Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?
February 9, 2010 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Specialization or generalization: which approach has served you better in your career?

I would ideally like to know your profession, about how long you've been in the profession, and what approach has worked best based on personal experience or observation.

I've been researching the pros and cons of specialization versus generalization. There's a debate about which one will serve a person better throughout their career. Some career counselors advocate pursuing an expertise and criticize generalists as amateur dabblers. In conversations with friends and colleagues my impression has been the opposite. They've indicated that having a generalist knowledge has diversified their opportunities by allowing them to adapt and apply their knowledge into a variety of situations.

The answer is probably contextual, but I think some data points from the hive mind would be helpful.
posted by quadog to Work & Money (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My training is as a computer engineer. I've been out of school for 15+ years, working in the software industry generally. Generalization has been key to my career. I've worked as a developer, doing training, as a product manager and in technical sales. There are times I needed to get a job quickly and being flexible helped a lot. There are times when I got promoted into a job completely different than the one I was currently doing when it was unlikely that I would have been promoted in my existing job (developer->marketing). I could never, ever have got a job in my previous position in my current company - I had to be willing to change jobs completely in order to take advantage of an opportunity to work at a much better employer (sorry previous job!).

But overall I still generally use the stuff I learned in undergrad nearly every day while doing all sorts of different stuff with it.

OTOH, if I had a PhD in genetics I doubt this would have been an equally successful approach. Also, some of my classmates have become specialists and done at least as well, if not better, than I have.
posted by GuyZero at 3:49 PM on February 9, 2010

I work in finance. Specialization is pretty much de rigeur, especially as you move up the ladder.
posted by dfriedman at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2010

I have generalized a lot in my field -- I do everything from web design and typography to programming and database wrangling. I know a little about a lot of stuff but not really the inverse. I'm still early into my career (~3 years) but so far I keeping finding new reasons to wish I had specialized. I'm constantly hearing "oh, we have a designer for that" and "oh, we have an IT guy for that" and it seems there's not much use for a jack of all trades. At least in web technology.

I'm glad for my skillset but it seems employers in this field prefer clearly defined tasks for clearly defined workers.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2010

I definitely "painted myself into a corner" in a previous career by over-specializing. If you do end up specializing, maybe try and find ways to broaden you experience, either through volunteer work, or continuing education or similar.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:57 PM on February 9, 2010

I have a law degree. I worked as a litigator for a long time, and by definition that means you have to be able to learn about a new subject and deal with it as intelligently as possible -- but you also become a specialist in trial practice technique. Over time I developed some additional "expertise" in particular legal areas, like evidence, sexual assault, and domestic violence. I still enjoy what I do because I still see a lot of trial practice and hence a broad range of cases and issues, but the specialization I've done myself has helped me most in advancing my career.
posted by bearwife at 4:03 PM on February 9, 2010

And I got my law degree in 1986.
posted by bearwife at 4:05 PM on February 9, 2010

I'm an attorney, licensed for aprox. ten years, and I'm grateful to be in a specialist field. The practice of law is absurdly diverse, and I've enjoyed focusing my practice (and my experience, continued learning, etc.) in one particular area of law which I find genuinely fascinating; which has saved me from the indignities of hustling for clients; and which has afforded me the very rewarding opportunity to become an expert.
posted by applemeat at 4:16 PM on February 9, 2010

I work with GIS at a public agency. Generalization for me: We do tech support, coding, server administration, web page/applications, data management, training, project support, analysis, etc. I'm sure people who specialize can blow me out of the water in their field but I enjoy the variety of tasks generalization gives me, and I am not as dependent on others to get things done because I have the basic knowledge to do it myself.

