Is It Better To Be A Generalist or a Specialist?

Q. Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist in your career?


A.  There is no right answer.

For example in my communications group right now, I have some folks who are pretty specialized. I have a guy who really understands digital media far more than I will ever understand. I desperately need his skills for us to be successful.

That said, even though he may be a “specialist” in digital media, in digital media, there’s like 50 zillion different things that he can be learning and doing and exploring and he still needs to be able to think on the system level about how digital media fits into a bigger picture.

So I think you can be a specialist and there’s some value in it being really good at something in particular, but you need to also be able to do that with an eye towards how your skill fits into a bigger system. Does that make sense?

If you’re really starting out, you need to be careful about being a mile wide and an inch deep. Eventually you have the right to go there. And I think it helps for people to come to the table with some well-developed competencies in specific areas.. Because at the end of the day, I can’t do a digital media program without someone who have just been to digital media.  – 40-something, Director of Marketing and Business Development, non-profit industry, former director of innovation, global consumer product company


A. It’s contradictory because some people say, “The 20s are time to explore”. I’d say, “Explore but always try to create a link.”

I think because there’s so much job switching amongst 20 somethings now it’s a big question as to whether people are building specialties that can help them insure job longevity later in their career. Sure, try different things but be aware of what you are learning and what your strengths are so each job is building a foundation.

Whatever you learned in that job, figure out how that will apply to the next one. What thread are you building rather than just a bunch of willy-nilly, “I tried this and then I tried that.”  So you can be general in terms of learning and exploring different things, but think about a through line on certain skills and competencies that you are building on in each job.

Use your twenties to explore. Then in your 30s…focus on an area of specialty and focus on getting some management experience. If you don’t get “broader” management experience in your 30s it will be hard to do so in your 40s.- 40-something, marketing consultant, writer


A. I think people confuse generalist with trying a lot of things. If it is variety and learning experiences that you are seeking I would say, especially you are working in larger companies and is that you can switch jobs without switching companies. So this idea that you have to switch companies, I don’t think that’s right. There’s nothing wrong with switching companies but it’s more about keeping your experiences fresh and you can re-define jobs that you’re currently in to keep those experiences fresh. – 40-something, Director of Marketing


A.  A specialty can help you stay relevant in the workplace, especially if you are a mom and ramp on and off of the work path. If you want to work flexible hours, having a specialty allows you to come in and out of corporations as a consultant. If you want to follow that path find a narrow band. You can’t re-do IMB if you want to work part time. You have to find a narrow band and just really understand your topic and then that’s doable.– 40-something, consultant, expert on workplace flexibility


A. In some fields, like law there is a sense that you can progress faster in your career through specialization.  Companies look at how many years of law practice in the company’s field (vs. the total years she’s been practicing law). I think in other fields like marketing there is a sense that breadth of experience can bring greater…more diverse…perspective on problem solving. – 40-something, financial advisor, former partner in a marketing/communications company

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