Jack of All Trades vs. Specialist: Choose the Best Path for Your Career

This guest blog post is written by Hannah Bannister of the Sales Tax Institute.

Is becoming an expert in one area preferable to becoming a jack of all trades competent in many areas? This is an age-old debate, present in every industry and perhaps in every individual career path.

Unfortunately, the answer is not straightforward. Market trends, your particular industry, and your personality and passions can dictate whether life as a generalist or specialist is best for you.

This internal debate often surfaces when we feel ready to transition to the next phase of our careers. Whether you lean towards generalist or specialist, adding a new skill to your repertoire or refining an area of interest might be just the thing to propel you to the next stage.

Professionals early in their career should consider taking several years to understand the fundamentals of their trade. This is deeply beneficial and will help your career whether you choose to specialize in the future or not. Exposure to various types of projects and challenges hones your skill set as a professional.

There are also situations where a specialist can also be a generalist. For example, an accountant who focuses on tax is technically a specialist, but if they focus on one tax type such as sales tax, then they might be considered a generalist in the sales tax field. But if they sub-specialize to a particular state or type of work within sales tax, such as just handling audits, then they become a very niche specialist.

There are pros and cons no matter which path you choose.


Benefits of Being a Jack of All Trades

You have a well-rounded point of view. Generalists see the big picture. They understand how processes flow and how they’re intertwined. This big picture perspective allows generalists to participate as strategic decision makers in their companies.

Generalists also tend to understand clients’ situations holistically. They are able to alleviate client worries and suggest additional services to meet client needs.

Smaller firms or companies might be looking for you. Not every firm has the resources to hire a different person for every job. Generalists are equipped with the skills to deal with most situations that might arise.

Generalists have transferable skills, meaning they can jump into new projects across a variety of areas or fields using skills they’ve gained from past experiences.

You experience more variety. No day may look alike for a generalist. With hands in multiple areas of multiple projects, generalists can use both people and technical skills throughout the day, interacting with clients before switching to data analyzation.

Exposure to an assortment of interesting work assignments gives generalists opportunities to broaden their knowledge base.


Drawbacks to Wearing Many Hats

You could face more competition. Although generalists might be qualified for more positions across the board, these positions likely attract more applicants than openings for specialists. Having a more loosely defined position within a company could also make it more difficult for a generalist to defend their position from another generalist with an equally diverse background.

You might sacrifice breadth for depth. A generalist may reach a point in a project where the knowledge necessary to tackle a problem is beyond them. If a project increases in complexity, generalists might lack the in-depth knowledge to uncover the root, underlying causes of the problem.

You could earn less. Generalists typically earn less than their specialist counterparts. Generalists that operate as independents may reach a larger and more varied market but typically can’t charge the same rates as an experienced and highly recommended specialist.


Benefits of Being an Expert

You can capitalize on your passion. Specialization allows professionals to focus on what excites them most. Specialists are able to constantly research, write about, and talk about what they love.

After years of honing their expertise, specialists can become “thought leaders” in their field and provide a unique perspective to influence the industry. Specialists are often close with other specialists. This helps them remain at the top of the field with a full team of supportive colleagues in their corner.

Expertise is desirable. With fewer specialists in any given industry, demand for specialized skills and knowledge can be high.

Low supply and high demand means specialists have more of an ability to name their price. Many organizations recognize the value of having a specialist on staff because they can anticipate trends and solve problems within their specific area more quickly than a generalist. Specialists can often charge top dollar as an independent contractor if they choose to branch out on their own.

You can expand your platform within your expertise. Although a specialization is narrow by definition, there may be more applications for a specialization then one might realize. Leveraging credibility as an expert or specialist can lead to speaking engagements, expert paneling, and other career-advancing opportunities like contributing to research and industry publications.


Drawbacks of Specialization

Fewer open positions. Specialists may have a hard time finding the right position for them. Job searching may take longer as not every company has the budget for a specialist. Additionally, specialists might have to be more open to travel or even relocation, meeting clients where they are, or moving where there are open positions.

Sometimes it’s harder to get invited to the party. Bringing in a specialist might not be a project manager’s first instinct when in the initial stages of a project. They might write off a specialist’s area of expertise as “details” and overlook the value a specialist can bring to even broad discussions. Appreciation for specialists’ ideas might be confined to topics that directly involve the specialist’s areas of expertise.

More susceptible to market and industry changes. Having a narrower field means that a market downturn could increase competition for an already limited number of positions. Depending on the industry and specialty, technological advances could make some specialist jobs obsolete. Computers might be faster and more cost effective for certain tasks.



Choosing Your Path

At the end of the day, it comes down to knowing yourself and knowing where your passions lie.

Some people, like Sales Tax Institute Founder, Diane Yetter, latch onto particular areas rather quickly, for others it takes more time and exploration.

“I think I am kind of an anomaly, that I fell into a role, stuck with it my entire career, and loved every second,” says Diane. “It’s so important to know yourself and what you like – if you’re very much a big picture, visionary person that’s not detailed oriented and might prefer planning over executing, then something like sales tax might not be the right place for you. So much of it is ‘know thyself.’”

Diane considers herself more of a generalist when it comes to sales tax, as she does so many different types of projects – tax automation, audit defense, research, education. But most people probably think of her as a specialist. So it also often comes down to your perspective as well as the perspective of those around you.

Don’t be afraid to give yourself the time and space to discover a niche area of your industry.

What’s your passion and view on life? Send Diane an email and tell her your story – she loves hearing about how people get to where they are in life.

Posted on February 27, 2018
Other Resources You Might Be Interested In

Education and Networking

Diane Yetter discusses the Council on State Taxation and their annual Basics school at which she teaches.

How to Advance Your Career in Sales Tax

Explore how you can advance your sales tax career through investing in yourself and your skills by gathering your resources or through an industry change.

Why Do You Enjoy Being a Sales Tax Professional?

We asked professionals what they enjoy most about working with sales and use tax and compiled the responses in this blog post.

How to Advance Your Tax Career – Top Negotiation and Promotion Tips

Negotiating with your boss about a promotion, access to more resources, or a pay raise can be daunting. Here are some tips for tax pros to take their careers to the next level.