Overcoming the Double-Edged Sword of Career Specialization

When I first left college and entered the professional world, I was very lucky to have a marketable skill set that several employers were interested in. I interviewed for several positions and wound up accepting one that I felt really matched my skills well and provided a lot of room for growth.

It was a great experience. However, I felt that, in some ways, my skill set was gradually becoming more and more and more specialized. I was arguably one of the experts in the world in one extremely narrow field, but I often felt like a complete amateur in similar related fields.

On the one hand, it’s a great thing to be an unquestioned expert in one particular area. At the same time… what happens if that area is no longer in demand?

It was that worry – on top of many other ones in my life – that spurred on our financial turnaround and eventually helped to set the stage for a career change. I loved my former career – in fact, I actually still keep up with the field through reading books, talking to old colleagues, and some occasional other minor contributions – but I was unquestionably overspecialized and it was clear to me then (and even clearer to me now) that such overspecialization was a risk to my career and thus, by extension, many areas of my life.

Don’t get me wrong – specializing does have value. It was a handful of particular skills that I picked up in college that opened a career door for me, and it’s a skill set that, with some tweaks, is still in nice demand now. If you have a skill that’s in more demand than there are people out there that can fulfill it, that’s a good thing, unquestionably.

Too much focus on that specialty, though, is overspecialization, and that’s actually a pretty big career risk.

What happens if your employer shifts their focus just a little bit so that your narrow skill isn’t needed there any more?

What if the employment market changes and other companies are no longer hiring people with your super specialized skill set?

What if a better technology emerges and you’re completely unprepared for it?

If all you have is one or two super-specialized skills, those kinds of changes can kill your career.

So, how do you balance it? How do you balance the need to have specialized skills that employers want without falling into the trap of devoting too much to that skill at the expense of everything else, leaving you open to new kinds of career risks? Here are ten strategies for doing that.

Strategy #1 – Take on a Variety of Roles and Tasks

While your specialized skill may have helped you get your foot in the door, it’s very likely that your workplace is at least somewhat dynamic, with different projects coming and going all the time. You can benefit from that for your own career by taking on a variety of workplace tasks and workplace roles beyond simply hammering away at things with your specific specialized skill.

Look for opportunities to be a project or small team leader or to be involved in the creation of reports or presentations regarding your project. Consider actually presenting said reports or presentations. Look for any and all projects that let you work on improving similar skills to your expertise but force you to grow in new ways.

The purpose here is to use your own specialized skills as a way to get yourself into positions where you’re learning and developing more and more skills to complement that specialized skill, all on your employer’s dime. You’re essentially using your job not just to make money, but to make you into a more valuable employee, which can then directly translate into a great case for a raise or many more opportunities on the job market.

Strategy #2 – Look for Opportunities a Bit Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Sometimes, opportunities and tasks are going to come along that are outside of your comfort zone. Take them, even if they seem really scary.

When I was first hired, my understanding of my job is that I would be in a cubicle all day, writing computer code and data analysis. Six months later, the person on our team that was supposed to be presenting our work to other teams and others outside the organization was abruptly let go and, in the interim, that task more or less fell to me, so I found myself presenting in front of large crowds of very competent people.

It was one of the best things I ever did. Not only did it force me to work on presentation and public speaking, which were skills that were new to me and rather scary, it pushed me to the point where such skills were resume-worthy. Furthermore, it pushed me to look at my own work through a new lens – the lens of the outside observer who viewed the project I was working on as a finished tool that they could use for their own work. That helped me greatly in terms of improving my own work, the core work that used my skill sets, over time.

Don’t stay in your safe zone. When an opportunity comes along, particularly one that’s going to really stretch you and be a little scary, jump into it. Not only are you likely to find yourself impressing people and improving your standing at work, you’re also building useful parallel skills and improving your resume for future career moves.

Strategy #3 – Stay Abreast of What’s Happening in Your Field

When I say this, I don’t just mean within the narrow area of expertise, but your broader field as a whole.

I was initially hired specifically for my skills in a particular domain of knowledge, a particular handful of computer programming languages, some database and data modeling skills, and a few other skills that bridged those gaps. As time went on, though, the field began to change a little as new technologies and paradigms became available.

This forced me to get into a habit of staying abreast of what was happening in the field of data mining at large, not just within my own narrow tasks at work. I could have easily kept my head down and kept hammering away with the tools I knew best, but doing that would have led directly to all sorts of new problems as our project fell behind other competitors and became less useful for the people we were serving.

I made it a routine to spend at least a few hours a week – and eventually one whole day a week – exploring what was new in my broader field of data mining. What databases and technologies were people using?

I subscribed to a couple of publications and spent time at work reading them when we weren’t in crunch mode.

I tried out new ideas on my own, tackling completely new things that were well outside of my domain of expertise, but things that could obviously lead to things that might eventually help our customers.

I implemented new data structures and new software development paradigms and saw the enormous benefit that they brought to the table.

