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Should I specialize or be a generalist to get into aid work?

March 12, 2018

Q. Hi Nick!

Uhm, I may be a bit younger than your average reader, but I’d like to say that your blog is amazing- the way you write is really compelling, and I’ll definitely be investing in a copy of your book soon!

Having scoured the blog, I know you get bombarded with “what degree should I study” and “how do I get into this line of work” but I’m a blank slate; I have absolutely no qualifications or experience so far and there’s so much advice from not only you, but other bloggers and professionals, that I feel a little conflicted. Some people strongly recommend specialising, and others like yourself say that a general degree etc. is sufficient and to rely on volunteering, which I know either way is really important. The only thing I have lined up is volunteering at a school in Gambia this time next year for a few weeks, but I know that isn’t especially huge and to be completely honest I don’t think I could afford to do much more.



A. Hi Honey,

I took the liberty of editing your message a little for space, but thanks for writing! Your question about specializing or being a generalist is interesting. To be fair, I don’t think I want to discourage people from specializing. There are several routes to take in this line of work – one is through specialization – becoming a public health worker, an engineer, and HR specialist, etc, and the other is being a management generalist.

In general, for the first group it matters very much what you study in college. You need your MPH to work in public health, for example. For the second group, I don’t think it matters very much what you study.

There is a need for both of these groups, but I think my sense of it is that people who are passionate about water supply and sanitation engineering tend to know that about themselves and are drawn to engineering, whilst the kinds of people who as ‘what should I study?’ are more likely to be drawn to the generalist route.

You’re doing the right thing by getting as much experience as you can overseas, and your A-Level choices sound pretty reasonable – more reasonable than mine were, at least! I would simply recommend that you continue studying things that you’re interested in, and find a university course that will give you opportunities to engage in these issues.

Good luck,


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