Deep or wide: Should you become a specialist or generalist in your career?

Work Wisdom

Deep or wide: Should you become a specialist or generalist in your career?

One of the most important decisions we can make in our careers is the decision to be a generalist or a specialist. This distinction exists in most, if not all, professions.

Generalists are competent in several different areas or activities within a profession. Examples include an accountant who’s knowledgeable in accounts payable, receivables, and payroll. Or a family practice doctor who provides general health care versus an oncologist who specializes in cancer treatment.

Specialists are focused on one subject or area within a profession. Examples are job recruiters versus human resources professionals, or a garde manger — a chef specializing in cold dishes — versus an executive chef knowledgeable in all areas of kitchen operations.

Decide whether to be a generalist or specialist can be tough. Ultimately, both are essential in today’s business world. To help you decide which path to pursue, try answering these 5 questions:

  1. What types of organizations do you enjoy working for? You might see more specialist opportunities in larger organizations and more generalist opportunities in smaller organizations. That’s because as organizations grow, instead of spreading responsibilities, they look for depth. For example, a company with growth plans might choose to add a specialist recruiter to its team of human resources generalists.
  2. What role do you like to play on a team? According to the Harvard Business Review, companies are spending more time than ever on collaborative activities. But the skills it takes to be a good collaborator are different from those needed to be a high performer. When you think about being on a team, do you want to be the generalist who might not have a big role (but is still providing value) or the specialist in the spotlight?
  3. How do you like to learn? This is one area that generalists and specialists might have in common. Both gain their knowledge and skills through a variety of methods. They might initially learn through a classroom training session and then add to that learning through self-study. For both specialists and generalists, it might not be how the learning takes place but to what extent the learning is required. Which brings us to …
  4. Do you prefer a wide or deep knowledge of topics? Generalists and specialists tend to be attracted to learning in different ways. The specialist might learn about a new subject and want to dive deeper into the topic. The generalist might choose to go wide and learn about areas related to the new subject. There’s nothing wrong with either strategy. But understanding how you approach learning could be helpful.
  5. Do you get bored easily — and if so, why? Both generalists and specialists can get bored with their work. The question is why. Is it because the specialist in you wants to learn more and that’s not happening? Or Is it because the generalist in you wants to explore new topics and can’t? Understanding what triggers boredom can help you decide where you like to spend your time.

Making the career decision between specialist and generalist doesn’t have to be a permanent one. It’s possible to transition between the two throughout your career — but it takes some knowledge about what skills are best transferrable between the two. For example, an accounts receivable manager might become an accounting manager or vice versa.

In addition to thinking about the profession you want to pursue and the skills you want to develop, think about whether you want to be a generalist or specialist within your chosen field. Take the time to understand what the roles mean in your organization and what future career opportunities are available for each. Then make the decision that’s right for you and your career.

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