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Are you a Generalist, or a Specialist? Does it matter in your job search?

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

The inscription over the doorway to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi says “Know Thyself.” A powerful concept, inside and outside your work life.

So you might laugh when I say this, but in your job search journey, whether you’re a “generalist” or a “specialist” really doesn’t matter.

That’s a tiny bit of an oversimplification, of course: knowing who you are and what you’re capable of does matter. But when you’re applying for a position, what matters more is your ability to “read the room” and shapeshift accordingly.

Mega-Generalist Gets Overlooked By Recruiters

One of my clients is a writer, which is to say, a mega-generalist. Her ability with language is completely top-drawer, she can mimic the “voice” of a person or company effortlessly and quickly, and she’s a research nut who can learn the lingo of any sector. Her specialist zone is words, and she’s worked in sectors ranging from high tech to law, education to marketing to journalism. This person can ghost write your memoir with one hand and launch a super-technical Account Based Marketing campaign for a pharma company with the other—all while penning a sonnet in her head. And let me tell you, this person struggles, because when recruiters look at her background, they don’t get it.

Ultra Specialist Gets Lost By Recruiters

I’ve also worked with people who are ultra specialists—project managers who’ve spent their lives running clinical trials for cancer drugs, sales executives with deep experience in one single electronic component. Are these people incapable of managing a software startup or using their sales abilities in banking? Of course not.

But when their résumés hit a recruiter's desk, the head-scratching predictably begins. They can’t see the connection. They can’t figure out why the former journalist wants to be a content strategist for a hip coffee company, because her résumé doesn’t say “coffee specialist,” or why the lithium battery guy wants to talk to an investment bank because the words “lithium battery” appear repeatedly and words like “securities” and “mortgages” do not. The jack (or jill) of all trades can fall into the trap of looking scattered and confusing—even unprepared or clueless—on paper. The human laser beam might look like he accidentally applied to the wrong position. When a recruiter has six seconds to review your résumé and they cannot figure out why they’re doing it? They get annoyed, bored, or both. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it frankly is.

Rigging Your Résumé So Recruiters See You

Does this mean you’re stuck doing what you’ve always done or that there are not great jobs out there for you? Of course not. What it means is, you have to spell it out for them. Tailor the résumé to the job.

Your Résumé Is A Brochure (Not An HR Document)

Forget about what you’re seeking for a second and consider what the target role is seeking. Think of your résumé as what it honestly is—a marketing document—and market yourself clearly as the solution to the problem the company needs to solve. Write that hiring manager a love letter. Make it impossible for them to be confused about why you’re there. Highlight the most clear, relevant aspects of your skills and experience and tie them as closely as you can to the specifications of the role.

It Starts With the Job Description (Not the description of the job seeker)

How do you do this? Identify one job description and tailor your résumé to it. Speak the language the job description speaks. Generalists: speak about your experience as it relates explicitly to that role. Specialists: add qualifying language next to your titles so recruiters aren’t thrown off, and then… talk about your experience as it relates explicitly to that role.

As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a specialist or a generalist. What matters is nimbly changing your résumé to speak to each target. Once you’re used to it, it isn’t terribly time consuming to do—but getting there often requires help.

It takes our résumé writing students years to get good at this, and yes, it requires more effort than just carpet-bombing recruiters with identical copies of the same document. But I cannot overemphasize how much more effective it is. You’ll connect with the right people and the right roles much, much sooner and more easily.

If you feel like you’re not coming across as a well-sung song, it’s time to find someone who does this every single day all day long. You can DIY this. But if you’re not great about writing about yourself, then you may want to find someone who can help!

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