Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
Did you know there’s a second part to this verse?
Jack of all trades
Master of none
But often times better
Than master of one.
It seems even ancient idioms are unclear about what’s better in the age-old argument concerning specialists vs. generalists.
The truth is there’s no single answer to what’s better because they both have their pros and cons.
To help you decide whether you want to be a jack of all trades (generalist) or a master of one (specialist), let’s break down those pros and cons and explore how you can best present your specialty—or lack thereof—to prospective employers.
What is a specialist?
A specialist is someone who’s highly skilled in a relatively uncommon discipline.
Typically, they go through training to earn the skills they have. As a result, their abilities are often highly sought after.
There are so many different types of specialists out there, particularly when you start to dive into industry-specific specialists.
The medical industry, for example, has lots of specialists: neurosurgeons, cardiologists, pediatricians, and psychiatrists, just to name a few.
The technology industry is also full of specialists who work with specific platforms or tools or have experience with specific types of tech (like an app development specialist, for example).
Marketing specialists might focus on SEO, or they may be copywriters who focus on a particular industry, such as legal copywriters.
Educators may specialize in a particular field of study, mechanics will specialize in particular makes and models of vehicles, and contract workers might specialize in things like landscaping, plumbing, or lighting.
The list goes on and on. There’s no rule about what qualifies a specialist, provided they have a unique set of skills focused on a singular part of their industry.
What is a generalist?
Generalists have a wide variety of skills. Unlike specialists, they won’t focus on any particular skill set or area. Rather, they have a greater breadth of knowledge around any given topic.
People who are new to the workforce often start out as generalists, then become specialists after they find their niche. For example, someone working in sales as a generalist may go on to become a retention or lead generation specialist.
Generalists may not necessarily be focused on one industry. A person with experience in leadership may use their skills across multiple industries, for example.
Generalist vs. specialists: pros & cons for your career
If you’re deciding whether you want to be a generalist or specialist, there are some pros and cons to consider.
Being a specialist takes time. Unless you were born with a very specific natural skill you can use for work, odds are you’ll have to go through a training period before you can call yourself a specialist.
The amount of time you have to invest in training depends largely on what you want to do. Medical specialists often have to go through years of school (even after they’ve finished med school) to be considered a specialist.
Generalists, on the other hand, can start out much faster. If you aren’t worried about becoming a specialist, then you can take on an entry-level job in any industry that interests you and work your way up from there.
Verdict: If you want to start working ASAP, focus on being a generalist. If you want to increase your chances of higher pay, even if it means more time spent learning and training, become a specialist.
There’s a literal payoff for people who invest the time to learn a specialist skill. Having a unique skill set under your belt will likely earn you more pay.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s a clear correlation between the amount of education one has and pay earned.
You don’t need to go to college to become a specialist—there are plenty of alternatives to college that can give you the skills needed to be considered a specialist.
However, if you remain a generalist, it may take longer to earn more money. And you may never reach the pay grade heights that a specialist will see in their career.
Verdict: Being a specialist can seriously increase your chances of getting a higher-paying job if you’re willing to put in the time and dedication necessary to get there.
Demand and competition
Your decision to be a generalist vs. specialist will impact on your ability to find and keep your job, though both sides of the coin have their pros and cons here.
Specialists will face less competition in the job market because fewer people will be able to apply for the roles that require their specific skills.
On the other hand, there may be fewer jobs in general available to specialists, depending on their specialty. They may find themselves having to work at a company they aren’t excited about or even relocate to be closer to the jobs available.
Generalists will have more job options at more companies. But at the same time, they have to find other ways to stand out when applying for jobs because they’ll be up against many more qualified candidates. For more on that, check out these articles:
Verdict: Specialists will be highly sought after for their skills but may have fewer options than generalists when it comes to finding the right job.
Who has better job security between a specialist vs. a generalist? This one is also complicated, as both options have upsides and downsides.
A specialist will likely be harder to replace, meaning once they land a job, they’ll be more likely to stay in that role. Generalists, however, may be easier to replace if their employer isn’t satisfied with their work or if the company is going through layoffs.
But specialists also run the risk of becoming unnecessary to a company. New technology and trends could make a specialist’s skills less special.
For example, there was once a time when being a VCR repair specialist made sense, back when everyone was watching movies on VHS tapes. Nowadays, everyone is streaming their movies, and VCR repair people are no longer needed.
