Generalists Vs. Specialists

By Kristin Kizer
Oct. 5, 2022

Find a Job You Really Want In

If you look at a company’s employees, you’ll probably notice that some of them are good at handling a wide variety of tasks, while others are extremely good at one particular task. The first group is business generalists, while the second group is specialists.

In this article, we’ll go over what these types of professionals are, as well as examples and the pros and cons of each one.

Key Takeaways:

Business Generalists Business Specialists
Business generalists understand how many aspects of their industry operate. Business specialists have a deep understanding of their particular area of expertise.
Business generalists have a variety of skills applicable to both multiple fields. Business specialists focus on honing and advancing their skills in one area.
Business generalists often work for smaller companies that need employees to handle a variety of responsibilities. Business specialists often work for organizations that need heavy technical knowledge.
Business generalists have many transferable skills. Business specialists usually focus on advancing their knowledge in their area of expertise.

Generalists Vs. Specialists

What Is a Business Generalist?

A generalist is a business professional with a wide knowledge base. Generalists:

  • Understand how multiple aspects of their industry operate.

  • Has a variety of skills applicable to their industry (or others).

  • Are often desired by small companies who need employees to wear a variety of hats.

  • Have many transferrable skills.

What Is a Business Specialist?

Specialists in the professional world have one skill that they’ve honed and perfected, and they’re very limited in the industries or types of businesses where they can work. Specialists:

  • Have a deep understanding of their area of expertise.

  • Focus their efforts on honing their skills in one area.

  • Are often hired by organizations that need someone with heavy technical knowledge.

  • Usually work to keep up with their area of expertise for the majority of their careers.

Examples of Business Generalists

While a job title or duties can define a generalist or specialist, sometimes an individual’s personality will also come into play. You may find that a person who has an incredibly specialized job has more of a generalist personality and got to where they are in life by being more of a generalist.

This is why it’s typically better to classify the job or position rather than the person. Some examples of generalist professions include:

The list is pretty endless, and “business raccoons” typically have different job titles and even work in different fields throughout their lifetimes. They’re sometimes referred to as a jack of all trades.

Examples of a Business Specialist

So, if most jobs are for business generalists, what’s left for the specialists? Remember that the same job position, in some situations, can be held by a person who’s a generalist and a person who is a specialist. But the following job titles are typically considered specialist jobs and ones you do when you’ve dedicated your life to that particular field.

The interesting thing about specialists is that they can sometimes create their niche. Consider a landscaper who only trims trees into animal shapes. In fact, they work for Disney, so they only trim trees in the shape of Mickey Mouse.
While most landscapers know a lot about all sorts of plants, this person has created their specialized niche, and they’ve become an expert in the field. Perhaps the only expert in this field.

What’s Better: Being a Generalist or a Specialist?

There’s a lot of buzz going around that being a business generalist is the better career move. This may be true in many professions where the hiring manager or recruiter is looking for someone with well-rounded experience.

But there will always be certain professions or fields requiring someone who is completely ensconced in their specialty. That’s not a bad thing, and if you’re one of those people with a laser focus on a particular field, then you know who you are, and you know that you’re driven to do that job.

That said, let’s take a look at some of the benefits and downfalls of being a specialist and a generalist.

Advantages of Being a Generalist

More generalists are out there in the business world, which means that there have to be some definite advantages to this professional path.

  • Big picture thinking. By understanding different parts of a business or industry, you can better see the work as a whole, and many companies like people who see the big picture.

  • Outside the box. Another benefit is that generalists have a broad base of references and even resources at their disposal. Where a specialist may only see one path to a solution, a generalist can typically see many different options and outcomes.

  • Interconnectedness. By having experience throughout the industry or even in other industries, a generalist can tie them all together efficiently that may create new and unique synergies.

  • Transferable skills. Learning how to manage in a factory can easily help you become a manager in an office setting. Many skills that a generalist learns can help them move into different industries and find a job that is perfectly suited for them.

  • More opportunities. Speaking of finding the right job, there are more opportunities for generalists and more chances to find a better work environment, better pay, or a more appealing work/life balance.

Disadvantages of Being a Generalist

So, it seems like there are many advantages to being a generalist, especially if you don’t have a true career passion. But there are some downsides too:

  • Competition. When just about anyone can have a job, there’s competition from everyone, and it can be fierce.

  • No depth. One critique is that hiring a person who is too general or broad-based means they don’t have any real in-depth knowledge of a field or area.

  • Lack of security. A generalist doesn’t have the job security that a specialist has because they can easily be replaced.

  • Constant learning. Your general skills, knowledge, and abilities are constantly being put to the test in today’s technological environment. If you’re not staying on top of changes, then it’s easy for you to fall behind.

Advantages of Being a Specialist

For some people, being a specialist is just a way of life. They honestly aren’t weighing the advantages and disadvantages; it’s just who they are. But let’s look at why that path is right for some people.

  • Passion. Probably one of the biggest advantages of being a specialist is following your passion and feeling compelled to do what you do and do it better than anyone else.

  • Financial reward. It takes a long time to become an expert in any field, but you are a rare commodity once you do. This means that you’re likely to be paid pretty handsomely. Top pay for doing what you love; that’s a huge benefit.

  • Prestige. The whole world might not recognize you (or they might), but your professional peers will see you as someone to look up to and respect.

  • Power. Being the one in the know gives you a certain degree of power and authority, and that can be a pretty great feeling.

Disadvantages of Being a Specialist

Again, there have to be some downs with the ups, and there are certainly downsides to becoming a professional specialist.

  • Time involved. No one becomes a specialist overnight. Even those incredibly gifted from birth still need to put in the time to become an expert, and even then, they have to continue to learn, study, practice, and be great.

  • Narrow opportunities. By nature, you’re limited to the one thing you’ve become an expert in, and there typically aren’t many ways to transfer that knowledge and those skills into other jobs.

  • Fewer jobs. You’ve selected a profession where there are fewer opportunities out there. Let’s consider an astronaut, you’re the top in your field, but after some time, you’re not physically able to do the job anymore. Or what if the space program in your country is shut down – what do you do then?

  • Burnout. Doing the same thing and focusing your entire life on one area can easily lead to professional burnout or exhaustion. Adding to that problem is that it’s hard to make a change when you only do one thing.

Final Thoughts

In the animal world, species can be classified as generalists or specialists. Animals that are generalists can eat various foods, and they thrive in a wide range of habitats. On the other side of the coin, animals considered specialists have a very limited diet and are restricted to the environments that support their diet.

A raccoon is a good example of a generalist because they are known to eat just about anything from nuts to frogs to garbage. They’re found in secluded forests and the middle of metropolitan areas. They’ve adapted to survive wherever they are.

On the other hand, Koala bears eat only eucalyptus trees, which means you’re only going to find them in Australia and in forests where eucalyptus grow abundantly.

So how does all of that information apply to the world of business? We throw out the “what they eat” and “where they live” part of the classification, but we keep the broad idea that a generalist can do many things in many different areas.

What do you decide to pursue? A career as a generalist or a specialist. You probably don’t actually make a decision; your own personal nature, interests, and passions make that decision for you. If you’re gifted and passionate, then that’s the road you’re going to end up on, and you’re probably going to specialize in it.

On the other hand, if you’re like most people, you have a lot of interests and skills, so you branch out and learn many different things and try different professions. There’s nothing wrong with the things that make you who you are.

But if you’re not incredibly driven and pulled into one direction, it’s probably best to try your hand at a few things and get some additional experiences. It does look good on a resume and can help you get the job you want or open the door to more jobs and various options. Are you a raccoon or a koala? It’s up to you.

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Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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