I think it depends on the field/your workplace whether specialization or generalization will give you the advantage.
posted by Seboshin at 4:17 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a logistics manager or sometimes a project manager, depending on what's happening in my company. I have heavy experience in operations and front-line supervision. The skills needed to manage people and processes do translate across many platforms. These are very marketable skills, especially in this economy.
posted by raisingsand at 4:34 PM on February 9, 2010

In my experience in accounting/finance working in corporate positions, you start out with general knowledge then specialize in the aspects that let you apply that to the specifics of the industry. As you move up, you begin to move back toward general knowledge to avoid being blinded to big issues. Specificity would tend to keep you in middle management, but using general knowledge bolstered with experience could open up more possibilities. And, yeah, you don't want to forget the general principals. But this is from someone who was happy working in a specific industry for most of my career. If you want to taste a variety of environments, i would think you'd need to hang on to some of your learning experience, but be open to the idea that there's a lot of variety out there.
posted by path at 4:37 PM on February 9, 2010

Lawyer here. I specialize, do mainly administrative litigation. But I took all generalist courses "staples" in law school. So train to be a generalist, but specialize.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:04 PM on February 9, 2010

IT, more than 10 years. No hands-on technical work (eg coding); formally in business development consulting.

Generalisation is definitely an advantage for me. Depending on the situation, I've had to understand & apply concepts & skills from such diverse areas as project management, financial analysis, organisational development, test management, development methodologies, database design, business cases, writing business requirements & functional specifications, facilitation & focus groups, ITIL & ISO compliance, IT security, data warehousing & business intelligence, accounting, HR, retail operations, logistics, UI design, client relationship management, all kinds of presentations, options papers, corporate strategy, copyright, call centres & IVR, business process re-engineering, licencing, technical infrastructure, marketing, product strategies, oustourcing & application service providers, disaster recovery, legislative compliance, support procedures, datacomms technologies, integration technologies, document & knowlege management, software development lifecycles & methodologies, you name it.

The same kinds of generalist skills are typically used (or at least understood) by just about anybody in IT project management, client account management, and management in general.

When asked what I actually do, I find it easiest to say that my role is to translate - especially between specialists in the above kinds of areas. They can have the in-depth knowledge. I need to only understand enough to explain things to people with other skills, in terms that are relevant to their domain knowledge.

I got into this after completing a law degree, so go figure.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:17 PM on February 9, 2010

I'm in my third year of being a policy wonk in a government ministry. My story is similar to bearwife's - the policy process is going to be similar wherever you are in government, but you might have to work with different subject matter. A former manager said, "anyone can pick up content." Generally, to get very senior management jobs, it's better to have exposure to a variety of different areas and jobs because you need that perspective if you're going to be that high up. I guess that means being a generalist. But if you're happy staying in something very specific, then do that.
posted by foxjacket at 6:19 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Graduated about a decade ago with an undergrad degree in business. Currently work as a strategy consultant. We're expected to be strong generalists - able to be dropped into an organization or environment and figure out what's going on. While I have a few areas that I have very deep knowledge in, tomorrow I could be called in to go work in some field I know nothing about, or with some organization I've never heard of. For all the downsides of the job (the hours, the travel, etc.), I love it. You're constantly learning new things, meeting new people, and dealing with challenges that you have never seen before.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:24 PM on February 9, 2010

The most effective generalists I encounter have specialist knowledge of multiple domains.
posted by Jode at 7:35 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

What NotMyselfRightNow said is ones of the main advantages I can see in generalisation (as in the line in the question: "They've indicated that having a generalist knowledge has diversified their opportunities by allowing them to adapt and apply their knowledge into a variety of situations").

I've found that it enables me to work on different things, almost month to month, so there's little stagnation & always something new to learn.

In contrast, I can imagine that a lot of specialist roles involve you doing the exact same niche activity day in, day out, until you kill yourself out of sheer boredom.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:35 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm always wondering about this question. I'm a generalist by instinct, and my career has largely proven so: I started as a writer (computer magazines), became an editor, and then a designer and even a publisher. I now do all of these things, across a totally diverse field (computing still, but also genealogy, medicine, property, ...). I'm self-employed, obviously.

So it's worked for me, and I'm a big supporter of the dilettante and the gentleman/lady amateur. But I do wonder often whether it's easier to get work if you're specialist, and people can understand immediately what you do. I worry about that being stultifying, but it's ever harder, after 15 years (10+ working as I do now) to explain to people what I do.
posted by hatmandu at 5:43 AM on February 10, 2010

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