Career Advice: Is a Generalist or Specialist Career Path Better?

Career Advice: Is a Generalist or Specialist Career Path Better?

Career Advice: Is a Generalist or Specialist Career Path Better?

Throughout our years in executive search, we’ve had the privilege of guiding professionals across various industries through their career planning processes. A recurring question that occasionally surfaces during interactions with mid-level executives looking to move further up the corporate ladder is whether becoming a generalist or specialist is better for career advancement.


A Specialist and a Generalist: What Are They?

As the term suggests, specialists are professionals well-versed in their domains of expertise. In contrast, generalists are the jack of all trades, meaning they are knowledgeable across a spectrum of fields and do not delve as deeply into any single field as their specialist counterparts. In other words, if technical expertise is the strength of a specialist, what generalists pride themselves on is the ability to draw on their diverse knowledge to form a structured and coherent perspective.


Specialists vs Generalists and Individual Contributors vs Managers

At this point, some may wonder: Does this mean that a specialist is synonymous with an individual contributor (IC), while a generalist naturally equates to a people manager? Does it also imply that being a generalist could bolster my chances of vertical career advancement versus being a specialist?

Indeed, many IC roles fit the specialist mould, and many individuals in managerial roles may perform tasks that are more generalist. However, the terms are not synonymous. Take, for instance, the role of a general Marketing Manager versus a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) Manager. While both are managerial positions, the former is a generalist who works on broader tactical duties, and the latter is a specialist with an in-depth channel-specific focus.


Considerations to Identify Your Career Path

Given the difference in areas of contribution, both specialists and generalists are crucial to an organisation’s development. There is, thus, no fixed answer as to which is a better career path, for both offer opportunities for vertical progression. Nonetheless, there are several dimensions that we can consider to gauge whether a generalist or specialist track better plays to our strengths and aligns with what we seek in our career:


1. Job Security vs Career Versatility

The first pertains to job security versus career versatility. Given the scarcity of comparable talent, specialists are often less replaceable, affording them better job security than generalists. However, the specificity of a specialist’s role may make it challenging for these professionals to transition to another industry. Conversely, generalists enjoy this career versatility due to the broad transferability of their skills.

Besides the ease of career switching, another potential risk specialists may face is that of obsolescence, which has only accelerated in the age of rapid technological advancements. A case in point is how innovations like generative AI are already levelling the playing field by democratising skills previously exclusive to specialists, such as programmers.

Advice: To navigate the challenges associated with specialisation, we stress the importance of striking a balance. While deepening your expertise in specific fields is beneficial, it’s equally vital to ensure that your career focus doesn’t become too narrow to the point where it limits your job opportunities.

Besides this, we also believe that the wisdom of the adage “never put all your eggs in one basket” rings true when planning one’s career in today’s rapidly evolving job landscape. With 40% of jobs globally likely to be impacted by AI, as noted in an IMF report, the importance of continuously expanding one’s skill set to stay relevant cannot be understated.

As such, whether you choose to be a generalist or specialist, we emphasise the value of actively acquiring new or complementary skills. Such a proactive stance enables you to add value to your current role while keeping you adaptable and employable in the face of market shifts.


2. Salary Package

generalist or specialist for career advancement

When deciding between pursuing a specialist or generalist career path, another factor that’ll cross our minds is the salary growth potential of each track. Specialists often have an edge in this aspect, as their mastery of specific skills can be their leverage for higher wages. This is especially true today, where companies increasingly value specialisation over educational achievements. A LinkedIn survey reflects this sentiment, reporting that 79% of organisations in Asia Pacific (APAC) believe in skills-based hiring.

However, it should be noted that both salary potential and job security mentioned earlier can vary depending on the context of your employment. To illustrate this, let’s compare an IT specialist in a food manufacturing firm versus one in a company where IT is integral to its operations. The latter is more likely to enjoy a better salary and job security due to the relative importance of his role. Similarly, while a small to medium enterprise (SME) specialist is less likely to receive a better salary than one working in a multinational corporation (MNC), he may enjoy better job security.

Advice: Considering how various factors affect whether being a generalist or specialist is better, we suggest focusing on clarifying your ultimate objectives during career planning. By reflecting on what matters most to you, you can better understand how to align your career move so that each decision brings you closer to achieving your goals.


The Verdict: Jack of All Trades or Master of One?

As you would have seen, there is no definitive winner in the ongoing debate between the virtues of being a generalist versus a specialist, for each path has its own merits.

If there is a stance to make, considering the concept of the “T-shaped” professional. These professionals, who have broad general knowledge and deep expertise in one or a few areas, benefit from the ability to wear different hats as needed and add value in a world where achieving more with less is prized.

Regardless of your ultimate decision, staying informed about developments in your industry is crucial and connecting with headhunters in Singapore can be advantageous in this regard. This is because when one progresses to senior roles, hiring and promotion decisions are often more likely to be affected by external factors, such as a company’s business’s life cycle or economic cycles. In such situations, headhunters, who work with companies daily, are intimately familiar with the job market and its evolving demands, enabling them to offer the latest insights to help you stay ahead.

Executive search firms specialising in diverse sectors, like our team at JC Consulting, are also equipped to piece trends across domains to give you a better view of the broader market sentiments. This, along with our consultants’ strategic advice, can help you position yourself more strategically and access better opportunities to propel you further in your career quickly.

Whether you’re actively seeking new opportunities or simply looking for career advice, reach out to us today. From private equity talent acquisition to legal executive search and HR recruitment, we’re here to support your journey with our expertise and vast network of opportunities.



Whether you choose the generalist or specialist career path, both have their distinct advantages and challenges. job security in their niche, although they may face challenges in adapting to new industries and risk becoming obsolete with technological advancements. Generalists, on the other hand, benefit from the ability to move across different sectors easily, thanks to their broad skill set. Given the evolving needs of the modern workplace, combining deep expertise in a specific area with a broad range of competencies may be a direction worth considering as we navigate the job market of tomorrow.