As we talked about last time, I had a really memorable and interesting meeting with my state governor a few years back. And who would have thought a state governor would end up giving me such incredible career/scholarship advice?!
In case you didn’t catch part 1 of this blog, make sure you read it here:
But I’ll also give you a quick recap. So the multi-million dollar question my governor asked me was “Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist?”
A generalist is like your Swiss army knife that comes with a whole bunch of different gadgets and tools and can be used in almost every situation, but isn’t necessarily the best tool.
And a military-grade pocket knife is your specialist that is cool and chill and completely irreplaceable for that one task that it was designed for.
I spent the last blog talking about the pros of becoming a specialist and how that paid off in my scholarship career.
But in this blog, I’ll tell you more about the pros of being a generalist or how to walk the fine line between the two of them while benefiting from being both a semi-generalist and specialist at the same time.
Strategy 2: Generalist
Let me just start off by admitting how much I really enjoyed all the benefits of becoming a specialist and being laser-focused on what I wanted to be.
But at times, it did feel stifling to pigeon-hole myself into a certain domain when I clearly had other interests.
Being too focused on just a singular topic also meant I had a high likelihood of being passed up for opportunities that needed a more well-rounded individual or for opportunities that required a different focus.
For example, it was easier for me to win the prestigious Cassandra Pyle Study Abroad scholarship for $7,500 than it was to win the campus diversity contribution award for $500.
My resume demonstrated that I was an incredibly promising candidate for study abroad programs, especially in regards to China.
But there was so much singular focus on just China that I wasn’t always able to put together a strong case for other things such as my leadership skills or my contributions to the university campus.
And obviously, you can’t have everything! Even someone that has won as many awards and scholarships as I have can’t win every single one that I apply for.
But I think there are 2 ways that you can walk that fine line between a generalist and a specialist while benefiting from both at the same time.
If you encounter a really cool opportunity that you want to participate in but realize that it isn’t entirely aligned with all the experiences you have on your resume, then figure out a way to spin your experiences so they appear more relevant to the opportunity you’re applying for.
For example, during my freshman year in college, I applied for the Bucks Human Rights Scholarship which offered $5000/year and was automatically renewable for the rest of my college career. But there is one slight problem.
Although I cared about human rights, it was never a focus of my academic career and it wasn’t a field that I was looking to pursue a career in.
So right off the bat, you could say that I just wasn’t a good fit for the scholarship and I didn’t have the experiences or credentials to put together a strong case for myself.
But I managed to win the scholarship by putting a spin on my own narrative and explain my experiences through a different lens.
Instead of touting a message about the importance of US-China relations (which was what I was used to doing for all my scholarship applications), I wrote about my own story and why human rights are important to me.
It was so important to me that I pursued a career in US-China Relations because I believe that people on both sides have a lot more to gain economically and culturally from each other than what we currently have.
And denying people on both sides the chance to improve their own livelihoods and richness in their own lives is to me, a violation of their human rights.
It’s not always obvious how you can spin your story, but always be prepared to do so because you never know when a unique opportunity comes your way.
The second piece of advice I would give you is to diversity your interests and hobbies. You can maintain a singular focus on becoming a specialist in a specific field while exploring other interests on the side.
Your side hobbies may not become notable achievements right away, but over time, you can develop expertise in them. And once you do, you can put these new interests on center stage and promote yourself as a specialist in this new field.
In the case of my own career, I have always been devoted to US-China Relations, but I am equally interested in understanding US-South Korea Relations. And yes, I can’t deny that a big part of that is because I’m a HUGE fan of Kpop and have been since the mid-2000s.
But seeing how I was already fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, I knew that I was competitive in pursuing a career in US-China Relations than if I were to pursue something related to South Korea.
So US-China was what I focused on, but at the same time, I did everything I could on the side to diversify my skills and experiences related to South Korea.
That meant taking Korean classes in college, taking Korean classes in China, working for Harvard’s Asia Leadership Trek programs in South Korea, actively reading news reports on South Korea, and constantly seeking out South Korean language buddies.
I was also super strategic in writing my college honors theses on Chinese refugee policies related to North Korean deflectors. With a thesis like that, I was able to kill a whole bunch of birds with one stone.
I was able to research and better understand China’s refugee policies and its formation while also dipping my toes into the geopolitical and humanitarian crises in the Korean peninsula related to both South Korea and North Korea.
But since then, I will admit that my South Korean career hasn’t exactly blossomed yet, but it will in due time if I keep chugging away and building greater expertise and understanding related to South Korea.
Maybe at some point, I could even work in fields that link the US, China, and South Korea together! Who knows?!
These strategies worked like magic for me in my academic and professional career so I hope they work for you too! Make sure you send me your questions if you have any and I’ll make sure to respond!
In the meantime, make sure that you’re starring in your own life story!