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What you should know about being a specialist or generalist

When you’re trying to decide on a career path, the answer is not always obvious. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself.

What you should know about being a specialist or generalist
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Early on in my career as an HR generalist, I realized that my favorite tasks had to do with recruitment and hiring–probably because my personality is more like a salesperson, and recruiting is the “sales” side of HR.

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My career fantasies consisted of me getting to just focus on recruiting all day—finding and interviewing people, making offers, and convincing them this was the right opportunity for them. Eventually, I made my dreams happen and never looked back.

But is specialization always the right answer? Here are six questions to ask yourself to help you decide if it is, or if you should go the generalize route:

1. Who are the people I really admire and enjoy working with?

Do you get excited when you talk with a specialist about what they do? What about their expertise gets you jazzed?

If you find your curiosity leads you down a rabbit hole of ever more detailed questions for them, then specialization could be a great fit for you. If you run out of questions or feel confused or bored, maybe you’re more of a “skim the surface” kind of person. There’s nothing wrong with that–business needs both kinds!


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2. Would I be content spending all day focused on one thing?

If you’re in finance, you can take that in a lot of different directions. For those who like to dip their toes in all areas–from accounts receivable to treasury to budget management–specializing would be a downer.

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But if you’ve seen all that and want to plumb the depths of one specific field, it may be just the right decision. Talk to a few people who work in those roles to make sure it’s what you think it is and you’ll enjoy it. (Here’s how to get started on setting up those informational interviews.)

3. Will I need more education to go deep into what I really want to focus on?

Accountants and lawyers often face this dilemma early on. Tax accounting and tax law, for example, can be a fast path to high rewards, but they typically require advanced degrees and a lot of exposure to the specialty.

If you make that investment in yourself to go back to school, you’re making a long-term commitment to your craft. So be sure you really love it (and can afford it).


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4. Will specializing increase or decrease my work-life balance?

It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything, according to Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Are you ready to spend a lot of time working to become a topic expert? How will that affect your relationships with your friends and family? It may be smart to ask for their opinion and support first, and decide for yourself if specializing will take away from the things you value outside of work.

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5. Will I box myself out of future opportunities if I become too narrowly focused?

It’s key to figure out if becoming a specialist will ultimately limit your career path down the road. Use your networking efforts to get a sense of where specializing will take you–and whether that sounds interesting to you.

Also, consider whether you feel more comfortable in a large organization or a small one. Small companies typically (but not always!) need more “utility players” willing to play several roles and fill in for others, whereas large enterprises often “divide and conquer,” solving problems with teams of specialists.


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6. What’s my endgame?

If, down the road, you want to manage others, you might want to keep one foot in the generalist world. As a boss, you’ll need to be able to have credibility beyond your specialty to lead others.

However, if you’re more excited about becoming an expert in your field, specializing might be the way to go.

You may or may not already know all the right people willing to invest in you and advise you as you decide between specializing and generalizing.

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If you don’t, that’s okay–but it’s key to have a strong network when making this decision. Talk with colleagues at your current company who are a few years ahead of you. Or get in touch with fellow alumni who graduated from your university. Or consider hiring a career coach who specializes in your industry or desired field.

Just be sure not to rush your decision–and know that you can always change your mind. Read a lot of articles and blogs, take people to coffee, listen to podcasts. In short, take your time. After all, this is your career–it’s worth getting right!


This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission. 

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