Generalists typically have a great breadth of knowledge and the agility of a cheetah, which is essential in our innovation-driven economy. Specialists, on the other hand, have more depth of knowledge, which helps them standout from a pack.
So, is it better to focus your energy on mastering a single discipline, or are professionals better served by acquiring a diverse skillset?
Ezra Zuckerman, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management argues in this blog post that recruiters are “not set up to process people who don’t fit into a specialty.”
At the same time, generalists can market themselves to a broader job market.
“The danger is that, as a specialist, you become so blinkered by your area of expertise that you can’t spot new opportunities or, worse still, can’t anticipate the slow demise of your niche,” says Paul Boag, co-founder of web design agency Headscape in Smashing Magazine.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong path, but you can’t really take both (without collapsing from burnout!). Here’s what to keep in mind before determining whether to be specialist or a generalist:
Company Size Matters
Startups, for instance, thrive on generalists. Since they typically can’t afford to hire many people, hiring managers at start-ups tend to look for folks who can wear many different hats.
“You need people that can switch from meeting with customers, to balancing the books, to sweeping the floor without blinking,” says George Bradt, founder and managing director of executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis in an article for Forbes. So, entire departments might consist of one or two people.
If you’re much more interested in working at a bigger company, on the other hand, focusing on one specialization can give you major brownie points. Large companies (with the big bucks) have the luxury of hiring a whole team of functional specialists per department.
“Teams beat individuals every time,” Bradt Says. “We learn over and over again how much better it is to bridge someone’s gaps by pairing them with someone with complementary strengths rather than trying to fix opportunities.”
Everyone Needs a Generalist Mindset
Keep in mind: there’s a difference between mindset and skillset, says Adrian McIntyre, professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Regardless of your field, there will always be a few specific skills that the top performers have dedicated themselves to mastering,” McIntyre says.
“At the same time, one of the most valuable things anyone can offer is perspective,” he says, “especially if that perspective is grounded in a broad, multifaceted understanding of fundamental issues and general trends.”
If you can make yourself invaluable by specializing in a given area and bring a big-picture mindset to the table, then you’ve got it made in the shade!
At the End of the Day, it’s All about Your Goal
If there’s one point you need to bring home in your resume, cover letter and interview, it’s that you are focused. You have a purpose. A goal.
Here, specialists have a major upper hand. You can look at a specialist’s resume and easily know exactly what he will bring to the table. An SEO specialist, for instance, must have in-depth knowledge on increasing ranking in search engines for their clients or company.
A more general “marketer,” on the other hand, might have dabbled in a little SEO; some advertising copywriting; maybe a little public relations, and other related fields.
Stacy Pursell, executive search consultant of the Pursell Group, finds that most of her clients (employers) in her search practice are looking for specialized folks.
“I think when people try to become too generalized then the employer can’t tell what the individual really wants to do or what they are an expert in doing,” says Stacy Pursell, executive search consultant of the Pursell Group.
The generalist carries the burden of showcasing his level of expertise and goals. The specialist’s burden, on the other hand, is to maintain a generalist mindset and stay relevant in an ever-changing job market.
So, are you a Jack of all trades or a master of one?