To specialize, or to generalize, that is the question

As a university senior soon to enter the workforce, I trust I am in the good company of undergraduate and graduate students and many others who are also working to decide what skills and credentials they need to land their dream job in business or maybe elsewhere (tech, consulting, as entrepreneurs, etc.). I have spent many semesters at Tufts and the Fletcher School studying the nature of work and how technology and globalization are affecting work as we know it. I also had the chance to learn about how technology is changing the nature of education as we know it while interning at the Harvard Business School’s HBX subsidiary last semester.

One question has lingered in my mind about the nature of skills and credentials necessary to succeed in business lately: Is it best to generalize or specialize?

In short, many academics and professionals alike believe it is best to generalize, which is to have a diverse range of academic and professional exposures, working in the business profession. Also, understandably, there are benefits to specializing in specific industries as I will note.

The generalist and specialist defined

Nicole Torres of the Harvard Business Review establishes the difference between generalists and specialists by tracking a subject’s professional and academic focus before, during, and after their undergraduate career leading them to business school or to work in business.

Specialists consistently focus on specific areas of studies and work, possibly only studying finance and working in finance, as an example. Generalists focus on different professional and academic disciplines before attending business school according to Torres.

Debunking the myth that specialists are the only ones with job security today

Job security is often at the core of the specialist versus generalist debate, but it is far from correct that specialists are the only ones with job security in the digital age. History shows us how many have worried about their job security in the past due to the rise of technology, and they ultimately fared well.

Look no further than the Luddites who mobilized in response to the industrial revolution over 200 years ago in Britain. Primarily members of the working class and others who had been employed by the factories, the Luddites worried about machines replacing their manual labor in factories. So, they raided many of the mills and destroyed the textile machinery. While their fears about job security were justified entirely (who would not fret for their source of livelihood at the dawn of a new technological revolution?), the Luddites did not fully see how they too could participate in the new industrial economy of the early 1800s. Many who initially rebelled against technology did not fully imagine how the industrial revolution would come to raise the standard of living for people around the world. Ultimately, the Luddites and many others who had apprehensions and deep-seated worries about their job security at the dawn of the first industrial revolution survived as the Luddite movement lasted from 1811 to 1816.

Similarly, today, there is a zeitgeist of anti-technological sentiment among many workers. They believe the best way to secure a job is to specialize or risk displacement from their source of livelihood by a machine or some form of technology.

For the sake of job security or other reasons, many choose to specialize today. There are specific fields where specialists shine the brightest, such as academia, medicine, finance, law, and specific areas within the tech sector, just as examples. Having specialized skills is a requisite to ascend to the top ranks of particular industries. Who would want to choose a generalist cardiologist to perform open heart surgery on them or their loved one? We often trust that specialist are the most qualified.

Furthermore, in the absence of extensive information about a particular candidate for a job or a given field, specialization indicates a high degree of subject matter mastery to employers. So, specializing has its benefits, but it depends on one’s objective.

Specialization has its limits for many recent undergraduate and business school grads and professionals planning to work in the corporate or start-up space, and the evidence makes this point very clear.

Why is it best to generalize in your professional and academic experiences if you plan to work in business?

  • In business, generalist job candidates are less easily substitutable or replaceable.
  • Additionally, Nicole Torres shows that acquiring diverse skills at the undergrad level better equips individuals to compete in the job market.
  • Also, generalists make better leaders in specific fields, according to Torres. Whether leading as a politician, a member of the c-suite, a manager, or an entry-level project leader in a corporate setting, one will need to adapt by leveraging a broad base of interdisciplinary skills and insights.

Generalist can ride the wave of technological innovation by leveraging a broad base of skills and insights.

Generalist can benefit from learning to leverage technology as the economic engine of progress and professional advancement. Just over a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg hypothesized that AI would soon be able to see, hear, and understand language and information better than humans within the next ten years. Whether or not Zuckerberg’s projected time frame is correct, he makes a compelling point. As we increasingly move toward working in a society where computers automate specific tedious manual tasks and technology does the heavy-lifting work that used to require specialization, the demand for resourceful, multi-skilled generalists will increase.

For instance, using a standard querying language (SQL) program, a big data analytical tool, members of Facebook’s Product Specialist team can leverage their inter-disciplinary insights to influence and monitor the quality and security of different Facebook products that serve billions of platform users around the world. It does not necessarily require a specialist trained in computer science or data science to interpret this kind of information impacting Facebook, as an example. The key decision makers and business strategy teams will need to leverage interdisciplinary insights to make sense of the big data. So, more important than having one, specialized skill-set, many industries seem to increasingly value those who can learn new skills and apply insights to solve complex problems in different ways. The business of innovation does not rely on employees who think the same, trained in the same disciplines as specialists only.

Although Zuckerberg’s words might encourage the skilled-techies with a broad knowledge base, his views might discourage others who want to ride the wave of technological progress and innovation but do not know where or how to develop the technical skills necessary to be technically proficient generalists.

Do not fret.

It does not take a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science or Data Science to learn particular technical skills in high demand. For those with a willingness to learn and a fair amount of discipline, MIT’s edX, Harvard Business School’s HBX, Coursera, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, and Lynda.com are a few wonderful (low-cost or free) resources to access as you broaden and refine your technical expertise. We live in a time where business professions can excel as generalists in a myriad of industries if they have the necessary technical proficiency and willingness to learn new things.

Generalize tactfully

In summary, the generalist model is not an invitation or endorsement of general incompetence, nor is it the path of least resistance for those with less self-discipline and talent to master one craft. Generalizing is not a sure path to obsolescence in an economy that only employs specialists. Also, the computers are not coming to eliminate all jobs.

The future does indeed look bright for generalists. The generalist path is for people with different, unconventional professional goals and interests. Generalists build a broad foundation of interdisciplinary skills and insights and can continue learning as they progress throughout their careers. The best generalists go on to be some of the greatest leaders and many of the highest paid executives across the business profession.

The workforce has space to accommodate both generalists and specialists in the digital age!

-

-

-

-

-

There are so many experiences on the generalists/specialist spectrum that deserve a voice on Medium.

Let’s start a conversation!

Like what you read? Give Travis Percy a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.