How to transition from generalist to specialist

Mid-career generalist may find it hard to find their place without a core specialty. How do you transition? Photo by: Kompania Piwowarska / CC BY-NC-ND

Many international development professionals start their career in generalist roles. In fact, most entry-level positions fall under this category — it’s hard to be considered a specialist in anything when you don’t yet have much experience. You can work your entire career as a generalist, but international development projects are also more frequently looking for specialists in a specific area of expertise. Especially mid-career, it can be difficult for a generalist to find opportunities for advancement without having a core specialty.

But how do you develop a core expertise as a generalist and get yourself on the path to becoming a specialist in global development? This is the question one Devex member recently tweeted me.

Via @Asewe29 

While making the transition isn’t easy, and there is no one clear path for everyone, here are four things you can do to go from generalist to specialist.

1. Make sure you don’t already have a specialty

While a generalist role like a program officer may not require an area of expertise, these roles typically support programs that have a specific technical focus. Many specialists have developed expertise by working in management-focused roles that support projects in a particular discipline, such as working as a program officer for reproductive health projects. Over time, they gain exposure to the technical side of the programs, which is experience that can eventually set them up for a specialist role.

Over the course of your career, have you managed programs in one or two technical areas of focus? If the projects have been across multiple disciplines, are there any common threads like capacity building, training or monitoring and evaluation you can pick out? While you may not have enough experience to be considered a specialist, you may already be further down that path than you realize.

Watch: Why crosscutting skills are more important than ever

Tip: Make sure you highlight or emphasize this technical focus on your resume so it won’t be overlooked by recruiters.

2. Consider getting an advanced degree in a technical area

I rarely advise getting a subsequent advanced degree once you already have one, and it still may not make sense in your case, but some specialist roles require specialist degrees. If your educational background is also somewhat generalist — think a master’s in international development or international relations — a degree in a technical focus may be the edge you need.

For example, a master’s in agriculture science, engineering, public health, statistics or natural resource management rounded out with your programmatic experience could set you up for a mid-level specialist positions in one of these areas.

When thinking about going back to school, first ask yourself these eight questions before pursuing a graduate degree.

3. Look for generalist roles that have a stronger technical focus

Not all program officer roles are the same. Some are almost entirely administrative jobs while others actually require a high level of involvement with the technical side of a program. Look for these hybrid roles that require some management and administrative duties but that will also require more technical assistance than your current or past roles.

Many global development recruiters tell us that in order to stretch tight budgets, they often look for people who can bring both management and technical skills to the table. When they can’t find someone who is strong in both, they sometimes have to choose between the two skill sets — and sometimes even guide the transition from specialist to generalist. So while you may be weak on the technical side for now, your strong management skills could be enough to get you in the door to a more specialist-focused role

Read: How to get over strict foreign aid job requirements

4. Learn on the job

If you are already employed, seek out learning opportunities in your current position that will give you more experience in the specialty you hope to develop. Even if your job doesn’t require it, become familiar with the technical aspects of the programs you manage. Read relevant publications and studies, attend seminars and working groups in your area and find a mentor who works as the kind of specialist you hope to be.

Volunteer for new assignments that will give you more exposure to the technical work or propose one of your own. If you show initiative and a willingness to learn, your employer may be willing to give you a chance on a specialist role or provide on-the-job training to help get you there.

Have you made the mid-career switch from a generalist role to a specialist? How did you manage the transition? Please share your tips and experience in the comments section below.

If you have a questions about managing your career in global development, please tweet me @DevexCareers.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.