medical care and exercise needs.
Related: How To Become an Expert
Generalist vs. specialist
Successful companies can use both generalists and specialists to carry out their daily operations. The two vary in their vastness of knowledge to work on both large scale and more intricate projects. Here are some differences between a generalist and a specialist:
Specialists have a deep understanding of a certain content area, while generalists have a more broad scope of knowledge within their own industry or across disciplines. Someone who specializes in one subject may focus all their energy on learning and staying up to date on it. Meanwhile, a generalist learns various skills that may apply in different fields. For example, a generalist may learn SEO, copywriting and social media management skills, to use in multiple industries like marketing or business development. In contrast, while a technical copywriter may focus on the specific details of writing about technology, hardware and systems.
Small companies may hire generalists to benefit from their wide range of skills, rather than hiring a specialist for each task. However, organizations may hire a specialist for an intricate job that requires a lot of specialized expertise. For instance, if someone is remodeling a kitchen, they may call a tile specialist to help update their countertops rather than relying on a general contractor to complete this task. Being a specialist in certain fields with heavy technical knowledge, such as healthcare or information technology, may make you more marketable in those industries.
Companies that experience quick changes in development or production may look to specialists to help create new ideas. Because they are always improving and learning in their industry, specialists can be more progressive than generalists. Because of the complex nature of their work, specialists may work better when their work pace changes over time. In contrast, because they use multiple skills each day, generalists may benefit from keeping a relatively stable and predictable work pace to stay efficient.
Because generalists have an array of knowledge, their skills are more transferrable among jobs. Things such as customer service, verbal and written communication or other soft skills may help you succeed in any position in any field. Specialists may have skills for a specific job. For example, a cardiovascular surgeon may learn specific techniques for conducting heart surgery that are beneficial for their specialty, but may not transfer to another field, or even to another surgical discipline.
Pros and cons of being a generalist
Being a generalist can be both rewarding and challenging, depending on your specific job requirements and field. Some benefits of being a generalist include:
Departmental connections: Having a wide amount of knowledge helps individuals see the connections between departments and find solutions that benefit their entire team or department.
Career flexibility: A wide understanding and possession of many skills can lead to opportunities to pursue many careers and can help prevent individuals from getting bored doing one task. Skills like problem-solving and communication are useful in most industries.
Adaptability: Because they have many skills and experiences, generalists can be more marketable for companies and able to jump between tasks easily.
Some cons of becoming a generalist include:
Worthiness: Because they aren't experts in one particular field or skill, it can be harder for generalists to show their worth within a company, especially one that's highly technical. However, a worker can market themselves by showing the benefit of them having multiple skills and knowledge.
Lack of job security: Replacing a generalist can be easier than finding a new specialist, since their skills aren't as unique. However, finding a job can be easier and quicker for generalists.
Exhaustion: Generalists may become easily fatigued in their positions if they frequently use multiple skills across a variety of tasks. Choosing a position with clear and consistent expectations may help prevent burnout.
Pros and cons of being a specialist
Choosing to become a specialist can have a variety of wonderful opportunities and challenges. Some benefits of becoming a specialist include:
Better pay: Salaries may be higher for specialists because of their education backgrounds and qualifications.
Less competition: Sometimes, if there are fewer people that specialize in a specific area, there are fewer competitors in the job market.
Specific content knowledge: Continuing to focus on one area of study or practice may allow you to understand every facet and more quickly understand developments in the field.
Some cons of being a specialist include:
Potential to become obsolete: Individuals who specialize in one job risk the possibility of being replaced by other means, such as technology, and having to find an alternative career path. For instance, those who once worked as switchboard operators had to find new jobs after the invention of automatic switchboards. However, specialists may choose to work in design or development sectors to create new technology rather than become replaceable by it.
Career inflexibility: Because specialists have very specific skills and knowledge, it may be a challenge for them to find open positions or jobs outside of their original field. However, once they find a position, they may keep it for many years, or throughout their entire career.
How to decide if you should be a generalist or specialist
You can figure out whether to focus on one area of expertise or multiple after assessing your personal preferences and traits. Here are some steps to take to decide whether being a generalist or a specialist is right for you:
1. Evaluate your interests
Once you discover what topic you are interested in for a future career, consider whether you want to narrow in on one niche or focus broadly. For example, a writer can evaluate whether they want to be a general writer on a variety of subjects or write for a specific topic, such as technical writing.
Related: How To Pick a Major in College
2. Weigh your dedication
Ask yourself if you feel the career path you selected is something you'll enjoy years from now. Specializing in a certain field is a commitment, but can pay off if it's something you enjoy. Those who are unsure of what they are interested in may consider something more general and specialize later on.
3. Consider depth vs. breadth
When choosing between generalist and specialist roles, consider whether you value depth or breadth of knowledge more. As a specialist, you'll be able to learn about a subject deeply, whereas a generalist position allows you to study more, or a wider breadth, of topics.
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