Career Path Analysis: Specialist Trap or Generalist Exploration

Professionals in specialized, well-defined careers deal with similar cases each day: data analysis, grant writing, meeting clients/sponsors – among other things.

Specialists are different than generalists in this way: left to their own making, specialist career paths have built-in milestones, promotions, and further specialization reinforced by everyday similar experiences.

Generalist careers, on the other hand, are often marked by high mobility between different jobs and industries. Generalists also tend to have flexible roles within organizations, thanks to portable skills.

A career strategy during transition abroad should focus on options along these lines that separate specialists from generalists: field-specific skills (former) or skills for the sake of skills (latter).

Would you rather work with a broad perspective or narrow your focus to one industry?

Generalists do not necessarily avoid industry specialization; they simply respond to different opportunities in different contexts. Generalists take in a broader view of market forces and look for an entry. Sometimes freelance work is what helps the generalist get a foot in the door.

The more advanced in a career field, the harder it is for a specialist to broaden their focus the way a generalist does.  Specialists, such as biotechnologists and PhD economists, have strong career identities. They look for very specific roles because they want to advance in narrowly-defined career tracks.


Both groups have their advantages and disadvantages in the market
– and can learn from one another in creative career moves

The greatest transitional risk for specialists is lapsed employment periods due to limited number of vacancies in their industry. As for generalists, it’s tough to make a career case when trying to appeal widely to audiences.

I think dual career professionals would benefit from both a generalist and specialist approach in their career decisions; diversify roles to bounce back from periods of inactivity.

Here are a few tips I can share; based on what I have learned from my own career transitions.

Tip 1: Get to know your local market

Consider the pros and cons of either paths in the local labor market. When you start your job search in a new country, consider your job options, career portability, and applications in other industries (e.g. engineers who work in medicine). Most importantly, make an informed estimate of how long you will be searching; and how long you are willing to spend exploring available job options. Identify and reach out to potential mentors (old and new) and join a local support group. (Check here we are global’s list of local chapters and focal point to see if we already have a local network in your area – or ask us, there is a good chance someone in our network can help you find new connections where ever you are going)

What will your strategy be given your path thus far and who will support you?

Transitions, geographical and career-wise, are all about learning new social skills and new technical competencies. Building a career while moving at the same time requires interests, skills and opportunities come together in a targeted way. Get to know the local labor market to understanding of local recruitment and hiring practices; how such practices differ from international one; and how people navigate professional relationships to fall into place.

Tip 2: Connect with different professional opportunities

Find ways to re-learn professional roles and re-wire work relationships. Attend a networking event or a networking workshop related to your field(s) of interests. Search through seminars and public conferences in your field. Ask to become a volunteer or work in a conference organizing company to gain access to industry events. Use Linkedin’s individualized messaging to invite local professionals who can guide you.

I am a generalist by nature, by interest and by circumstance. My master’s degree in European Politics from France did not present immediate career advantages when we moved to Taiwan some years ago. Unfortunately, we also did not stay there long enough to discover what I could do with my degree. At the time, there was a high demand for English-speakers in Taipei. Always strong in written communication, I started editing user manuals for a Taiwanese digital frame company while enrolled in Mandarin classes. Many years later (now in Denmark learning Danish on the side), I own my own English editing and content company. I edit to improve client presentations for local anthropologists and proofread journal submissions for university researchers.

In the end, writing – a transferrable skill – has defined my generalist path for me. I’m still working hard to find a focus, a niche, a specialization. In the meantime, the assignments I take on give me the opportunity to meet new people in different industries and fields.

Tip 3: Communicate your professional skills

Use your most portable/transferrable skills to find an audience, it could be potential coworker, employers, customers or others interested in your field of expertise.

Communication is considered an important skill anywhere – generalists and specialists alike. Whatever you know or do will not come to much use in this world, if you cannot communicate and share your skills with others. When considering your career path you might also want to give your communication experiences and skills a look.

Even if your specialized skills can for a while not be used in the specialized type of job you once had, you still have valuable knowledge that can be used by others when communicated wisely. Have you considered teaching? Or offered yourself as a mentor for students or young professionals within your field of work? Also consider writing a blog on here we are global, an article for a news media within your field or participate in a public speaking event, e.g. a local TEDx near you.

Chances are, once you start communicating your skills in relevant ways, you will connect with new people; and new, unexpected opportunities might even come your way.

Blogpost by Petek Jinkins, a Technical Writer, copy writer and HR professional currently located in Copenhagen. Petek is also the owner of Scripto Artes, an online and offline content, editing and translation service currently based in Denmark.

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