Researchers
August 4, 2020

Is It Better To Be a Specialist Or a Generalist?

Much emphasis has been put on fancy titles and being an expert in one area, but what about being a generalist?

In today’s working culture, it has become a competitive asset to be a specialist in some sense of the word. If we think about the trajectory of some career paths, they have become more specific and more detailed as the workforce continues to evolve.

Let‘s take the example of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the entire ecosystem of jobs that has come with this new field. First there was a CSR Specialist, then there was a CSR and Renewable Energy Specialist, now there is a CSR Leadership position… and the list goes on. The point is that these new positions have become more specific, more specialized, but also more narrow. When you become a specialized expert in one field and have lots of research experience in this one area, your narrow focus also becomes a silo.

Silos are notorious for trapping people in ways of thought that are not innovative, and instead of helping professionals accomplish their goals and create impact, they tend to hinder creativity and multidimensional approaches.

Why did specialization become the norm in today’s workforce?

This trajectory has a starting point. For many, it is in the universities and institutions that act as the forbearers of knowledge in much of the Western world. Indeed, many colleges and universities in the U.S. are research heavy institutions, and when you get to a Masters course syllabus or are entering your final year of undergrad, there is a push from professors to become more specialized, more narrow.

As new skills and new ways of thinking about the world have emerged in the 21st century, professors themselves have gone from generalist teachers to specialized experts. At the research and academic level, this is also one way to get closer to a tenured position at a university, which will ensure financial security for a professor for much of the rest of their careers. 

So in many ways specialization has become a byproduct of a system that favors research for the purpose of winning academic grants and also other awards at the institutional level.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean being a specialist will solve all of the worlds problems or will help young professionals in the long term.  

Short vs. Long term Investment 

In many ways, some research heavy fields such as medicine, public health, and the engineering sciences offer great short term payouts. These are the career choices that give young professionals a leg up and allow them to pay off student debt and get close to financial independence at a young age.

Meanwhile generalists, such as those with a variety of liberal arts degrees, often do not have the same luck when they first enter the job market. Individuals without specialized expertise often suffer trying to get into a niche market to establish themselves, but it does not mean they wont be successful later in life. This is because generalists can themselves become specialized in something at some point in their career, and then really have an advantage with their supplementary knowledge.

So both avenues really present their own strength and weaknesses in terms of having an innovative career. Specialists will eventually have to broaden their thinking and understanding of the world outside of their narrow focus to have a more meaningful and fulfilling career and generalists will have to struggle in the beginning to get to the point where they are in a leadership position.

The question then really becomes which is better? Trend analyst Vikram Mansharamani says that one of the benefits of being more of a generalist (because the scale is not absolutely one or the other) means that you develop a better sense of challenging underlying assumptions at an earlier age. On the flipside, being a specialist might make your focus so narrow that you become a flawed thinker earlier in your career.

A clear example of this is in the field of medicine—patients often report problems with their specialist doctors who refuse to see things or challenge their mode of thinking to better assist their patients.

Thus perhaps being more of a generalist (for example Elon Musk with his knowledge of politics, people, and economies of scale) and being well-rounded will help foster innovation more than specialization.

Tags Generalist Specialist
Michael Robbins
Writer
Michael is a writer that helps organizations align their mission and values to a wide audience.

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