A stuffed capercaillie sits mounted high on the wall in my old wildlife classroom. It used to distract me all the time; I’d picture it coming alive and taking flight across the room in a flurry of feathers and bird poop. It would have been be quite the sight; capercaillies are halfway in size between a grouse and a turkey.
I later learned the reason that capercaillie sat on the wall…and surprisingly, it has a lot to do with money.
What are biological specialists and generalists?
Get ready. I’m about to drop some biology knowledge bombs on you.
Specialists are organisms who specialize in something—usually diet, but it also could be habitat or a bunch of other things.
Generalists are organisms who can get by just fine with a general range of conditions. They diversify their income.
Shocking, I know.
Let’s take a look at how this plays out in the real world, though.
Exhibit A: The Kirtland’s Warbler
Kirtland’s warblers are basically the definition of specialists. They will only breed if they have the a specific habitat type available to them: homogenous stands of jack pine forests in the northern U.S. with trees between the ages of 6-22 years, and between 5-20 feet high. Oh, and they also must be big patches: 30-40 acres or more.
I’m sure it won’t come as a shock to you that Kirtland’s warblers are near threatened. In fact, as of just a few years ago, they only bred in one tiny county in northern Michigan—and that was only after getting a lot of help.
The old forests in that area needed to be burned periodically to create new forests of just the right type for this Goldilocks bird. They are basically juggling birds around from one forest stand to another as the forests age. I know; my own dad is a wildland fire fighter and was involved in the burn efforts. If the birds hadn’t gotten this help, they probably would have gone extinct.
Exhibit B: The White-Tailed Deer
Whitetail deer are the cockroaches of the mammal world. They’ll eat anything that’s a plant—and sometimes things that aren’t.
They reproduce fast, and they’re tough. They can live perfectly fine with brainworms (warning: gross pictures), for f$%^k’s sake. BRAINWORMS. They actually might even help the beasts: they’ll pass the parasites on to susceptible animals like moose, thereby eliminating the competition.
Needless to say, whitetail deer in general are doing just fine in the U.S., population-wise. They’ve evolved to take advantage of just about anything you can throw at them (except for oncoming cars), and so they persist.
The capercaillie on the wall in my old classroom was also a generalist. There are so many capercaillies in Scandinavia that you’re allowed to hunt them, and I hear they’re quite tasty. If the bird had instead been a specialist, it’s unlikely that there would have been enough birds around for one to end up on the wall of my classroom.
What are income specialists and generalists?
Let’s switch our focus to people (still animals, but not wildlife—unless you’re Mowgli).
Income specialists are people who specialize in one thing. Think of telephone switchboard operators, chimney sweeps, or human computers.
Income generalists are people who specialize in many things. Think of people who major in general categories like Communications, Finance, or English.
Here’s the kicker: in the biological world, specialists are far more likely to go extinct. The only constant thing is change. If you’ve got a narrow set of things that keep you alive, you’ll be the first to go when things change—and make no mistake, they will change.
Obviously, people are a little bit different. We generally don’t let people go extinct, thankfully. But, the lesson remains: if you’re an income specialist or if you don’t diversify your income, life will be a hell of a lot harder for you when things change. Just ask the Appalachian coal miners.
I’m An Income Specialist
I found this out firsthand when I graduated. I studied wildlife biology in school. People used to ask me what I wanted to do when I graduated. I was like, “Umm….be a wildlife biologist?!”
I chose a degree that qualifies me for a job with 21,300 active participants nationwide amid a sea of 123,761,000 full-time working adult Americans. My chosen career makes up 0.017% of the working U.S. population.
Related post: The Financial Reality Of Being A Broke Biologist
There are a few other careers that a wildlife biology degree will give you a ticket to enter. You can also be a science communicator or a biological science technician. Failing that, you can apply for a job that will take any candidate with a bachelor’s degree.
I had to take exactly this kind of job when I graduated. I was hired on as an animal caretaker because they’d basically take anyone with a degree as long as they could scoop poop. I’ve only recently found a job that’s within my major, and even then my career prospects are tenuous at best.
If I had a communications degree, on the other hand, I’d likely be gainfully employed wherever I go (and making a hell of a lot more money to boot).
Am I totally screwed if I’m an income specialist?
You were expecting a bit more of an explanation than that, I expect. 🙂
Even though you have specialized training, that doesn’t mean you’re locked inside of your career. Your source of income doesn’t have to be one single tenuous thread that you desperately cling to like Gollum with the Ring. You’ll need to diversify your skill set and your income.
How Do I Diversify My Income?
You’ll need to get out of your headspace and your comfort zone to seek new opportunities.
Your training also included many things you can use elsewhere. You’re reading this, for Pete’s sake. You can make money reading—you just have to be creative and find a way.
I wrote a hell of a lot of things in grad school. Most of them were boring sciencey things like this gem:
But every once in a while I’d get the chance to write something fun. And then I’d run with it. I later played around with writing because I was tired of just being an animal poop cleaner, and what started out as a side hustle out of boredom and necessity has now evolved into my full-time job as a freelance writer.
The moral of the story is this: figure out what other skills you’ve accumulated and leverage the f%^$k out of them. Get out of your comfort zone, wring out every last drop of talent and hard work you have, and spread it everywhere like a weedwhacker gone mad.
Are you an income specialist or an income generalist? How do you diversify your income? Leave a comment below!