Should you be a generalist or a specialist?

Way back in 2009, I read a blog post on whether you should be a generalist or a specialist.

Sure, the post’s focus was on freelance commercial writing, but every now and then, I would think about its premise: Can you earn more as a generalist or a specialist in a certain career field? Do generalist careers or specialist careers earn more overall? Is it easier for a generalist to be hired? Or does a specialist always rise to the top of the resumé pile?

Note: I’m defining a specialist as someone with a degree that narrows down the job possibilities. For instance, two people with business degrees may have two very different jobs in any number of sectors. Conversely, two nurses will have more similar jobs in the health care field.

Although I have specialized experience in health care, I wanted to see what the Bureau of Labor Statistics had to say about occupations in general. They divide jobs into 25 occupational groups. They also published a table with the 20 highest paying jobs.

In that list, according to my hastily applied criteria (see “note” above), I think three out of 20 are general (Natural Sciences Managers, Marketing Managers, and Financial Managers). That means that the majority are specialized careers. (Of course, my methods are unscientific.)

Then I looked at the 30 occupations with the largest job growth. Of this list of 30, I think about 15 were specialized.

That doesn’t tell the whole story though. This table also gives the median salaries. More general positions (or those with a low barrier to entry) generally pay less than the others, according to the table. That correlates with what I’ve observed, too.

My Experience

In college, I specialized in radiologic technology, one of approximately 300,000 (compare that to nearly 4.5 million retail salespeople or 5,800 Oral/Maxillofacial surgeons) in the U.S. When I graduated, I chose to specialize even more; this decision resulted in a $3,000 bump in my annual salary.

When I decided to specialize in a different direction, I got a generic Bachelor’s degree. And that job led to my current educational position requiring my (specific) Master’s degree. I mention that my Master’s degree was specific to my current position because it’s essentially worthless to almost all other jobs.

As I analyzed my experience, I found it interesting that specializing the first time did cause me to earn more money. While I don’t directly earn more money from my current day job, it led to a side gig that’s helping me pay for our DIY projects. Without the experience and degrees, the side gig opportunity would never have presented itself. So, even in job #2, specializing paid off for me.

Is my situation unique or not? Let’s go deeper…

Why specializing might be worth it

After years of observing students, I think Woody Allen is right: 80% of success is showing up.

In my day job, I’m the program director of a selective admissions program, meaning we only have a certain number of spots…and a lot of applicants.

Many students call or pick up an application. Fewer actually fill out the application and turn it in. Still fewer prospective students turn in the required paperwork. By the time we get to the last step, we have an applicant pool of about 5 percent of the original number. Although not everyone gets into the program, I can say that no one gets into the program without “showing up.”

Are there parallels to specializing here? Perhaps specialists deserve to get paid more because they are persistent in accomplishing which specialization they want. It doesn’t mean they work harder necessarily. In fact,
one of my lowest-paying jobs required the most physical effort.

Even after researching this article, I don’t know what is really true. What I’ve read seems to indicate that people who specialize make more money. And my anecdotal experience supports my theory.

Maybe my theory has holes. But here’s one thing I do know: As you specialize, fewer and fewer people are vying for fewer and fewer jobs — because not everyone, sometimes for valid reasons, wants to get the degree/get the experience/take the test/or whatever that will allow them to specialize.

On the other hand, by being a generalist, you may get many different types of jobs, but more people are vying for those positions. And according to the BLS chart, many general occupations are entry-level, requiring little to no education. (Not all of them, of course, but a large percentage.)

Which is better?

Again, I’m not sure. I can share more anecdotal experience, this time from a recent conversation with a colleague who has the same job I do, just at a different institution. He wants to retire, but he’s afraid there won’t be qualified applicants.

“It’s crazy, Lisa,” he said. “Within a 100-mile radius, I think there are only four people who are qualified to take my job…and they are already doing the same job with their current employer!”

Of course, if everyone worked to be qualified to take over his position when he retires, then my specialization theory is full of holes. Being specialized wouldn’t help you if there were lots of qualified people for a handful of jobs.

This brings up my concern with specializing. Is it possible to become too specialized and pigeonhole yourself so you’re only qualified for a few jobs — and they’re not available?

To Be a Generalist or Not to Be a Generalist

After a long analysis, I don’t think that being a generalist or specialist is really the point. Er, so thanks for reading this far :).

What’s more important is selecting an occupation you’re interested in, one that will pay you enough to maintain your desired style of living, and then figure out how to specialize within that occupation (if you want to).

So what do you think? Can you earn more money with increased specialization within your field? Do specialists earn more in general? Can you be too specialized? Or does this even matter?

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