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6 minute read

Specialist vs Generalist: Which is Better for Career Development?

While some may advise you to find a niche and excel in it for faster career progress, others encourage seizing opportunities beyond your specialisation to equip yourself with the know-how for top-tier positions. Is one better than the other? We bring you the lowdown to help you decide.

The endless debate between specialist roles and generalist roles may appear to be a dilemma for fresh graduates looking to begin their career journeys or even seasoned professionals considering a career change.

To help you make an informed choice, we have fleshed out the details for each option. These pros and cons for specialist vs generalist roles can help you decide if taking the niche path or exploring different terrains will get you to the summit that you desire.

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Differentiating specialist roles from generalist roles

1. Skill sets

You might have heard this quote by William Shakespeare which succinctly describes generalists: A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one. These professionals are enthusiasts of upskilling, therefore boasting a broad skill set in multiple areas. A writer can be a generalist if they can write in multiple styles, for various industries, or easily adapt from one tone to another to communicate with different audiences.

On the other hand, specialists are professionals with profound knowledge in a specific field. They have strong foundations in their area of expertise and choose to hone their abilities in related areas.

2. Training and certifications

In this regard, generalists have more varied training which renders them more adaptable to different situations. They may be certified in some areas, but won’t necessarily choose tasks in those areas at work.

Specialists have more in-depth knowledge and explicitly seek out special training and certifications in their chosen fields. This enables them to optimise their knowledge and ultimately deliver a more advanced or expert output.

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3. Scope of work

Generalists take on more diverse roles and responsibilities within the company. Meanwhile, specialist roles focus on a specific function that ideally requires a subject matter expert.

Which is Better?

Whether you’re a fresh graduate who is about to enter the workforce or someone looking to define a new career path, there are a few factors to consider when choosing between a generalist or specialist role. Here are several points of comparison to see which would be best for you.

1. Versatility

In most workplaces, the roles and duties of a particular job title may vary. Generalists have the advantage when it comes to versatility as they have enough know-how in different areas to take on various tasks that come their way, and still deliver results. Generalists are also capable of readily shifting from one field to another, making it easier for them to climb the corporate ladder by undertaking all types of roles.

The career paths of specialists tend to be more straightforward. This isn’t to say that their roles do not vary. Even as a specialist, you can still upskill and expand your capabilities, be it to train yourself in your industry’s latest trends and technology, or to hone your transferable skills.

2. Profitability

Being certified in specialised skills can give you some leeway to demand higher pay, which can prove to be more lucrative over time.

In recent years, companies have shifted to prioritising employees’ specialisations and certifications rather than just their degrees. Thus, higher-paying positions are offered to professionals with a clear niche and certifications to back it up.

However, keep in mind that many CEOs took on generalist roles before landing the title and the paycheques that come with it since leading a company requires one to be adept in many fields.

3. Credibility

Many companies are gradually removing degrees from the list of mandatory job requirements. Instead, they are looking for individuals with certifications in skills required for the job role.

As a specialist, you have greater credibility backed by credentials and certifications. On the contrary, the knowledge and skills of generalists may be considered too broad to deem them as credible experts in a particular area, especially with a lack of accreditations. Generalists will lose out in roles requiring in-depth, certification-backed knowledge of a specific field.

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4. Marketability and Job Availability

Specialist roles are on an uptick in recent years, but generalists are similarly becoming higher in demand. With the pandemic pushing the world into digitalisation, generalists are found to have more courage to shift from one industry to another with less effort, due to their adaptability.

That isn’t a disadvantage for specialists, either. Being a specialist can make you more marketable in fields that require heavy technical knowledge, such as healthcare or IT. If digitalisation in your industry is pushing you to make a career jump, you can find an area relevant to your current specialisation. From there, work on any certifications that are required.

5. Sustainability

As New York Times’ bestselling author David Epstein describes in his book Range, “Keeping a broad range of interests, experimenting, and changing course now and then are essential to finding your true passions—and the success that comes with loving what you do.

While both generalists and specialists may have a wide range of interests that helped them find their calling, generalists may still have the upper hand when it comes to building a sustainable career. With their agility, they can make connections that their more specialized peers may not see, and readily shift their mindsets in the face of disruptions. This is a strength in a dynamic work environment.

Nonetheless, repetition is as much a practice as it is exhaustive. Being a specialist in one niche area may sound monotonous, but every role ultimately enjoys a variation in tasks and responsibilities. With an open mind towards learning, specialists also find novelty in work every day. It’s really up to you to discover which type of role suits your personality and abilities better.

The Jack of all trades or Master of one?

In a highly digitised world with companies managing multiple generations in the workforce, does it really matter if you are a generalist or a specialist?

The answer is a resounding yes… and no. Well then, how does one decide which path to take? It will make more sense to factor in the context or the conditions surrounding your decision.

What type of industry are you getting yourself into? What are you passionate about? How comfortable are you with accepting jobs beyond your comfort zone or field of study? Knowing these, as well as having an understanding of generalist roles and specialist roles, will give you a better gauge when deciding what kind of career you would like to pursue.

It may not be a matter of which is better – there is no right or wrong answer, and it will always depend on your preference and career goals.

This article is contributed by Jobstreet

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