Eventually, even with a tiny team, we made some technological leaps that were far ahead of what our competitors were pulling off at the time, and that was largely due to keeping an eye on things outside of what I was immediately working on. It paid off for me personally as well as for our whole team.

What’s happening in your field outside of just your narrow view? Spend some time each week investigating and studying what’s happening in your broader field. Read publications and well-moderated discussions and books. Put some of what you learned into practice. Look for new certifications and hammer those down. Make sure that you’re absolutely ready for whatever’s coming next.

Strategy #4 – Consciously Work on Transferable Skills

Transferable skills are skills that can be applied at a wide array of jobs. Presentation skills. The ability to work as part of a team. Written communication skills. Self-motivation. Self-organization. Time management. Interpersonal communication.

All of those things are skills that are valuable in almost any workplace environment. All of those things are skills that you can consciously and actively work on.

In the past, I listed six key transferable skills that people should work on:

Leadership Can you actually lead a team? Can you herd a group of people towards a greater purpose? Are you self-motivated enough to do this? Can you set goals and actually achieve them? Can you plan large projects and push them forward? How can you get it? Join a community or student organization and take charge of a large project. Later, run for a leadership position within that group. The best way to learn leadership skills is to learn them in the laboratory of life, and organizations provide the perfect opportunity.

Administrative skills Are you able to prioritize the tasks in front of you? Can you analyze information and then describe it in layman’s terms for others to understand? Can you interpret rules and use them effectively? How can you get it? Get involved in the planning of as many large projects as you can. Project planning teaches you many of the administrative skills you’ll need in life. If there is a large project, volunteer to help with the planning – if there’s already a planner in place, learn everything you can from that planner.

Information management Can you actually research a topic? Can you take a pile of research and use it to answer worthwhile questions? Can you communicate those facts to others? Can you manage a budget and handle financial records? Can you use a wide variety of computer programs? How can you get it? If there are opportunities to present anywhere around you, take them, even if you aren’t familiar with the topic. Of particular use are topic areas where you’ll have to do some research in order to get the presentation right. Another great avenue is to volunteer to be the secretary or (particularly) the treasurer for a group. Such activities will require you to carefully manage a large amount of information on behalf of a large group.

Creativity Can you come up with interesting ideas of all kinds? Are you good at coming up with marketing ideas? Are you good at formulating the next step in a process? Are you good at creating visually appealing layouts?How can you get it? Create some websites for groups – and learn how to do it along the way. Whenever there’s an opportunity for brainstorming, get involved and throw out ideas. Creativity is something that is best learned by practice – so practice it.

Interpersonal communications Are you willing to speak in public? Can you communicate your ideas well in writing? Can you lead a conversation? When you communicate with others, do they understand your ideas? How can you get it? Participate in conversations and meetings instead of just sitting there. Volunteer for any and all public speaking opportunities that come your way. Volunteer for difficult and arduous tasks of documentation – that’s the best way possible to practice writing to communicate information.

Personal development Can you use the experiences in your life as a source for growth and personal change? Do you have a personal moral code that you actually follow? Can you effectively and honestly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of others (both people and things)? Can you deal with stress? How can you get it? Don’t shy away from challenges – step up to big projects. Keep a journal and use it to explore what you really think about things, particularly the people around you.

To that list I’d add a seventh: the ability to learn quickly, which one can practice by being a lifelong learner. Every career twist and turn will throw new knowledge at you and being able to absorb and implement it quickly will help you no matter where your path leads. You can get this by simply taking time to learn new topics on a very regular basis and trying new strategies for learning along the way.

These types of transferable skills will help you no matter what happens to your career.

Strategy #5 – Do Resume-Worthy Things Outside of Your Specialty (Or Even Outside of Your Career)

What do you have on your resume that indicates that you have skills or abilities outside of your narrow specialized skill set? Do you have other skills and talents that you can demonstrate that might be useful, or at the very least demonstrate that you’re not just a one trick pony?

Try to build things in your career outside of your specialty that fit well on a resume, whether it’s something like serving on an organizing team for a conference or building a website about your career. You may also want to take on strong challenges outside of your career, such as taking on a leadership role in a community group or achieving an impressive personal challenge or milestone like earning a martial arts black belt.

The goal here is to have at least a few tantalizing things on your resume that either indicate a broader skill set within your field or demonstrate some type of concentrated achievement that clearly demonstrates the presence of a valuable transferable skill.

Strategy #6 – Have a Very Strong Professional Network

The key to finding the next step in your career often comes from other people in your field that you know well and who have a positive opinion of you and your skills. This is something that can be built and cultivated over time by building lots of positive, strong professional relationships.

There are many ways of doing this, but it starts with being a positive, helpful force in your workplace. Take an individual interest in what your coworkers are doing and what they care about as people. When you can, listen to them and genuinely take an interest in them; don’t just look at conversations as an opportunity to say whatever is on your mind. Also, look for “multiplication help,” which is where you can do something for someone else that provides many times that much value to them, such as giving someone a ride in a pinch or providing a bit of technical expertise at the right moment. Be humble and dole out tons of credit to others for anything you achieve.

