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When trying to make a successful career, which is better: being a generalist or a specialist?

In other words, should you generalize and know a little about a lot of things? Or should you specialize and have a deep understanding of only one area? Well, that depends.

“So, when we think about generalizing versus specializing in our career, we’re really talking about can you do a broad number of tasks versus do you drill down and do one specific thing really well.”

That is Natasha Olinger. Olinger is a human resource expert in Washington, D.C. She talks about the benefits of both. However, the main reason for specializing is an important one: more money.

"So, generally speaking, the common wisdom out there is that it’s always better to specialize and that you can demand a higher salary if you specialize.”

To explain her way of thinking, Olinger uses a fairly common situation -- choosing a restaurant. Say you want to eat a favorite Japanese meal: sushi.

If you go to a restaurant that only serves sushi, you can expect high quality products, and you should also expect to pay more. If you go to a place that serves sushi, tacos and pizza, the quality of the sushi may not be so great, but the prices will probably be lower. Olinger says the world of work is not all that different.

However, she adds that all is not perfect in the world of the specialist. If there is a drop in economic activity or possibly a recession, a generalist may get more job offers.

“Though it’s generally considered better to be a specialist, the recession of 2008 really showed us that there are times when being a generalist translates to job security even though in boom times being a specialist often leads to a higher salary.”

So, are some fields best for generalists and others for specialists? Olinger says the size of the organization can be more important than a sector, or industry.

“I would say the biggest difference -- in terms of, is it better to be a generalist or specialist -- is more the size of the organization, oftentimes, than the sector. So, smaller organizations tend to need more generalists. And larger companies tend to need more specialists. And this is oftentimes regardless of industry.”

So Olinger suggests thinking about the size and type of business you would like to work for. Small businesses often need people who can do many things. Also, companies that are just getting started often need people who are able to perform many different tasks.

For example, your job description may be that of a graphic designer, but you may also have to do some writing. A person who can do many different things is often called a Jack-of-all-trades and is able to wear many hats.

“I would say, think about the type of organization in which you want to work. If you want to work for a smaller organization or possibly a start-up where, you know, you’re going to have to kind of wear all different kinds of hats...then you would want to focus more on generalizing and learning kind of a broad set of skills.”

Larger companies can be just the opposite. They often need specialists -- experts in a given field. In fact, they may require that you stay in your lane, meaning you do your job and nothing else.

“If you really want to go into a much larger corporation you probably want to specialize. They’re going to be looking for someone who can solve a very specific type of problem that they have. And there probably isn’t going to be as much room or really need to wear all those different hats and kind of pinch hit where needed.”

When planning your career path, the best advice might be to “know yourself.”

Some people like to know a little about a lot of things. They might lose interest in working on the same thing day after day. These people might be happier in a career that lets them perform different duties.

But what if you really love learning everything there is to know about just one subject? You like the idea of being an expert. In that case, it is probably a good idea for you to specialize. However, if you are preparing to specialize in something, you had better make sure that you really like it.

But perhaps the best solution is a mix of generalization and specialization.

Some career planners call this a “T-shaped” career. The top of the T would be the generalized part. The upright stem of the T would be the deeper understanding of a person’s general knowledge -- their expertise.

Olinger agrees. She suggests that combining the two may be the best answer.

“I think, ideally, the most successful candidates -- in terms of balancing the ability to demand a higher salary and having their jobs be quote-un-quote ‘recession-proof’ -- tend to balance specialized skills with general skills.”

She notes, that a lot depends on where you are in your career. It may be easier to be a generalist when you are younger and then slowly specialize as you get older.

However, experts advise workers to keep their skills up-to-date and be willing to make changes, when needed -- no matter what industry you work in or how old you are.
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