The difference between a specialist and a generalist starts with your degree subject or qualification. For some disciplines, the career path is clearly indicated by the subject of study and a specialist would follow that path.
Someone studying mechanical engineering, for example, becomes a mechanical engineer, a chemistry student becomes a chemist, a language student becomes a translator. Specialist roles require specific technical or professional skills and qualifications and often those degrees or other qualifications required are authorised by an accrediting body.
A generalist, on the other hand, might look at all the skills they have gained throughout their degree, such as problem solving, research and analysis and apply them to a completely different career path or industry. So, based on our examples above: the mechanical engineering student becomes a management consultant; the chemistry student becomes a research analyst; the language student becomes a copywriter. Generalist roles may require skills that are developed to a high level, but those skills aren’t specific to a given industry or career path: they are transferable skills.
Specialist careers have long been considered the superior option as being an expert in a particular field can offer job security and higher earnings, while specialist career paths also tend to be quite straightforward; you spend more time studying, but it does often lead more securely into a first role. However, in our fast-changing workplaces, having a diverse set of transferable skills is becoming more and more valuable. In other words, companies are increasingly on the look-out for generalists.
A generalist career offers a lot of flexibility; generalists’ varied skillsets mean they’re more likely to take on different roles and progress into different directions, while specialists might struggle to expand their careers outside of their niche. Moreover, in some industries, specialists are at risk of their job becoming obsolete due to increased technological advancements. On the other hand, starting your career as a generalist can be tricky as there often isn’t a clearly defined path to follow. Finding the ‘right’ path may take quite a bit of reflection and even some trial and error.
Temping and volunteering are great starting points for building a generalist career as they give you the opportunity to take on different roles and develop a variety of skills. Taking part in a graduate scheme can offer a similar experience, as they will often allow you to work across different areas of an organisation and ‘try out’ various roles.
Both generalist and specialist careers have pros and cons and, depending on your personality and preferences, one may inherently be more suited to you than the other. So, take the time to really consider what you want from your career and the steps you need to take to get there. Moreover, know that whether you start out as a specialist or generalist, you can always transform your career along the way.