Generalist Vs Specialist: What Are The Differences?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 20 October 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When pursuing a career in any field, you can choose to become a specialist who is an expert in a specific area or a generalist with numerous ideas and skills. Based on your training and depth of study, determine the category you fall into and how competent you are as a candidate in your field. Knowing the differences between a generalist and a specialist could help you determine what level of responsibility suits you.

In this article, we discuss the differences between generalist vs specialist, list the advantages and disadvantages of each role and explore tips to help you choose between them.

Generalist Vs Specialist

Here are the key differences between generalist vs specialist:

Definitions

A generalist is knowledgeable in several topics, with various interests, skills and hobbies. If you are in a leadership position, you may be a generalist since you perform numerous tasks across multiple departments and can negotiate between different departments. For instance, a veterinarian might be a generalist when they have deep knowledge about various species and can treat multiple animals.

A specialist is an expert in an occupation or field of study, focusing on a specific topic and building up understanding and knowledge in a specific niche. For example, companies may hire specialists to lead projects with new processes or technological developments. An example of a specialist may be a marine veterinarian who focuses specifically on aquatic life and concentrates their area of study on marine species. Even more specific may be a veterinarian working solely with dolphins to study and research their dietary preferences, medical care and exercise needs.

Related: What Is An HR Generalist? (Duties, Skills And Career Path)

Level of knowledge

Generalists have broad knowledge across various disciplines or within their own industry, giving them loosely defined roles. Specialists have a more thorough understanding of a given area of content, leading to narrower roles in organisations. A generalist acquires diverse skills and applies them in their respective fields, whereas a specialist gains knowledge of the latest trends and developments in a certain area.

For example, a generalist might be knowledgeable about copywriting, search engine optimisation and social media marketing to assist in various companies. In contrast, a technical copywriter is a specialist who focuses on the details of writing about technology, application, hardware and systems.

Related: Nature Of Work Vs Level Of Work: What Is The Difference?

Marketability

When companies deal with an intricate project that requires specialised expertise, they prefer a specialist. In contrast, organisations hire a generalist to utilise their wide range of skills. In certain fields, such as information technology or healthcare, being a specialist with deep technical knowledge may make you a more marketable candidate. For example, if a family wants to replace the flooring of their kitchen, they might hire a tile specialist instead of calling a general contractor to fulfil the task.

Progression

Companies experiencing rapid changes in production or development may look for specialists to help create new ideas. Since they constantly explore and learn more about their industry, specialists can be more progressive than generalists. Specialists are often more efficient because the pace of their work continues to evolve with time. Generalists might be more competent if their work retains a steady and predictable pace as they employ and use multiple skills on a daily basis.

Related: Top 11 Useful Skills To Learn For Career Development

Transferable skills

While generalists have transferable skills because of the vast array of knowledge they possess, the skills of a specialist are more focused and specific. Generalists can use skills, such as verbal and written communication and customer service skills, for different positions and fields. For instance, a cardiovascular surgeon specialising in heart surgery might learn different techniques to succeed in their field, but they may find it a little difficult to transfer to another surgical discipline or a completely different field.

Related: 10 Best Skills To Include On A Resume (With Examples)

Benefits Of Being A Generalist

Being a generalist has various pros and cons. The pros are as follows:

  • Adaptability: Generalists can be more marketable for companies, as they have numerous experiences and skills, making it easier for them to multitask more efficiently.

  • Career flexibility: If you like to multitask, becoming a generalist is an excellent choice because it enables you to utilise your abilities to pursue various opportunities in different fields. For example, communication skills or problem-solving abilities are applicable in most fields of work.

  • Departmental interrelations: Generalists work with numerous departments, enabling them to make great connections and provide solutions whenever issues arise within a company.

Drawbacks Of Being A Generalist

The cons of being a generalist include:

  • Lack of job security: As a generalist, you might not have a high degree of job security, as it is slightly easier to replace a generalist than a specialist. Although, it is usually easier for generalists to find a job, as they are efficient in various areas.

  • Value: Generalists might find it challenging to show their value or worth to an organisation since they do not belong to one distinct field. Instead, they can market themselves by showing a company the benefits of hiring someone with knowledge and skills in multiple areas.

  • Burnout: You may expect a generalist to sometimes feel frustrated with their job since they constantly employ numerous skills across a wide range of tasks. Taking up a job with consistent expectations might aid in preventing burnout.

Related: 10 Steps For Adding Value To A Business (With Benefits)

Benefits Of Being A Specialist

Like a generalist, becoming a specialist also comes with advantages and disadvantages. Here are the benefits:

  • Reduced competition: With their specific skills, the competition is less for specialists, allowing employers to notice them.

  • Focused content knowledge: When you continue exploring a subject or department, you uncover more knowledge as time goes by. This vast, focused knowledge of a topic is useful when you are looking for better jobs.

  • Higher pay: Since specialists have an educational background and qualifications in a specific field, they receive higher salaries than less educated people in their industry.

Related: What Is Skill-Based Pay? (With Benefits And Drawbacks)

Drawbacks Of Being A Specialist

Listed below are the disadvantages:

  • Career inflexibility: As specialists have specific skills, they might find it challenging to look for new opportunities outside their field. The positive part is that once you get a job in your specialised area, you can retain it for a long time if the company values your expertise.

  • Fear of becoming obsolete: Specialists might fear becoming obsolete because of technological developments, such as automatic switchboards replacing switchboard operators. As an antidote to this situation, they could invent new technology by working in the development or design sectors to prevent themselves from becoming replaceable.

Tips For Choosing A Career As A Generalist Or Specialist

You can decide whether you wish to become a generalist or a specialist based on your traits and personal preferences. Here are some tips that might help you decide:

  • Explore your interests. Once you decide on the career you wish to pursue, explore the categories within it to see which interests you the most. For example, even though there are several types of writers, determine the type that attracts you the most, such as technical writing, academic writing, travelogues or medical writing.

  • Evaluate your dedication. Evaluate your dedication to a field because if it is something you are genuinely passionate about, specialising in it can be extremely rewarding. If it is not an area you see yourself working in years from now, you might want to reconsider your decision.

  • Assess breadth vs depth. When you choose a career path, ask yourself whether you value breadth or depth of knowledge. While being a generalist widens your scope of knowledge and skills, being a specialist allows you to study a subject in greater depth.


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