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How to choose between a generalist and specialist role

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay | 12 April 2021


So, you’ve made it: you’ve got the degree, the skills, and are ready to compete in the job market. But with the multiple roles, positions, and sub-sectors available in your industry, where does one start their job hunt?  

A common first step is to choose between a “generalist” or a “specialist” role. The former is often termed as a “jack of all trades”, while the latter possesses a niche, yet highly valuable and tailored skillset. Both have their strengths and pitfalls, though pursuing either path depends on your broader career goals, training, and experience.

We explore the differences between a specialist and a generalist below, a few examples of each, and how to choose between the two.  

What is the difference between a specialist and a generalist? 

Specialist roles focus on a certain technical skillset, and are typically pursued by those with highly-specialised qualifications or degrees. Their position may be a specific one, but those in the role often hold a deep, valuable knowledge of their field; possessing skills that are commonly high in demand yet low in competition. 

Jobs in cloud computing, cybersecurity, and software development are prime examples of specialist roles in Australia’s tech industry. While all positions hold a broad, fundamental understanding of IT, each requires specific training, professional experience, and expertise to succeed. All roles are also high in demand while low in available skills, resulting in plenty of training and career opportunities to effectively bridge these growing talent gaps.  

Generalist roles, on the other hand, are quite the opposite: they focus on the skills and knowledge required of various areas in their industry, rather than limiting one’s expertise to a single sector. They know much about everything – but not everything about something. 

A common example of a generalist is a salesperson skilled in performing B2B (business-to-business) sales, business-to-customer sales, and internet sales. They’re a valuable go-to in a company as someone with a wide knowledge base, who may also be best fit for negotiating or communicating between specialised departments. 

Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

When setting out your career path, you’ll first have to determine whether you fit among the specialists, or prefer a more generalised industry role. Both have their strengths and disadvantages, but the good news is: most businesses value both. 

The strengths of a generalist 

transferable skills concept

Being a generalist equips you with a broader, yet far more transferable set of skills compared to that of a specialist. This offers you more flexibility in your career growth, providing more freedom to move between fields, sectors, and areas of interest. 

A generalist role in the STEM field, for instance, will often hold “general” industry skills such as those in mathematics, communication, research, and programming. This offers one with a wide variety of career options in the field, including roles in sales, web development, consultancy, and research analysis. Since such skills are applicable across these areas (and plenty others) individuals have the opportunity of easily switching or exploring new fields when necessary. 

As a generalist, you’re also typically well-equipped with broad, yet valuable business skills; helping you successfully communicate, manage, and build professional relationships with others no matter the role you pursue. 

Since generalist roles commonly juggle a wide breadth of challenges, those who prefer more “dynamic careers” may be best suited to such jobs. Being focused on a single, specific area, specialist roles often result in the same types of tasks, projects, and concerns on a daily basis. 

The strengths of a specialist

If you’d rather be an expert in something, however – perhaps the role of a specialist may suit you better.

As mentioned, specialised roles are often high in demand, yet low in available skills; typically leaving many specialists with plenty of career opportunity. Of course, this also means that further, extensive training or studies are required to succeed in your desired roles.

Specialists are commonly treated as valued “gurus” in a business, holding deep, informative knowledge of a specific area, process, or system in their company. They help others keep up-to-date on the latest industry developments, training them in new technologies or practices if necessary. Through their in-depth expertise, they’re also better-equipped to manage or solve high-level business issues. A generalist IT programmer, for example, may only know the basics of various coding languages – but a specialist would have thorough knowledge of specific ones, helping them solve software or system issues with greater efficiency. 

Though limited in their skillset, specialists contribute plenty of value to a business, with an expertise often rare to find on the job market. While generalists are generally tasked with a wider variety of challenges, specialists are also best suited to fast-paced industries (i.e. information technology); as they’re generally better trained in adapting to or optimising new industry developments. 

An HR’s point of view

hr manager interviewing job applicant

Now that we’ve broken down both roles, you may have an idea of where you (currently) fit best – but what are employers looking for? 

As mentioned, both generalists and specialists are critical to any business. Both have plenty of opportunities on the job market, though experts recommended demonstrating both types of skillsets on your job hunt. 

Forbes suggests presenting oneself as a “generalist” in their skills and approach, yet a “specialist” in their topic and desire. This means demonstrating a wide range of transferable, valuable “general” skills to boost your overall employability (these including your communication, relationship-building, management, and financial abilities); while also showcasing the specific skills and experience related to your desired role.

You’ll also want to exhibit a specific desire for the job you’re after, outlining tailored reasons as to why you’re right for the position, company or industry; while at the same time demonstrating a flexible, creative, “generalist” approach to what you do. 

Whether you pursue one role or the other, a blend of both skills may be best to find success in your chosen career. 

Build the specialised or generalised skillset you need for the job market!

You may be a newfound graduate looking for further, specialised knowledge; or a current employee looking for a career change. Either way, further training often helps in building you both the general and specialty skills you need to pursue the career you desire. 

Upskilled currently offers a wide range of courses across Australia’s most in-demand industries, providing both broad, “generalised” areas of study alongside focused, specialised fields. All programs are delivered online, helping you train according to your personal needs and schedule. 

Whether it’s a role in business, IT, community services, or more – enquire with us on a course to kickstart your career today.
 

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