Be a Generalist or a Specialist?

Dabbling is tempting but…

Posted Sep 05, 2018

 Tim Dorr/Flickr (CC 2.0)
Source: Tim Dorr/Flickr (CC 2.0)

Many people enjoy dabbling, and it’s understandable. The first thrust of learning about a topic is filled with novelty, important novelty. But that quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns: less important new material, more redundancy. So it’s tempting to dabble in something else until that’s not so much fun.

But specializing is often crucial to one’s career. Even if aspiring to leadership, in which being a generalist is required, getting in the door for a launchpad-to-leadership job usually requires beyond-dabbling expertise. Sure, there are exceptions: for example, if your parent runs the company, you’re sleeping with a hirer, or are of a much sought-after demographic. But in general, it’s likely that employers offering a middle-class-paying job will yawn at a dabbler.

Because this is Psychology Today, let’s take an example of two identical twins who are psychology majors, both of whom aspire to leadership, but only one focused: In taking her course on personality, when doing the required reading, she paid particular attention to the role of personality in the workplace. Too, she wrote her term paper on that. She took an elective course in principles of management. Not only did she get an internship in a human resources department, she made sure she got to observe and even participate in discussions of boss-supervisee disputes. Of course, that latter twin is more hireable for a job that’s a launchpad to her career goal of leadership.

Not only is such a person more hireable, s/he is less subject to that disease rampant among even new holders of doctorates: the Imposter Syndrome—Developing a practical specialization is an antidote. Of course, the person would still be a newbie but, with reasonable, consistent effort—for example, improved skill in running meetings, giving talks, project management—s/he’d be ahead of the pack when it comes time for promotion. And if at a particular workplace, s/he’s stalled, s/he can make a good case to other employers for why s/he’s ready for advancement.

All of this is also true in technical fields. Rather than just majoring in, for example, computer science, focus on a niche within it that’s in-demand and likely to stay so, for example, genomics, big data analysis, or artificial intelligence. And again, once in a launchpad job, focus not just on staying current in your specialization but acquire those soft skills needed to rise to management and leadership.

The takeaway

Many people are happy in individual-contributor roles or at least will accept them in exchange for the pleasure of being a generalist and avoiding the deep dive of specialization. But if you aspire to a leadership role, it’s often wise to specialize. That can facilitate your getting in the door of a desired field and place of employment. Once in, take the time to, yes, stay current in your specialization, but also to acquire the soft skills needed to become an excellent leader.

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