The Eternal Generalist/Specialist Dilemma

Often I feel torn between being even better at what I am already good at (which is so fun!) and achieving more at all the other (scary) skills. It seems to be a long lasting struggle for all workers across all spheres:

when developing skills in our domain, is it better to diversify our spectrum of knowledge or should we become eminent experts in one area?

THE SPECIALIST

colibri

The advantages of being highly competent at a single skill might be tremendous in the short term. However, this strategy is also extremely risky, as specialists thrive only when the conditions are perfect. The specialist must choose wisely the ability at which he becomes an expert because if it were to be unnecessary tomorrow, he might lose all the hard work he has done. However, if the choice is right, the specialist could become a crucial asset for any employer, therefore increasing exponentially the possibility of employment.

THE GENERALIST

UnknownOn the other end, diversifying our domains of skills is expensive in time, energy and in memory space (if only we could have more than one brain…). The generalist might always feel like he needs to improve at all levels, that he is not THE best at anything. However, the generalist becomes highly independent, needing only inputs from experts once in a while, and he is never “out of the game” when the conditions change. In the long term, being a generalist is safer since he will always have a base to build on.

THE OPTIMUM

Optimus-Prime-optimus-prime-15529314-488-710-2To be the go-to person in at least one skill/domain in your field is necessary. This way you become essential to this area, contributing significantly to the work being done. In a curriculum, showing outstanding specific skills is the most appealing part for employers. However, these specialist skills must not be achieved at the expenses of a well-rounded background. The autonomy and resourcefulness of a generalist are essential to be successful in the long-term, especially in Science. If you aim for the best compromise long-term/short term, you should try to get the best of both worlds. I never said it would be easy, though.


My strategy is therefore spread in two guidelines:

  • Pick a few tactical skills, that should be in high demand in the next years, in which to become as much as an expert as I can.
  • Make sure that I am knowledgeable or at least introduced to for all other domains/skills/areas that could be of interest in my work.

Here are some of my specialist vs. generalist skills:

SPECIALIST

GENERALIST

Statistics

Coding
R

Python

Vegetal Ecology

Vegetal Physiology
Communication

Predictive Models

Plant-microbe interactions

Forestry

I’ll tell you in 30 years if it worked!

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