Specialist or Generalist: Which Is Better for Your Career?

The latest thoughts on an age-old debate.

Published: Aug 29, 2019

Career advice isn't always clear-cut. That's especially true in the ongoing debate over whether it's better to be a specialist or a generalist at work.

Of course, there are valid arguments for both. According to a study by Stanford labor economist Edward Lazear, generalists-people who have knowledge across a broad range of areas-are more likely to snag a top management job than specialists, whose knowledge runs deep and narrow. At the same time, history has shown that companies continue to pay for expertise: right now, AI specialists with just a few years of experience are commanding salaries as high as $500,000 because their skills and knowledge are in such demand.

More companies these days are looking for leaders who have diverse experiences and can handle an operations glitch just as deftly as a financial restructuring.

The truth is, when it comes to specializing and generalizing, both routes can help you get ahead in your career, but neither offers a guarantee. As a jack-of-all-trades, you could have a tough time trying to set yourself apart in a job search. As a specialist, you could find yourself pigeonholed in an industry that's on a slow march to obscurity. Here are a few key questions that can help you decide if you're on the right path.

What a career stage are you in?

In today's competitive landscape, some career pros advise specializing first and generalizing later. "It's wiser to specialize early to get you in the door," says Marty Nemko, a career coach and author of Careers for Dummies. "Generalists are going to yield a lot of yawns." That's because companies are increasingly looking to plug young employees into very specific roles designed to move the company forward-or even roles that have yet to be created. The ones who excel in these roles and learn the craft will stand out, which can help them advance faster.

The advice changes, however, for those who are further along in their careers and want to prime themselves for leadership. Career pros say more companies these days are looking for leaders who have diverse experiences and can handle an operations glitch just as deftly as a financial restructuring. So that requires seeking out roles and project opportunities that give you exposure to other fields, and looking for ways to network with others who are outside of your typical scope.

How quickly does your industry change?

Finding success as a generalist or specialist may very well depend on your industry. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Southern California and London Business School found that in industries where the pace of change is slow-such as waste management, oil and gas, or mining-generalists tend to be more successful because they can use their knowledge about other areas to identify new opportunities and challenge old modes of thinking. But in industries where the pace of change is rapid, such as medicine and tech, specialists tend to perform better, as they more readily understand new technical developments and put them into action.

What does your gut say?

Sometimes, deciding whether to veer more generalist or specialist may not feel like a choice. That's because much of it is dependent on your personality, passion, and natural inclinations. "If you're willing to spend 10,000 hours to become an expert in something, great," says Hamaria Crockett, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. "If you have multiple things you find joy in, it's okay to not want to put in the time." Neither is a reflection of how smart you are; rather, it may come down to what you're best suited to do.

No matter which route you go down, experts say it's crucial to stay current and adopt an attitude of constant learning. "The importance of being relevant could mean the difference between being promoted or remaining where you are," Crockett says.

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