There comes a point in many careers where we reach a proverbial fork in the road. For many, it might be a change of profession altogether; for others, it might be a choice between continuing on or taking a break. It could even mean making the choice between going self-employed versus remaining with an employer.
But one “career fork” which often sneaks under the radar is the question of whether to become a specialist in a specific field, or to learn a bit of everything – becoming a generalist, as it were.
The specialist vs generalist debate rages in so many professions; whether it’s HR, IT or – where I specialise in recruiting – finance and accounting, the focus can be on one piece of the scope or take in the full view. And there are huge pros and cons to each.
In today’s job market, whichever route you go down, it’s paramount to know your stuff. But let’s delve into the specialist vs generalist debate, and talk about the differences between the two.
What makes a specialist?
As the name would suggest, a specialist is someone who has particularly honed knowledge relating to a particular area of their job or study.
For example, you could work in accounting with a focus solely on the public (vs private) sector. You could still be a generalist within that public sector, but your knowledge and experience within it would make you a specialist to the way things work.
Regardless of what sector you choose to build your career within, there are then deeper specialisms within that – tax accounting, management accounting, forensic accounting, international. Carve a niche within one of these and you’ll be bringing super specialised knowledge to the table. This can be incredibly valuable for the right business, who needs you and only you.
What makes a generalist?
A generalist is by no means less knowledgeable than a specialist, only their knowledge is built around various subjects and applicable to many scenarios.
Again, to use accounting as an example, an accounting generalist performs many functions for a business, rather than focusing on one part. You could be responsible for accounts payable and receivable, processing taxes and overseeing supplier invoices, all the while managing a few others on the team in their responsibilities also.
A generalist typically holds numerous responsibilities over and above their own set of work, and would be able to jump in and help in various different areas, rather than being aligned solely to one purpose.
Best of both worlds
With all that said, there’s no right or wrong answer; it’s not a decision you have to make one day and stick with for the remainder of your career. And it is possible to have the best of both worlds.
You can build a successful career by knowing a little about a lot. As long as your knowledge is valuable, your experience legitimate and your drive real, you’ll undoubtedly be an asset to your next employer.
But, if something grabs you – if something captures your interest so and keeps you up at night, knowing “this is what I want to do” – then go down that specialist route. Make it yours and own it. You won’t regret doing so.
Specialist vs generalist in today’s job market
Some call it the “ultimate career decision”. But the fact is, you can be one and both at the same time. The most important part is going into your job search with passion, being ready to answer the hard questions, and having some hard-hitting ones of your own ready for your interviewer.
Which one are you, a specialist or generalist?