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Being a specialist or a generalist? Which is better for a technical communicator?

I feel like I’ve stepped into quite the conundrum by entering the technical communications field. As I continue to search for full-time work, a problem that I seem to find almost everywhere I go is that technical writing jobs in my area seem to require that one be a specialist in their field, or do very, VERY specific types of work. Both before and after my technical communications studies, I had always been taught that with few career exceptions, being a generalist was more often a desired skill set, simply because I couldn’t get stuck in one specific direction and find little to no work. Having a broad range of skills and abilities made one more marketable, flexible, and thus desirable as an employee. I know the last place that I consulted for full-time appreciated that generalist ability of mine, because I ended up being the go-to person for web editing, web design, and general graphics design. There were those who had the title of “web publisher” but didn’t even know basic HTML, and I actually did.

However, I’m finding that as much as I did my best in both my career and my graduate studies to study a broad range of subjects, including social media, e-learning design, content management strategy, UI strategy, and technical writing and editing, to name a few, I end up as a Jack of all trades, but master of none. However, it seems that because I don’t have specifically five years of medical or proposal writing background in XYZ software, I’m useless. I was recently criticized for having an “unfocused” resume because it was so broad. When asked what specialization I wanted to follow, I listed all the subjects I mentioned above and then some others. I feel I have the skills to start out in any of those fields if someone gave me a break to go in any of those specific directions.

One of the things that stuck out in my mind from Adobe Day at Lavacon last month was commentary by the panel at the end of the morning, in which the group said that one of the issues right now in tech comm is that there are too many tech comm specialists instead of tech comm generalists. When I heard that, it was music to my ears, and I felt vindicated for taking the approach I had with my career! I’ve already taken steps–specifically getting a Master’s degree in Professional and Technical Communication–to provide myself with an education on understanding all the available possibilities in the technical communications field, and be able to adapt to it. However, one of the other challenges listed in the panel talk was the general resistance to progressive change. I fear that the resistance to change is far more widespread than anticipated, based on my own experiences. Every job listing and every recruiter I talk to seems to want to pigeonhole me into one specialty, and I don’t want to do that. The reason I went to graduate school was to allow me to gain opportunities beyond my knowledge of content management alone, and allow me to flex my editing, writing, design and e-learning muscles some more.

Perhaps because I’m a “newbie,” I don’t understand this strict adherence to being a specialist in only one kind of tech comm. Becoming a specialist is a double-edged sword. On one side, being able to work in a niche field makes your skills more desirable for that niche. However, on the other side, it limits the kind of work one can do if there are layoffs or one finds him/herself out of work.

Since I’ve been looking for full-time work for almost a year now, I talked to my husband recently about this idea, and questioned whether I should commit more to one particular area of technical communication than another. While I’ve done a lot of content management work, I find it constraining when I want to be able to edit what I see as just plain BAD writing, and I feel limited to not flex my brain muscles on all the things I’ve learned in grad school in the last two years. I’ve tried to immerse myself in the tech comm world and the e-learning world to varying degrees, but again, I find myself as a generalist since I don’t have any job to help me hone my professional focus as of yet. Even so, I wondered if I should just resign myself, and just try to figure out what specialty I should focus on, perhaps in the hopes of increasing my job prospects. After voicing this concern, my husband vehemently disagreed, feeling that it was better just to continue to be able to look at a little bit of everything and do a little bit of everything, as it broadened prospects by giving me multiple directions to follow.

It makes me wonder how other graduates–whether they are from undergraduate or graduate school–find a job at all. How is someone supposed to be able to do a technical communications job with little to no experience? How the heck can they become specialists without first being generalists given a direction from their first jobs? I know I have the flexibility and know-how to go into many jobs, but it’s autobots that read my resume instead of people more often than not, and autobots don’t understand the value of what I can do and my ability to learn on the spot. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this rut, and yet there doesn’t seem to be any flexibility on the part of employers. There are plenty of us who are more than willing to be dedicated employees with a strong skill set foundation, and we aren’t given a chance.

So, what is better? Being a specialist or a generalist? Write your opinion in the comments below.

For me, I’m still torn, and my problem is that if I do need to be a specialist, I don’t know what direction to follow, because I like so many aspects of tech comm. Should I find work as a full-time blogger, pursue my desire to be an instructional designer, go back to content publishing and management, become a technical evangelist, become a teacher or trainer…or what?

(If you know of any telecommuting/remote jobs or jobs in the Central NJ area along these lines, let me know!)


Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who currently employed at Cox Automotive, Inc., and freelances as her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, BASF North America, Merck, and Deloitte, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog,, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. She is very active in the STC, as a former chapter president for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter, and is currently serving on three STC Board committees. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog. All content is the owner's opinions, and does not reflect those of her employers past or present.

7 thoughts on “Being a specialist or a generalist? Which is better for a technical communicator?

  1. It’s a long-term versus short-term perspective for the recruiters. If I’m Madame Recruiter, and I’m trying to fill a specific six-month assignment, I want someone exactly the right background (including industry experience) for that job.

    If, however, I’m looking to fill a permanent position, then the candidate’s ability to learn and stretch becomes much more important, and prior experience in *my* field becomes somewhat less important.

  2. I think in many cases, the generalist can add significantly more value to an organization than a specialist. The challenge is that the hiring manager often can’t afford to hire a generalist – it’s difficult to go outside a defined salary range when the immediate need is for a specialist. It’s also difficult to justify taking a risk on someone without the specific experience when you’re talking an extra two to three months getting that individual up to speed. If those two factors converge (specialist is safer AND cheaper), you’re twice as far up the creek.

  3. I do wonder whether it’s a lack of understanding on the part of recruiters and managers. The specialist fields you list have a large degree of cross-over in their base skill sets, just angled differently. As such people have the technical ability to move pretty easily between them and adapt within or between jobs. But if you’re the one signing off the job spec for recruitment, do you necessarily know that, or does the list look like a hotchpotch of unrelated fields?

  4. I can definitely appreciate what Sarah and Dan are saying from an HR perspective–that all makes sense. But I think Jen expressed a good part of the issue, which is that a good part of technical communications is the ability to have crossover skills in different disciplines that are closely related. I had this same discussion yesterday over lunch with a developer friend of mine who is finding that she is having the same problem. As the friend put it, many employers, in an attempt to balance the problem of “doing more on less money,” are combining jobs that somewhat related, but not really. For example, I’ve seen many jobs that 4/5ths of the description I can do–it would be a technical writing job–but then the other 1/5th would be pure development work, or would require a PhD in some very lofty scientific field. What? Now, I’m not saying that developers can’t write, or that a PhD in biochemistry can’t write either, but writing isn’t their strength. That’s why we have technical writers who can talk to SMEs like a PhD in biochemistry to “translate” the technical verbiage into understandable language for all to comprehend. Same for developers. Conversely, while I acknowledge that I have some minor developer skills, I shouldn’t have to know Visual Basic, VBScript, Flash, Javascript, Python, C#. C++, Java, .NET, J2EE and other higher development languages in order to do technical writing. I have a lot of skills with creating websites, manipulating Javascript and Flash, using CSS and even HTML5, but I’m not a developer. I’m a technical communicator. I’m sure there are those who can do both, and they are the ones who are getting the jobs, leaving the rest of us out in the cold.

    I think the other problem is that many recruiters don’t understand what all the different skills and programs are. For example, my friend mentioned that a recruiter asked her if she knew Sharepoint and Silverlight. Since she is a Sharepoint developer, she already knew that Silverlight is built into Sharepoint, so there’s nothing to “know”–the recruiter just doesn’t even know how those programs work. I had a recruiter call me today asking me a question in which it was obvious that he didn’t know what the terms meant or how things work. It’s no wonder that good, capable people can’t find work in an increasingly STEM world.

    Perhaps the key is that we are not generalists, but rather we are multi-specialists?

  5. I think you’ve made a wise decision to follow the path of the Generalist because you realize that, much in the spirit of our industry as a whole, what may be cutting-edge today can easily become obsolete/irrelevant tomorrow. I consider myself a generalist as well. I have a broad range of useful skills as a technical communicator – many of those skills (i.e. design, content strategy) I consider to be quite a bit more advanced than other tech comm practitioners I know. I think that we should approach our careers as technical communicators much like our academic careers: select an overall major (i.e. technical writing, instructional design, user experience, etc.) and select one or two areas to focus on as minors (i.e. web, native software, mobile, social media, medical, finance, etc.) This way, we have a few areas in which we have advanced expertise (our minors) which can be leveraged to support our over-arching purpose (our majors). Does that make sense?

    1. It makes total sense, Nick. That’s exactly how I approached my education as well (as you know). Now, we need to have more people understand that multi-specialists like ourselves are valuable!

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