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Who Makes More: Generalists or Specialists?

generalists or specialists

It may seem like a savvy career move: pick a concentration, focus on it both in the workplace and in a MBA program, then brand yourself as a specialist and watch the offers roll in.

But according to new research from the Harvard Business Review, specialists may receive fewer job offers than their generalist counterparts. Any offers that do come along may also not be quite as generous as those that generalists enjoy with specialists sometimes receiving offers nearly $50,000 less according to the researchers’ findings.

So what’s wrong with being an expert? Putting the time, effort, and education into developing an area of knowledge should pay off when a company requires someone who knows the ins and outs of a particular topic. Trouble is, subject matter expertise may not be all it’s cracked up to be anymore. For one, an increasingly global marketplace demands analysts who can see the bigger picture and construct solutions that may transcend one area of expertise.

Also read: Do You Have What it Takes to Lead a Global Company?

In the workplace, many employers now feel that generalists are more adaptable to change. With a broader knowledge base, they are often better equipped to see the forest through the trees. Furthermore, generalists may be able to provide much-needed context on data produced by specialists. While having specific information and research can be invaluable, someone needs to put all that data together in a comprehensible way. To do so, a generalist may be able to reference other industries or other examples that a specialist may not be attuned to.

University of Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock famously studied nearly 250 professional forecasters over the course of two decades. His findings were surprising: experts failed to make predictions as accurately as those who were not experts in a given subject matter. Tetlock even found that expertise tended to cloud the forecaster’s judgment, leaving his focus more myopic and leading him away from solutions outside of his realm of knowledge.

Specialization might be seen by some as antiquated: a relic that Henry Ford could be proud of as each worker performs a single task with deficiency without ever gaining a command of the entire production chain. These types of employees can seem like cogs in a machine: easily replaced by someone else with the same specialization and skill set while a Jack-of-all-trades is indispensable across multiple departments within an organization.

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Managers, for example, often must be generalists who are able to oversee teams of experts. A would-be manager with only one, specialized area of expertise may find his career trajectory limited. However, a manager at a software company who is able to speak to the engineering team intelligently while also communicating with the creative marketing team will find many more options for his talents along the way. This wide variety of skills will also allow this generalist manager to seek future career opportunities outside of the software space altogether. He may be able to move into a lead role at an advertising agency or a consulting firm using any part of the knowledge he employed in his last role.

The Harvard Business Review findings show that generalists tend to receive more job offers than specialists. However, this might be, in part, due to the fact that generalists may be able to apply to a wider variety of companies. An investment banking specialist will be best suited to seeking employment within that field. However, a consultant who has also worked in an investment bank and an advertising agency might be able to apply to companies in any of those fields and others, raising his chances of receiving a viable offer.

However, all is not lost if you are already a mid-career specialist looking to advance or make a lateral move. In interviews and cover letters, try to emphasize a wider range of skills beyond your niche. Make sure that you position yourself to potential employers as someone whose expertise is widely applicable and valuable to an entire organization and not simply your department. By positioning yourself in this way, you may be able to capture the best of both worlds.

About the Author

R. Kress is an Emmy Award winning journalist whose reporting and writing has appeared in national media from NBC News to the International Herald Tribune. She has covered news from cities around the world including Jerusalem, Krakow, Amman and Mumbai.