Career talk: generalist or specialist?

There is a conundrum as to which is better path to take – either being specialist or generalist. We need to understand each side to see which can give us a competitive advantage. It maybe dependent on which industry we belong to, what type of work we are doing and which area in the industry we are connected to. But let us go further with discussing the detail to better understand the technicalities of both and then it maybe a right time to conclude.

Being generalist, by the term itself convey a denotation that we wear multiple hats. In a smaller organizations, most of the employees tend to be generalist or they call it “one-man-team” while in large firms – most of the employees tend to be specialists in their field where work is divided based on skills set, type or probably based on product or service line category.

specialist or generalist

Having said that, let us dig deeper on how these two types of employees differ.

Generalist employee

Advantages

  • Flexible to perform several roles in an organization without starting from the bottom.
  • Can switch career easily given of skills variety.
  • Fundamental understanding on every aspect and can speak about it on a high level.
  • Suits well in the executive level given the conceptual knowledge (but the question is, how can a generalist reach an executive level position).
  • Can be effective in a start-up setup where broad knowledge in every aspect is necessary.

Disadvantages

  • “Master-of-none”, no deep knowledge on a certain subject.
  • In large organizations, generalists may simply be replaced by specialists.
  • Cannot work on the breadth of the subject.
  • Salary may not be as high as specialist mainly for individual contributor level.
  • Career may suffer when changing roles in a short span of time and may have a challenge in stepping up to the corporate ladder.

Specialist employee

Advantages

  • Respected and trusted individuals in certain domain of expertise.
  • In a contributor or on technical leadership level, can earn more as compared to the generalist.
  • Skills are hard-to-find which is highly sought by large or specialized organization.
  • Asset of large or specialized organizations where skills on specific areas are of utmost importance.
  • Can deliver results efficiently on their area of expertise given the mastery.

Disadvantges

  • Skills may become obsolete so need to build a career again from scratch.
  • Can only make decisions based on specific area of expertise and may not be able to give broad perspectives on matters pertaining to complex problems requiring knowledge and skills on multiple domains.
  • May not be able to comfortably work with highly coupled teams where deep expertise is not needed.
  • Can be difficult to find a job if job market is saturated.
  • Inflexible to change roles requiring different field of expertise.

Now that we have looked at the specifics of the strengths and weaknesses of each, it is time to tackle scenarios so to see which career path works for you the most.

career path

Scenario 1:

In todays technological revolution, if you are working in an IT domain..you need to think whether mastering security or robotics is beneficial to you in terms of your career aspiration. If you are still young and starting out your career, it is a best option (you start early when as it begins to boom). But in a case that you are retiring and you spent a decade in your IT career and is on a completely different area (e.g. database, reporting, etc.) – you may find it strange to switch over and specialize. You can rather move to somewhat similar role when you think your specialty may expire soon.

In the case of IT, you need to specialize if you are staying for individual contributor role all your life. Unless you are working on a small IT company or in-house solution where you need to handle IT related functions then you may have to chime in to several roles. In your early career, it may also be beneficial to become generalist to see if which field best suits you.

Scenario 2:

In HR role, your career goal is to lead the whole HR group. In this case, it is practical to understand the technicalities of different fields as you will need to know the ins and outs of the operations. Being generalist sounds like a good path. But wait, you may need to be on a specialized position for years (e.g. HR for Compensation and Benefits, etc.).

Again, there is no perfect answer but it depends on your career goal, industry, age (this might matter) among other things. Keep in mind that you need to weigh carefully as it is not easy to switch from being generalist and then specialist and vice versa.

 

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