AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

While many professionals prefer to remain in their general careers, some prefer to go on to specialize in their fields. Those people become subject matter experts.

What is a subject matter expert, after all?

A subject matter expert, also known as an SME, is a professional who specializes in a particular field and boasts a wealth of knowledge on a certain subject within that field. This person has a deep understanding of a process, a technology, a function, a machine, a piece of equipment, etc. They're able to solve specific problems and overcome technical challenges thanks to their expertise.

Here's everything you need to know about subject matter experts, what role they play, how to become one and what a career as a subject matter expert might look like.

What is the role of subject matter expert?

What is a subject matter expert job, anyway? That depends largely on the field in which a subject matter specializes.

Subject matter experts specialize in specific subjects within their field—which can be any field at all, those it often tends to be a technical or hands-on field that requires machining and equipment. That's why instructional designers usually come to them when they're developing courseware and learning programs, as they'll have the expertise to guide this courseware and these programs. Subject matter experts are also often called upon to act as guest lecturers and training instructors for students looking to learn about their subject of expertise.

Depending on the field in which a subject matter expert specializes, their specific duties will be different. Subject matter experts work in a variety of industries and, therefore, have a variety of responsibilities.

When are subject matter experts needed?

Sure, if you work in IT, you've probably been trained in IT. If you work in business operations, you've probably been trained in business operations. If you work in chemical science, you've probably been trained in chemistry. But, sometimes, a subject matter expert may need to be called in to navigate a particularly complicated challenge or issue that other professionals might not be fully equipped to handle. A subject matter expert is someone who is highly specialized in that dealing with that specific challenge.

For example, architects might call in a subject matter expert when they need to design a building but are facing an issue with a specific part of the design or land laws. Meanwhile, an engineer may have to call in a subject matter expert when they're building a new piece of technology and need an expert to help handle a particular part of that technology, such as specific bugs. 

How to become a subject matter expert

Generally speaking, subject matter experts develop their skills and knowledge over a very long period of time. They become subject matter experts because they've spent a lot of their career dealing with this subject, totally immersing themselves in the topic.

Of course, many subject matter experts have sought higher education and training in their areas of specialization. Many have gone on to pursue advanced degrees and certifications through rigorous programs of study in their field, for example.

Likewise, subject matter experts often go on to become active authors in their field, publishing research, articles and books on their topic of expertise. They may also serve as credible sources for news articles on their subjects.

Another way to become a subject matter expert is to share your knowledge publicly. Consider following other relevant authorities on your subject on social media, as well as relevant hashtags to keep abreast of what is happening in your subject. You can also leverage social media to market your own expertise by getting involved on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. You can join live chats on Twitter on your subject by tweeting along with live webcasts, for example.

You can also start a blog, vlog or podcast of your own.

Share Your Subject Matter Expertise

Beyond social media, you can start a blog or a podcast to share your knowledge and ideas regularly. Take advantage of technology to get your message out. A YouTube channel is another option. If you’re not ready to commit to regular content, try hosting or co-hosting a one-off webcast. Be open to questions so others can start to trust your information.

Becoming a subject matter expert takes time, experience, education and a willingness to keep learning and evolving.

Examples of subject matter experts 

Here are some examples of subject matter experts:

  • An expert on a particular product who can serve as a customer service representative, answering any questions about how the product works
  • An expert on a particular operating system who can assess whether or not a new application will be compatible with existing applications
  • An expert on a particular chemical and knows the ways in which it should and should not be used and can testify in court to the proper and misuse of it
  • An expert on a particular dataset who can serve as a data management specialist, advising on how to extract, format and market data
  • An expert on a particular service who can serve as a customer service representative, answering any questions about what the service offers
  • An expert on front- or back-end developing (as opposed to a full-stack developer who is trained in both)

How much does a subject matter expert make?

The average salary of a subject matter expert is $100,956 per year in the United States, according to Indeed, based on 250 salaries anonymously submitted to Indeed by Subject Matter Expert employees, users, and collected from past and present job advertisements on Indeed in the past 36 months.

That said, it's not easy to say how much subject matter experts earn because their salaries and pay are dependent upon their line of work. That said, here are some sample salaries of different kinds of subject matter experts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Database Administrators: $90,070 per year or $43.31 per hour
  • Material Scientist: $78,330 per year or $37.66 per hour
  • Business Operations Specialist: $76,960 or $37.00 per hour

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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 @herreportand Facebook.