I’ve had various people write to me following the release of my TEDx video earlier in the year.
The most common question by far has been about how to get employed as a generalist. Often, the person concerned has built up a diverse range of skills, experiences and knowledge bases and wants to know how to share this knowledge with the world. In many cases, they have the exact kind of breakthrough potential I’ve described in my talk and the capacity to be inventive and creative in unexpectedly new ways.
We need people like this in our companies and organisations, but we have a hard time valuing them in the recruitment process.
The harsh reality of the matter is that we live in a specialist society. The employment system has been purpose-built for specialists, as have most application and employment tools. Employers use ATS keyword systems today, where they look for (often specialist) keywords located in your CV, resume or short answer questions. This can bias hiring towards technical experts over broader, more liberally educated candidates. Personally, I think both types of candidates are needed in companies today, but one type has a distinct advantage in particularly junior role positions.
When you apply for a job, employers will typically judge you based on whether you have the right skills and the (often narrow) work experience required for that particular job. At the same time, employers (even in STEM fields) are increasingly asking for broadly trained graduates, with an understanding of relevant, cross-disciplinary soft skills such as communication, creativity and critical thinking. The key is to align these two competing ideas, by presenting yourself as a person who can solve an employers’ problems with your broad skill-set.
Applying for a job or for that matter, any application, is all about showing value.
In job applications, this is typically done through a cover letter, CV and interview. Increasingly however, this is also done through psychometric testing, performance tests, group interviews, video cover letters and so on. What matters at every stage of the process is showing how your broad range of skills and experience brings value to the particular organisation you are applying for.
The risk posed to a generalist applicant is that they appear unfocused, or worse, undisciplined, in having so many interests. Employers do not like seeing that you change between industries very quickly or change tasks very quickly. Listing hundreds of different interests on a CV or cover letter can also very easily build the wrong impression.
Instead, the important thing to do is to tell a story of how each diverse skill or experience you have adds together to make you the perfect candidate for the job you are applying for. This story needs to make sense. You need to highlight your most relevant, specialist skill/experience for the job first. After that, you need to build up the true story of how your other skills/experiences compliment and enhance this specialist knowledge. The idea should be to prove why being a generalist enhances your value.
Often, generalist applicants will have to leave out certain experiences from their CV. If you are applying for a job in computer science (that has nothing to do with regulation, mind), your experience in a law firm might be so irrelevant as to be left out completely. On the other hand, if your work in a law firm involved new technology or built out your communication skills, there might be an argument for leaving it in. Again, the key is to tailor your application to the individual job concerned. Always research the company that you’re applying for and find something that genuinely interests you about that company. People can tell when you’re faking it. Tell the truth. Why do you want to work in this company when you have such a diverse range of interests? Expect this question. Workshop answering it effectively.
Employers are not looking to trip you up, they are looking to find the best candidate for the job. If that is you, then you need to show that to them. As a society, we need to understand the value that broadly trained candidates bring to organisations. Until we do so, it is up to you as a candidate to show that value.
A good place to bring up more general knowledge is at the interview stage. An employer or HR staff might ask you questions about soft skills or overcoming challenges examples – and here broad-ranging experiences (e.g. charity or NGO work) can be useful. Again however, the expectation is that you link this broad knowledge to the job at hand. It is okay to be a generalist, so long as that makes you better at the job. If you can, try and think about the employers’ perspective on this and put yourselves in their shoes. Would you hire yourself, if you were them? If not, why not?
All of this advice is to be taken with a grain of salt.
The problem with job advice generally, is that each job you apply for is different and often requires a different approach. Job application trends can also change over time, and increasingly, robots are reading job applications instead of humans. Bear that in mind.
If you can, try and get a friend or colleague to look over your application, they can often share tips and ideas. They might also have ideas on specific companies that you may wish to apply for that match your interests.
As a final point on this, it might be worth looking for companies that actually want generalists as a starting point. These kinds of job advertisements are more common in the more creative tech companies, for example, but may exist in your areas of interest.
In my own personal experience, I’ve found the Oxford Careers Service website very useful in providing advice for how to write a cover letter, CV and how to practice for an interview. I also found it useful to write out a list of dream companies/organisations that I’d love to work for and to keep their careers page bookmarked. The best way to get a job is to actually want the job you are applying for, that way, when you get it, you have something to be happy about!
The job search is extremely hard, particularly in the competitive market that exists today. It seems as if there are a neverending churn of graduates, fresh out of university, which may be deflating the value of a university education. But don’t lose hope. Keep applying and keep your head up. The application period is the worst part, but things do get better.
I wish anyone reading this the best of luck in their search.
Follow me on Twitter @JoshKrook
My TEDx talk: We Need Fewer Experts: The Lost Art of General Knowledge