This is the part 2 of 3 of the mini-series on "Starting up in Operational Research".
Question 1: What programming languages should I learn?
Question 2: Should I be a generalist or a specialist as an Operational Research professional?
"As an Operational Research professional, are you usually viewed as a "jack of all trades" or do you usually have to specialize in one area like marketing, government, military, logistics, etc.?"
The short answer is:
First of all, there are two different types of "specializations" in Operational Research: industry specialization, and OR technique specialization. When you are a student at the master's level, you cannot afford to specialize in either industry or technique, because there is so much to learn, and it is all somewhat important. However, once you start working as an OR professional, because of the nature of your work / organization, you will almost be forced to specialize in an industry, such as marketing, healthcare, defense, logistics, mining, energy, etc. However, personally, I would not corner myself into specializing in an OR technique, such as optimization, forecasting, simulation, etc., unless I were an academia. This is because of 'what-if' scenarios for your career. As an OR professional, if you specialize in a technique, you may pigeon-hole yourself into one type of job, which will be difficult to change from if you ever want to. For example, what if you wanted a change from doing simulation models? Personally, specializing in one OR technique could quickly get boring, but that may not be the case for everybody.
Now, let me elaborate a bit more on the above:
As a student of Operational Research (a.k.a. "Operations Research" in North America), there simply isn't time enough to specialize in one field of OR during the studies. At least that was the case for me. My program, Master of Management in Operations Research, run by the Centre for Operations Excellence in the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, is 15 months long. It included 8 months of intensive, mandatory, foundational courses to build up the skills and tools necessary for an Operational Research professional, including but not limited to: optimization, simulation, forecasting, statistical methodology, stochastic processes, decision analysis, operations management and logistics, consulting practices, as well as operations research and management sciences best practices. These are our tools to be a "jack of all trades", and must not be neglected. Then the program included a crucial 4-month (typically) hands-on project, where the student acts as the main consultant on behalf of the school to work with a private or public organization on a relatively high importance OR project, charged with real deliverables to the client. This makes it a "professional degree", instead of a M.Sc. (Master of Science) where the student is expected to do research and produce an academic thesis paper. After the project, the entire program wraps up with another 4 months of courses, but to be chosen by the student. This is the opportunity to specialize if you wish. However, I don't believe 4 months of studies can make anyone a "specialist" in anything. It is the future work that you do that will shape you into whatever specialist you may choose to be.
As a professional working in OR, one will be forced into specializing in an industry or a field of business, such as healthcare, unless you go with a large consulting firm that deals with more than just one type of industry. With the big consulting firms, you may get the chance to be exposed to different industries, but you may have to insist. That experience could be invaluable. From my current job hunting experience in the UK, many industries are rather incestuous, such as energy, finance, insurance, and healthcare. Many jobs will require you to have experience in an industry before they would consider you a worthy candidate. I do not agree with it entirely. Even though there is much to be said about prior industry experience, a good management consultant can transcend industries, because his/her expertise is in the problem solving aspect. Industry knowledge can be picked up quickly by a good consultant, not to be an expert, but enough to solve the problem efficiently. Not mentioning, if an industry keeps hiring from within, not to be cliche, but it just doesn't have the new blood or the out-of-the-box fresh thinking to approach problems from a different angle. I understand if the hiring manager prefers a candidate with prior industry experience over one that does not, but to list it as an essential criteria is over the top and short-sighted.
To learn more about the fields that Operational Research plays a major role in, check this out.