Over time, expand that strategy to people beyond your workplace. Start attending local meetups and groups related to your field and build relationships within those groups. Consider attending conventions and conferences related to your field with the same idea in mind.

Whatever you do, strive to use those opportunities to build relationships. Start by genuinely listening and taking an interest in other people; ask questions and listen rather than talking about yourself. Make sure you have a way to continue the connection afterwards, and then actually put in that effort to follow up. When you find out that someone has a need you can easily help fulfill, jump at the chance to do it and ask for nothing in return until you actually need that help.

Strategy #7 – Use Every Single Training Opportunity You Can Get

If your workplace offers any sort of discounted or free training opportunities, particularly those that lead toward certifications or degrees, take advantage of it, every time. You should take the time to gobble up every bit of paid-for education you can, particularly anything that can slip onto a resume and anything that you might even remotely apply in your work.

If you don’t know what programs are available, talk to your human resources officer and see what your company or organization offers. There are often programs in place that are intended to maximize the value of their employees.

Not all workplaces offer opportunities like this, but those that do should be treated as though they’re offering a nice perk to your employment package because that’s exactly what this is. They’re basically compensating you for putting yourself in a better future employment position. They’re handing you the opportunity to gain leverage in future employment and salary negotiations, both with them and with other employers. They’re also making it possible for you to gain a more diverse set of skills so that you’re not locked into one role for the rest of your career.

Take advantage of it.

Strategy #8 – Have Positive Rapport with Management

This doesn’t mean you should become the “office suck-up” or the “brown noser.” What it instead means is that you pay attention to what’s said by management, whether it’s your supervisor or people above your supervisor, and you act in accordance with what they’re saying.

Beyond that, it also means that you ask questions related to both your career path and the future of the business. You don’t hide in your cubicle doing task after task, but instead you seek to gain a bigger picture of what you’re doing and how it fits into the aims of the organization you’re a part of.

A person who puts in the time to gain that bigger vision and to do their best to align their work to that bigger vision is always going to be more of an asset than the person who insists on going their own way and doing things their own way. The only way you’re going to gain that insight into the bigger vision is by listening and asking questions and having conversations, and then applying what you’ve learned from those questions and conversations to your actual work.

Even more important, these kinds of conversations usually give you some pretty clear indication that the winds of change are starting to blow. If you suddenly notice that the management above you is talking about different directions than before, what you have is some breathing time to make sure that you’re ready for that change before others get wind of it. Listen. Ask questions. Think about how that information applies to your work. Act accordingly.

Strategy #9 – Evaluate the Future of Your Field, Learn About That, and Do It All Again

What will your field be like in three years? Five years? What will people be doing? What will they be using?

Do your best to answer those questions, and then invest the time to learn the areas of expertise that you come up with. What’s the big new software that people are starting to whisper about? What new technology is going to break and cause changes in your field?

Don’t fear and resist those changes. Instead, start learning those changes now so that when they come, you skate through the changes like a champ while everyone else is panicking.

Then, ask the same questions again. And again. This is a cycle, not a one time thing. Ask yourself where your field might be in a few years, learn what it takes to be adept in that future version of your field, and then ask again, and learn again. It’s a cycle, but it’s one that takes a lot of risk out of career overspecialization.

Strategy #10 – Have a Strong Financial Foundation

Underneath all of this is the value of simply having a strong financial foundation.

If you have a career that pays well, it is not going to be too difficult to get into the practice of spending less than you earn – ideally, substantially less than you earn. You can then take those extra proceeds and use them to build a strong financial foundation for your life. Pay off debts, build up a nice big emergency fund in savings somewhere with a few months of living expenses in there, and start saving hardcore for retirement and for other big life goals.

Yes, this might mean you skip out on a few forgettable perks along the way, but that’s the thing – financial success is built on the back of giving up the truly forgettable expenses. Your life is not going to be traumatized by closing up some of the air leaks in your apartment or home. You’re not going to be devastated by learning how to cook efficiently at home. Your life is not going to become abject misery if you check out what books and audiobooks and DVDs and Blurays are available for free at the library. You’re not going to feel like you’re in poverty because you bought store brand trash bags or renegotiated your car insurance or considered a smaller apartment. Waiting a month to buy something you really want right now is not going to end all happiness, and often you’ll wind up realizing that you didn’t want the thing anyway.

Yet, it’s those changes that make the difference in many cases. Those kinds of changes in concert can help you get started in building a financial foundation, and it’s that strong financial foundation that can help you through almost any career hiccup with minimal stress and help you feel less stress at work because you’re not sitting there with the threat of no paycheck hanging over your head like a guillotine.

Final Thoughts

Career specialization is awesome right now. If you have a skillset that employers want today, you’re going to be making a nice salary.

Tomorrow, however, the situation may change, and the person that’s ready for that change, with a broader skill set, lots of connections, and a financial foundation, is going to weather the storm better than anyone.

Good luck!

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