Specialization or generalization?

6 questions to help you make the right choice between specialization and generalization

The job market does not always make it easy. There is a wide range of jobs on offer, but the requirements in the job advertisements are oftentimes equally as broad and confusing, which can easily put you off. Do you fit in at all? Do you have the necessary specialisation and expertise? But does specialization always make sense? Or does it possibly prevent you from switching to other, related or even distant topics in the future, which you could definitely tackle as a generalist?

The following six questions - and their personal answers - can help you decide whether a career as a specialist or generalist is the better career option for you.

1. Which people do I admire, which people do I enjoy working with?

Does it inspire you when a specialist talks to you about his or her area of expertise? Do you become curious and nervous when you hear his expertise and specialist knowledge?

If, when talking to specialists, you feel that your curiosity draws you into a channel where you always ask detailed questions and want to get more and more detailed answers, then you might be the right type for a specialized career.

If, on the other hand, you can't think of any questions, or are bored or confused by all the detailed information you are given. They may seem too specific to you and you prefer to keep the larger picture in mind, which does not require this level of detail. This is neither good nor bad - the economy needs both types, and each branch gives way to many interesting jobs with their own benefits.

2. Does it make me happy to spend all day dealing with one thing?

Taking the financial sector as example one can see how this question applies. The sector itself can be interpreted in all kinds of ways, as it includes a large variety of different positions. For those who like to have variety in their work - from accounts receivable to financing to budgeting - specialising in just one area would be a horror.

However, if you have gone through different departments and, out of your own initiative and interest you want to explore a certain area in its depths, then you should take this step. It can help to talk to people who work in the positions you are aiming for, so that you can get an impression of the real tasks and everyday work.

3. Do I need further training in order to professionally focus on my main interests?

Auditors and lawyers, for example, often find themselves confronted with this question quite early in their careers. Tax consultancy and tax law, for example, can be a quick route to a high income, but they also require high qualifications in the form of university degrees and ongoing training to specialise.

If this is a requirement for your selected shift in career it will be a large commitment. Taking a step back from your current job and returning to the student life will not be easy. However, if you are certain that that is what you want to do you should earnestly consider it as a viable option. After all, it is better to make a change, even if it is a long process, than to be stuck in a profession which does not fulfill you.

4. Will specialisation improve or worsen my work-life balance?

According to Malcolm Gladwell's book “Outliers: The Story of Success” it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything.

Are you willing to spend a lot of time at work to become an expert in something? How will this affect your relationship with your family and friends? It would be wise to ask for their opinion and advice first. And then decide for yourself whether a specialization might take away things you love and value outside of work in return.

5. Do I close myself off from future career options if I focus too narrowly?

It is important to consider whether a specialization ultimately limits your career options as you progress. Use your network to get a feel for where a specialization could take you - and whether this is of interest to you.

Other related factors may also impact if specialization is a suitable idea for you. For example, ask yourself the question if you would be more comfortable in a large or small company. Smaller companies usually (but not always!) need more generalists who can and want to work in different areas, whereas large companies tend to operate on a "divide and conquer" basis and therefore tackle the challenges in teams of experts, for which a specialist may be more important.

6. What is my long-term goal?

If you want to lead other people in the end, you'd better leave one foot in the generalist field. As a boss, you must have credibility beyond your own area of expertise to be able to lead others. This works best if you know different areas (with their peculiarities and difficulties) also from practical experience.

If a management position is not important to you, but the area of expertise is the main focus for you, specialisation may be the right way to go.Perhaps you already know enough right people who are willing to invest in you and advise you on your decision whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist in the future - or maybe not.

If not, that is fine. But a well-developed network is often the key to making that decision. It may make the transition easier, should you decide to take a determined step in either direction. Talk to colleagues in your current job who are a few years ahead of you. Or get in touch with former fellow students from your university. Or consider consulting a career coach who specializes in your industry or field of work.

Don't rush the decision, though. You should also know that you can always change your mind if you have doubts. But listen to your doubts, because the sooner you decide to go the other way, the easier it will be for you to implement this change and grow within the field you have chosen. Read professional articles and blogs, talk over a cup of coffee with people whose experience or opinion you value. In short, take your time. Because this decision can drastically change your career path, so make sure that the change is for the better and fulfills your wishes and expectations.