Specialist vs. Generalist: Who Wins?

Alyssa Gregory
Alyssa Gregory
specialist vs generalist
Many fields with a great amount of depth, like web design and development, have a split of service providers. Some offer specialized services while others focus on a more general area. Having done both myself, I think there are merits (and detriments) to each, although I certainly have my own opinion about what works best! But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the match up. The Specialist The specialist may have purposefully chosen their area of specialty, or they could have bumped into it one day and it stuck. Either way, they have great depth of experience in one specific area. They focus all of their effort, including skill development, on that one specialty. Some pros of being a specialist include:
  • They are experts in their specialty.
  • They know the work inside and out, upside and down.
  • They may have an easier time selling their services once they find their market.
  • They can charge more.
  • Their work process is streamlined.
OK, flip it over. Some cons:
  • They have no “filler” services to pick up the slack when work slows.
  • Their market may be too narrow for consistent income.
  • They probably have to turn down or outsource a lot of work.
  • They limit their ability to expand their business.
  • They risk going out of business if their specialty becomes obsolete.
The Generalist The generalist may consciously choose to offer a broad spectrum of services, or they may not have been able to develop expert-level skills in one specific area. Generalists may be very good at doing many things, but typically are not at the same expert level as specialists at any one service. The pros:
  • They are able to market to a broader audience.
  • They have more services to offer current and past clients in order to generate additional work.
  • They can easily add, remove and update service offerings to match the market.
  • They have broad peripheral knowledge, which may be enough for some clients.
  • They can provide clients with alternatives if one solution is not a fit.
The cons:
  • They probably have to turn down or outsource specialized work.
  • They have more to juggle in terms of project management.
  • Their rates may be lower.
Specialist vs. generalist is like comparing the coffee selection at a warehouse club and then going to a gourmet coffee shop. One gives you a selection; you can make a choice and pick a coffee that’s within your budget. The other is only for the serious coffee drinkers who know what they want and are willing to pay a premium for it. The warehouse club has a lot more traffic and sales. The gourmet shop is a harder sell, but a bigger one. There are advantages to being in both groups, but I think the only way to be truly successful is by being a little of both. You can be a specialist, but in order to be able to develop a profitable business (of course, depending on what your specialty is), you may need to be able to supplement your specialty services with some add-on services that may not be exactly in line with your focus. On the generalist side, you can’t just do everything mediocre. You can offer a lot of services, but you need to do all of them well and some of them perfectly. If you’re not at least doing them well, it may be time to consider not offering those services. Anyway, that’s my take. What’s yours? Are you a generalist or a specialist? Or a mix of both? Image credit: Lynne Lancaster

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Generalists vs Specialists

What are the key differences between a generalist and a specialist?

A generalist is a professional who has a broad range of skills and knowledge across various areas, while a specialist is an expert in a specific field or area. The main difference lies in the depth and breadth of their knowledge and skills. A specialist has deep knowledge and expertise in a particular area, while a generalist has a wide range of knowledge and skills across multiple areas.

Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

The answer to this question depends on various factors such as the nature of the job, the industry, and personal career goals. In some industries, having specialized knowledge can make you more valuable and in-demand. On the other hand, being a generalist can make you more adaptable and versatile, which can be beneficial in rapidly changing industries.

Can a generalist become a specialist?

Yes, a generalist can become a specialist. This usually involves gaining more education, training, or experience in a specific area. However, it’s important to carefully consider this decision as it may limit the range of jobs you can apply for in the future.

What are the advantages of being a specialist?

Specialists often command higher salaries due to their deep expertise and knowledge in a specific area. They are also more likely to be considered for roles that require specialized skills or knowledge.

What are the disadvantages of being a specialist?

One of the main disadvantages of being a specialist is the risk of becoming obsolete. If the industry changes and the specialist’s skills are no longer in demand, they may find it difficult to adapt.

What are the advantages of being a generalist?

Generalists are often more adaptable and versatile. They can work in a variety of roles and industries, which can provide more job opportunities. They are also often better at seeing the big picture and integrating different areas of knowledge.

What are the disadvantages of being a generalist?

One of the main disadvantages of being a generalist is that they may not command as high a salary as specialists. They may also be overlooked for roles that require specialized knowledge or skills.

How can I decide whether to be a generalist or a specialist?

Consider your interests, career goals, and the nature of your industry. If you enjoy learning about a wide range of topics and want to have a variety of job opportunities, being a generalist may be a good fit. If you are passionate about a specific area and want to become an expert in it, being a specialist may be a better choice.

Can I switch from being a specialist to a generalist?

Yes, it’s possible to switch from being a specialist to a generalist. This usually involves broadening your skills and knowledge to cover a wider range of areas. However, this can be a challenging process and may require additional education or training.

What skills are important for a generalist and a specialist?

For a generalist, important skills include adaptability, problem-solving, and the ability to integrate different areas of knowledge. For a specialist, important skills include deep knowledge and expertise in a specific area, attention to detail, and the ability to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in their field.