Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

You have studied for your degree and qualified in your area of specialism. You completed the required number of years for the internship and are ready to apply for your first job. You are a specialist. As you progress with your career you have choices: do you continue specializing in a particular field or do you become a generalist? What does the labour market value more? Generalists or Specialists? Lets explore this fascinating debate.

Your career objective

Before we enter this discussion, you first need to be clear on what your career ambitions will be. Depending on the field, specialists are proven to become better at what they do over a period of time. As an example, if you want a builder or an electrician – you are more likely to look for someone who has years of experience. When the role is skill orientated – specialism works to your favour.

In the field of business and leadership, companies are looking for people with a range of skills. The more skills that you have the more you have to offer them. Specialisation has become commodified. Say you qualify from a top MBA school or you are a Chartered Accountant or you are qualified Attorney. You have just graduated – you end up having too many similar people with similar skills in the marketplace. You have less bargaining power because you are easily substitutable. The additional factor against your specialism is that if a firm is used to hiring a lot of people like you, it becomes easy to calculate your value compared with someone with diverse accomplishments.

Careers where specialization is a benefit

There are many areas where companies would pay a premium for your area of specialism. If you have specialized in international politics and economics – an international company looking to hire someone with your expertise will pay the premium to secure your services.

If you needed surgery for a life-threatening condition, you would want a specialist who has done this type of surgery many hundreds of times before.

When you are good at something you tend to become better at it.

However, when it comes to business schools and grooming leaders for business, the shift to specialization is not as beneficial.

A well-rounded business leader

Experienced hiring managers and recruiters generally prefer people who have a diverse range of skills. Someone who is accomplished at a lot of things is better than someone who keeps doing the same trick over and over again. People who have demonstrated their talent over a range of areas have an edge. This signals to the hiring firm that you are adaptable; that your skills are multi-faceted; and that you are able to apply your experience and knowledge to a range of scenarios. You can shift your thinking and manage multiple areas simultaneously. You are more flexible.

In summary, when it comes to hiring business leaders, generalists continue to be preferred because they are more unusual, have diverse skills and are re-deployable.