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Generalist vs. specialist: What's the difference?

Generalists have a wide spectrum of knowledge, while specialists are subject matter experts in their areas of study. Learn if employers prefer one type over the other.

The job market has always been loosely divided into generalist and specialist categories. However, most career paths are nonlinear and over time might shift from one direction to another.

While generalists can be a jack-of-all-trades, specialists hold expertise in a specific area. There's also a gray area where both employee types merge, distorting the distinction between the two.

Most job seekers generally fall into the specialist vs. generalist debate while carving out their career path. However, to make an informed decision, it's best to know the pros and cons of each type.

What is a generalist?

Generalists boast a range of skills. While their knowledge might not run deep across a specific area, they can quickly adapt to changing situations. For example, a writer can be classified as a generalist if they can write in multiple styles and genres or if they have experience writing for multiple industries.

Generalists tend to grab more diverse and loosely defined roles within organizations and are considered "hyphenated" or "dash-shaped" employees. They also gravitate toward leadership roles due to their multitasking and collaborative abilities. There's a reason why Bill Gates recommended Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein as one of his top reads of the season in December 2020.

Here are a few examples of generalist careers:

What is a specialist?

Specialists, or "I-shaped" people, tend to possess stronger and sustained interests and are hyperspecialized in one area. They are dedicated to problem-solving and considered subject matter experts in their fields. For example, C# developers are specialists who are mostly hired for roles where they develop programs in C# instead of other programming languages such as Swift or Python.

While the role of a specialist is more defined and valuable to recruiters, it only pertains to a specific area. Most specialists tend to deal with a similar work structure and flow each day. For example, a pediatrician will always cater to children, unless they specialize in other areas as well.

Here are a few examples of specialist careers:

  • DevOps engineer
  • graphic designer
  • machine learning engineer
Image shows shapes signifying different employee types and what each entails.
There is no one-size-fits-all employee. This chart shows multiple employee types.

Pros and cons of being a generalist

Here are some pros of being a generalist:

  • Open to challenges. Generalists are open to challenges as they dabble in several subjects. In the changing job market, generalists tend to possess critical thinking and collaborative skills that are more transferrable.
  • Desirable for smaller organizations. Generalists can be a good fit for organizations on a tight budget. Instead of hiring several people for specific but related skills, businesses can hire a generalist.
  • Leadership roles. Due to their multitasking abilities and exposure to various topics, generalists are great at providing guidance and fulfilling leadership roles.
  • Outside-the-box thinking. Generalists have a broader approach and way of thinking. They visualize the big picture and are usually the first to find problems.

Here are some cons of being a generalist:

  • Lack of expertise. Generalists juggle multiple work duties and rarely have time to devote to one area. Therefore, they might require assistance from subject matter experts, especially when tackling niche projects.
  • Can lead to burnout. Generalists typically work across multiple teams, functions and responsibilities. While it can be rewarding for many, sometimes it can cause employee burnout.
  • Lower pay rate. Generalists tend to work in industries or areas where the rate of pay might be lower.
  • Less job security. Due to their vaguely defined work responsibilities, generalists tend to have less job security. Since their skills aren't unique, it might be easier for a company to replace a generalist.

Pros and cons of being a specialist

Here are some pros of being a specialist:

  • Higher salaries. Specialist positions generally come with a higher salary bracket since they are harder to fill. Most specialists start their careers with lucrative salaries, as their fields require extensive study and specialization.
  • Less training. Since specialists are already extensively trained in their fields, they generally require less training. Also, specialist roles stay concentrated in their areas of study and don't change quickly. Therefore, employers can expect specialists to fit into their roles right from the start.
  • Specific content knowledge. Specialists dedicate a lot of time and energy to learning every facet of their fields. This gives them an edge and better equips them to keep up with new developments in their fields.
  • Less competition. Specialists face a less competitive job market because fewer people put in the time and effort to become one.

Here are some cons of being a specialist:

  • Need to stay updated. Specialists must keep their skills up to date with new developments in their fields. With rapid changes in technology, social media trends and consumer behaviors, if specialists don't update their skills, they risk falling behind and finding alternative paths to employment. For example, after the invention of automatic switchboards, switchboard operators had to find alternative means of employment.
  • Limited positions. To become an expert in one area, specialists must forego advancing their skills in other areas. This can limit the number of applicable positions they can find outside their original field.
  • Fewer skill sets. Specialists have advanced knowledge in their areas of expertise, but they don't possess wide-ranging skills throughout other departments.

What about T-shape?

Adaptation and technological evolution have been happening since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and "T-shaped" employees are taking center stage. Instead of being generalists or specialists, these workers are an amalgamation of both types. T-shaped employees, however, are not a recent concept, as McKinsey & Company used the term internally in the 1980s.

A 2021 McKinsey survey revealed that 87% of leaders acknowledged a skills gap in their workforce. This gap can't be closed without employees upgrading their skill sets, specializing in certain areas and becoming more fluid in their roles. Therefore, T-shaped employees are the future of work, as they can wear the hybrid hat and work in multiple disciplines. They're not just a subject matter expert in one area, but are also skilled in several others.

Learn more about how to address the cybersecurity skills gap.

Other common employee types

Besides the generalists, specialists and T-shaped roles, there are other common employee types in the workforce:

  • M-shaped. These workers have more than one area of specialty. Unlike the I-shaped specialists, they're experts in multiple areas. A website coder who can also do copywriting is an example of an M-shaped person.
  • Pi-shaped. These are a combination of T-shaped and M-shaped employees, and their skills are fused with two separate domains of great expertise. Many technical architects and marketers are pi-shaped.
  • Comb-shaped. They are experts in one area, but can function well across multiple disciplines. Their one area of specialty is never as deep as a specialist's, but they possess sufficient depth in several domains.
  • E-shaped. Similar to the T-shaped employee, an E-shaped person is an expert in one area, but also skilled in many others. E-shaped employees also demonstrate a combination of these four characteristics: experience, expertise, exploration and execution.
  • X-shaped. These workers have core expertise in one field, but develop strong leadership skills. Their focus on leadership undermines the depth of their original expertise.

What are employers looking for?

In the battle of the generalist vs. the specialist, it all boils down to the interests and professional aspirations of an individual. While some people might get bogged down by switching job gears all the time, others might hate the idea of performing repetitive tasks daily.

Generalists might begin at the lower end of the spectrum when starting out their careers, but climb the corporate ladder later down the road. Specialists enjoy a good salary as soon as they put their foot in the door, but are less employable outside their fields. So, at the end of the day, it's the context that's most important, not the employee type.

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