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STEM graduates: should you be a specialist or generalist?

GradAustralia

Graduating with a STEM degree equips students with sought-after, transferable skills, leading to diverse career options. Read these tips to help you decide.

Recognising the adaptability of a STEM degree

Congratulations on choosing to study a STEM discipline.

You’ve given yourself a terrific advantage: there is abundant evidence that STEM graduates find employment faster than their non-STEM counterparts, and that, once they’ve established a career, they earn, a more competitive salary.

However, those aren’t the only reasons to feel proud of your decision. In fact, a key benefit of studying a STEM degree are transferable skills. While you may be inclined to overlook their value, these skills are highly sought after and greatly diversify the professional choices you can make as a graduate.

For example, even if a mechanical engineering graduate decides not to pursue a career in that field, they still possess mathematical reasoning skills, teamwork experience, programming know-how, and so on. As such, they could reasonably consider pursuing an alternative career in finance, information technology, public service, or various other areas. Graduates of less specific STEM degrees–such as mathematics and physics–often find themselves in a similar position.

With this in mind, it’s helpful, as you navigate the options available to you as a STEM graduate, to distinguish between specialist and generalist roles.

Specialist roles

Specialist roles require you to have developed certain technical or professional skills while working towards the completion of a specific degree.

Often, such degrees must be authorised by a trusted accrediting body, which reviews curricula and course outcomes to ensure that graduates will meet entry-level professional requirements. For example, Engineers Australia is the national accrediting body responsible for evaluating Australian engineering degrees.

Examples of specialist roles include:

  • mechanical engineer
  • actuary
  • chemist
  • pharmacist
  • veterinarian
  • microbiologist
  • aeronautical engineer
  • medical scientist.

Generalist roles

Generalist roles require you to possess skills that, though often developed to a high level within STEM degrees, are not exclusive to STEM areas. Such skills include mathematical reasoning, problem-solving, research, communication, methodical analysis and programming.

Examples of generalist roles include:

  • financial modeller
  • research analyst
  • consultant
  • sales
  • web development
  • business management

Tips to help you decide between generalist and specialist roles     

Ideally, by the time you’ve completed your degree, you’ll have a good sense of whether or not you’d like to pursue a specialist career or a more general alternative. Maybe you loved the things you studied and found your internship meaningful or exciting. Maybe you thought your degree was a total drag. Or maybe it was a bit of both, leaving you feeling uncertain as to which career you should pursue now that you’ve graduated.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to decide between the specialist and generalist paths. However, the tips below can help you consider your choices in a way that makes it more likely you’ll arrive at a satisfying decision:

Consider whether you’d prefer to be a subject matter expert or a jack of all trades

In considering this choice it can be helpful to focus on the consequences of choosing to be a generalist instead of a specialist.

  • Is it important to me that I’m recognised as an expert?
  • Are there desirable skills or professional experiences that won’t be available to me in a specialist role?
  • Will I get bored if I’m focusing on the same challenges every day?

Be honest about your experiences so far

The ‘sunk cost fallacy’ describes our all-too-human tendency to avoid ‘wasting’ investments we’ve already made, even if committing to them will lead to future losses. Try to avoid it when asking yourself candid questions.

  • Did I actually enjoy my studies? What about my industry experiences?
  • Would putting into practice the skills I acquired as a student brings me satisfaction or enjoyment?

Beware of false dilemmas

It’s all too easy to forget about the diversity of experiences available within specialised professions, or the possibility of integrating specialist skills into a general role. So don’t get caught up making an unnecessary choice. Instead, where appropriate, ask: why not both?

  • Can I combine my options to get the best of both worlds?

Know your options

Start with a list of all the obvious career choices before you – then force yourself to make it bigger. Make sure you haven’t excluded something that could offer excitement, fulfilment, or excellent pay. Then, once you’ve identified all your options, narrow them back down to create a shortlist:

  • What would I do if my first choice weren’t an option?
  • What would I do if money weren’t a consideration?
  • What do my friends or family members think I’d be good at?
  • Could I combine any of my choices?

Address the unknown

Don’t ignore any niggling unanswered questions. Write them down and then commit some time to research the possible answers – you might be surprised about how it influences the decision you make.

  • Can I really even get a specialist job in this field?
  • Will I earn as much money if I don’t work as an engineer?
  • Will I make a bigger impact on my community as a research biologist or as an employee of this non-profit organization?  
  • Will I really enjoy being a web developer?

Be a scientist and test your hypotheses

It’s often said that you should trust your intuition, and this is true enough – but that doesn’t mean you should trust your intuition alone. Instead, test your assumptions by accruing more knowledge and experience.

  • Is there a book I can read about this specialist/generalist career to see if it interests me?
  • Have I searched for any relevant online career reviews?
  • Is it possible for me to ‘try out’ a career by working on a short project, volunteering, asking if I can shadow a current professional for a few days, or something similar?
  • Do I know anybody from the profession who will provide honest answers to my remaining questions?  

Keep things in perspective

If you’re truly stumped, it can be helpful to remember that the majority of people do change their careers; that switching professions, while occasionally difficult, is not impossible; and that you’re only choosing your current job, and not necessarily the job you’ll have for the rest of your life.
So aim to make the best decision based on what you know, even if it’s imperfect or leaves you still feeling a little uncertain. New information will help you make more informed choices in the future about whether your career requires a minor course correction or a completely new approach.

  • Is one of my options more ‘reversible’ than the other? If I choose a generalist role now, will it be harder to move into a specialist role later?  
  • What if my hard work actually pays off?
  • What if, in a month’s time, I’m surprised by how certain I feel that I’ve made the right decision?

Specialist vs generalist roles in the same industry

Let’s take a look at information technology in the accounting and advisory industry.

GradAustralia surveyed employers in the accounting and advisory industry. Results show 56% of the roles on offer to information technology graduates are specialist or technical in nature, while 44% is a generalist.

Amelia Carbonie is an example of a specialist. Amelia is a Salesforce developer at Deloitte. As a developer, her role is very technical, utilising the specialist skills she developed in her Bachelor of Information Systems degree.

Inge Budihardjo is an associate (financial services, assurance) at EY. her role primarily leverages a wide range of non-technical skills including critical thinking, business acumen, and management skills.