Verdict: When in demand, specialists enjoy greater job security than generalists. But unexpected circumstances could put their role at risk of becoming unnecessary altogether.
Flexibility and burnout
Generalists may not be able to earn as much as specialists, but what they lack in pay, they can make up for in flexibility.
If you have a wide array of skills, you can easily change jobs into different industries or companies. This can go a long way in preventing burnout and getting you out of working in a toxic company for too long.
Specialists, on the other hand, may feel “locked in” to their careers because they have fewer opportunities available to them. They also won’t be able to dabble in many different disciplines like a generalist, so they can more easily burn out after doing the same thing for too long.
Verdict: Generalists enjoy more freedom and flexibility in their work, which reduces their chances of burnout. Specialists must love what they do because they’ll have less variety in their day-to-day job.
The best of both worlds: can you be a specialist and generalist?
It’s clear there are both pros and cons to the generalist vs. specialist debate. But is there a third alternative? Can you be a generalist and a specialist?
Indeed, there’s a term for this type of person: the T-shaped worker. This phrase came about in the 1990s to describe a person who has skills in one particular area but can work well with others who have different skill sets in different disciplines.
Think of it this way: The top of a T stretches across multiple different skill sets and experiences, while the bottom of the T represents a deep dive into a specific skill.
For example, let’s say you are a coding specialist. You’ve spent years learning all of the major coding languages and are highly skilled at creating websites and apps.
But you’ve also taken a user-experience course, you know how to use Photoshop, and you’ve had experience leading a team of other coders.
You are considered a T-shaped worker because your experiences apply to lots of business segments (marketing, design, leadership). But you’ve still got that special set of skills that sets you apart (coding).
Presenting yourself as a T-shaped employee can help you avoid the cons of both sides of the specialists vs. generalists debate. But how do you do that?
Resume & interview tips: showcase your knowledge
If you want to maximize your chances of getting paid for your specialist skills without pigeonholing yourself in too narrow of an industry, then there are certain things you should do during the job application process to demonstrate your versatility and experience.
Know what the job is looking for
Hunting for a job is a bit like solving a puzzle. The company gives you clues as to what they’re looking for in the job description.
Read over the roles and responsibilities carefully and determine whether the company is interested in a specialist with a unique set of skills or a generalist who can do many different things.
This will make it easier to decide if it’s the right role for you and help you create an application that speaks directly to what the company wants in its next hire.
Tailor the jobs and responsibilities you showcase
Your resume is your chance to showcase your job experience, including the specialist skills you have or your ability to be a valuable and flexible generalist.
As you continue your career journey, you’ll eventually have more jobs and roles than you can list on a single-page resume. When this happens, it’s a good idea to have a few versions of your resume to send to different jobs.
You could have one resume that shows your specialist skills and how you’ve used them at previous jobs. Your second resume could be more focused on your experience as a generalist, giving you options when applying for any given role.
List a wide variety of skills
You likely have a section of your resume dedicated to outlining your skills. This is one of the best places to balance your resume as a specialist vs. generalist.
If you’re going with the specialist angle, use this section to highlight the specific tools, skills, and experiences you have that make you such a valuable specialist.
If you’re going for a generalist position, you can still share those same skills but balance them with your abilities in other areas, like leadership, strategy, project management, or conflict resolution.
Come prepared with specialist knowledge & generalist flexibility
You can use the interview to underscore whether or not you consider yourself a specialist.
For roles that require a specialist, come to your interview prepared with answers to common questions about your abilities—questions only a specialist would know. Practice giving succinct, clear answers so your nerves don’t trip you up.
If the role you’re going after is better suited for a generalist, then be open about your flexibility during the interview. Let the interviewer know that you have a wide variety of experiences and are open to learning new things (and perhaps even becoming a specialist over time).
Specialist vs. generalist: the final verdict
There’s no right answer when it comes to generalists and specialists.
It’s up to you to decide what you want in life. What’s most important to you in your career journey?
Do you want to earn more money, even if it takes more time and training and comes at the cost of flexibility?
Or are you happy with a job that offers diversity and adaptability at the expense of higher competition and lower wages?
The choice is yours—and no choice you make is forever. The key is to start gaining experience now, so you can decide where you want your career to take you.