Should You Be A Generalist Or A Specialist?

Way back in 2009, I read a blog post on whether you should be a generalist or a specialist.

Sure, the post's focus was on freelance commercial writing, but every now and then, I would think about its premise: Can you earn more as a generalist or a specialist in a certain career field? Do generalist careers or specialist careers earn more overall? Is it easier for a generalist to be hired? Or does a specialist always rise to the top of the resumé pile?

Note: I'm defining a specialist as someone with a degree that narrows down the job possibilities. For instance, two people with business degrees may have two very different jobs in any number of sectors. Conversely, two nurses will have more similar jobs in the health care field.

Although I have specialized experience in health care, I wanted to see what the Bureau of Labor Statistics had to say about occupations in general. They  divide jobs into 25 occupational groups. They also published a table with the 20 highest paying jobs.

In that list, according to my hastily applied criteria (see “note” above), I think three out of 20 are general (Natural Sciences Managers, Marketing Managers, and Financial  Managers). That means that the majority are specialized careers. (Of course, my methods are unscientific.)

Then I looked at the 30 occupations with the largest job growth. Of this list of 30, I think about 15 were specialized.

That doesn't tell the whole story though. This table also gives the median salaries. More general positions (or those with a low barrier to entry) generally pay less than the others, according to the table. That correlates with what I've observed, too.

My experience

In college, I specialized in radiologic technology, one of approximately 300,000 (compare that to nearly 4.5 million retail salespeople or 5,800 Oral/Maxillofacial surgeons) in the U.S. When I graduated, I chose to specialize even more; this decision resulted in a $3,000 bump in my annual salary.