Is It Better to Be a Generalist or a Specialist?
When establishing a career, a person can either be a generalist, who possesses many different ideas and skills, or a specialist, whose focus is to become an expert in one specific area of work, according to Indeed. If you learn the differences between a generalist and specialist, you are better able to make the ultimate decision of what direction you want to take in your career.
Many people in roles of leadership are generalists because they perform many tasks at the same time. People that are specialists in leadership roles may lead projects with specific processes or technological advances in mind. Specialists have a deep understanding of a certain content area while generalists have a broader scope of work landscape.
The pros of being a generalist are understanding of connections between departments, career flexibility and adaptability of handling many tasks. The con of a generalist is worthiness, lack of job security and exhaustion from doing too many tasks over time. The pros of being a specialist are better pay, less competition and specific content knowledge as a master of one area of focus.
The cons of a specialist include career inflexibility and having the ability to become obsolete as technology changes. You need to consider what interests you now and later in your career plus decide if you want to be an inch wide and a mile deep or vice versa. Understanding which is better for you in your career is not an easy decision to make.
Innovation Management stated a generalist has skills that are varied, and a specialist is one who has a particular field of study. In organizations, generalists tend to have roles that are very loosely defined. A specialist has a role that is narrower and more pronounced. An advantage of being a generalist is, with having a greater range of issues, one can understand issues that a specialist simply cannot understand. They can see the big picture and think out of the box. They have more transferable skills and tend to be the organizational leader.
The opportunities for a generalist are far greater than a specialist. The downside of a generalist is the simple fact of lack of depth of knowledge of organizational operations. Specialists typically have more internal power organizationally, due to their specialized understanding of complex issues. You are considered a thought leader in your area. You may have career inflexibility because of your narrowed field that may change over time and job options may be limited.
Over time, you may learn to be either a generalized specialist, one who is skilled in one area but willing to learn other areas and specialized generalists, one who has knowledge in many trades but also willing to increase knowledge to a proficiency level.
A Forbes article states that generalists and specialists have their roles to play within organizations. It just depends upon the context of work. Organizations enjoy generalists until a specific need for in depth knowledge is required. Educational qualifications are losing their sheen for generalists as specialists are obtaining real-time certificates for training.
Training is back in force for both generalists and specialists. Many employees, as generalists, are making dramatic career shifts. Many succession roles in organizations are being filled by specialists as organizations seem to believe experience is a proven predictor of future performance. Many entry-level jobs begin with specialist skills and change to either a generalist or specialist depending on their roles. One thought is to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of some!
The job market could be loosely divided into two categories, generalist and specialist, as noted in an article by Cleverism. The advantage of being a generalist could be when broad range knowledge is power. A wide base of understanding can help make better decisions over time. A generalist can see the big picture. In today’s world, it is critical that employees have the transferable skills generalists possess. They also have the ability of predicting the outcome of issues with uncertain outcomes. A negative to being a generalist is simply not having an in-depth understanding of things.
A specialist can earn more money since it takes more money and training for a specialist to gain expertise. They also gain more power as they are the expert and thought leader in that field. When a problem occurs in an organization, people tend to seek out the specialist to solve a particular problem. A negative to being a specialist is having a narrow focus that may change over time. It is believed that future companies will require employees to have both generalist and specialist skills to enhance the total organization.
A Fairy God Boss blog notes that generalists are jacks of all trades while specialists are experts. Specialists tend to have more credentials than generalists. Generalists have a breadth of knowledge while specialists have a depth of knowledge. To make a choice of what direction to take, ask yourself if you are interested in a specific topic or do you change your career mind often? Ask yourself what is more important to you, depth, or breadth of a particular field of knowledge. Do you want to be a master of an area of study or understand at a high level, many areas of study? The answers to these questions will help you decide if you would like to be a generalist, specialist, or a combination of both areas of expertise.
A Grayline Group blog about generalists and specialists believe that COVID is driving hiring decisions of managers based upon good moral character, work ethic and talent above a specific skill set or expertise. As the world continues to evolve at a rapid pace, the need for transferable skills is more valuable than ever. According to Roberta Sydney, in her piece “Specialist, Generalists and Private Company Board Composition,” generalists tend to bring more value to the organizational table because they are great communicators, have broad business skills and have a wider range of experiences to share with others.
David Epstein, in his book, “Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” shows that our greatest strength of generalists is the ability to think broadly, according to Greater Good Magazine. He believes by attaining breadth in different forms, you are more likely to thrive in the workplace. You need to have a varied background that will open a world of opportunities.
Is it better to be a generalist or specialist? Currently, I am inclined to say be a generalist, but also have specialist knowledge in several key areas. Over time, you will understand what areas in the nonprofit arena ignite your passions, increase your skills, and make you a subject matter expert. Always remember that knowledge is power and strive to keep this knowledge continually up to date.
Duke Haddad, Ed.D., CFRE, is currently associate director of development, director of capital campaigns and director of corporate development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis. He also serves as president of Duke Haddad and Associates LLC and is a freelance instructor for Nonprofit Web Advisor.
He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO since 2008.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis on education administration plus a dissertation on donor characteristics. He received a master’s degree from Marshall University with an emphasis on public administration plus a thesis on annual fund analysis. He secured a bachelor’s degree (cum laude) with an emphasis on marketing/management. He has done post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
Duke has received the Fundraising Executive of the Year Award, from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Indiana Chapter. He also was given the Outstanding West Virginian Award, Kentucky Colonel Award and Sagamore of the Wabash Award from the governors of West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, respectively, for his many career contributions in the field of philanthropy. He has maintained a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) designation for three decades.