Wondering what the difference between a specialist and a generalist is? Here's everything you need to know about the two very different, careers.
Specialists and generalists are very different career paths that make up the two loosely divided categories of the job market.
If you're hunting for your first job, you might be wondering which path you should take. And, even if you're well into your career, you might be wondering if you made the right initial choice. In order to make those decisions for yourself, it's important to understand what exactly a specialist and a generalist are.
So, what is a generalist role? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s very simple definition of a generalist, a generalist is “a person who knows something about a lot of subjects”. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster defines a specialist as “a person who has special knowledge and skill relating to a particular job, area of study."
Generalists are, essentially, jacks of all trades. They boast a large array of skills that are widely applicable across industries. For example, they might be able to handle all of your copywriting, SEO and social media marketing needs. But a specialist, on the other hand, may be an even more adept expert in strictly SEO. They may be able to dive deeper into the SEO world with you, but they're not necessarily equipped to handle your copywriting or social media marketing needs.
There tend to be more specialists in the workforce than generalists. Why are there more specialists than generalists? It may be because ever more people are getting themselves educated than ever before. Therefore, there's competition among candidates with degrees — so they go on to specialize in their fields by getting higher educations and getting themselves certified to set themselves apart from the rest.
To put it simply: While generalists know a little about a lot, specialists know a lot about a little.
There are certainly pros and cons to both a specialist and a generalist career. Here are the pros and cons to each path.
Specialists may be able to earn more money since they're better qualified for specific roles than generalists. They benefit from having an exhaustive knowledge base in their fields, which is coveted quality.
Because specialists are experts in one study, they run the risk of pigeon-holing themselves. If a writer specializes in one beat, such as politics, for example, it may be difficult for them to branch out and get writing gigs on other topics down the line. Likewise, if you're a gynecologist, a specialist doctor, it'll take going back to school and largely starting over to become a cardiologist, another kind of specialist. If you're a general practitioner, you'll still have to go back to specialize in a field, but you'll already have a base of knowledge that may still be helpful and applicable to all fields.
A generalist is adaptable because they have enough knowledge on and experience in several different areas. They're able to bounce around more easily and offer more skills. For companies that want to hire just one person to do everything, especially if they're on a budget, generalists are extremely handy.
Because generalists can do everything well, they may not be able to do any one thing the best. Unlike specialists, generalists may spread themselves thin trying to develop too many skills across a broad range of areas. Not focusing on becoming the best they can be in any one thing can hurt them in the long run, since their skills will inevitably cap at some point.
It's difficult to decide whether you should become a specialist or a generalist, especially early on in your career. It's worth asking yourself the following questions to help you make a sound decision.
Ask yourself if you'd rather study a wide range or subject or narrow your studies down to a single specific topic. For example, if you're interested in studying history, are you interested in studying history as a broad concept, or are you especially interests in ancient Greek history or Roman history? If you're interested in studying English, are you interested in learning as much as you can about the English language, or are you particularly keen on learning about British literature?
If you know you are interested in a specific topic, it may be worth following that passion. If you're not sure what topics interest you the most, it may be worth dabbling around and getting to know more about the subject as a whole. You can always buckle down to specialize in a specific topic later on.
Are you the kind of person who changes their mind quite often? If you are, it might not be wise to specialize in a topic early on. It's a lot harder to gain general experience once you're already specialized than it is to go back to school and specialize in your field later on.
If your heart is set on a field of study, and you're confident that you've always wanted this as a career or that you don't foresee yourself having a change of heart any time soon, it may be worth getting ahead of the game by specializing early on.
The biggest criticism of generalists is that they sacrifice depth for breadth; they cannot become true thought leaders in their field, as specialists can. But again, specialists tend to suffer from inflexibility, while generalists can dabble in and explore a wide array of careers. So ask yourself if it's more important to you to have depth of knowledge or breadth of knowledge.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.