Widen Your Career Options With A Liberal Arts Degree
It’s inevitable. When you tell someone that you’re planning to major in a subject like History or English you get asked: “what are you going to do with that?
The answer? You’re going to get a job.
Liberal arts graduates are particularly well suited for today’s job market.
The world is constantly changing. The economy technology and an integrated global community have made liberal arts majors—and the broad range of skills they learn—as essential as ever.
“A liberal arts education prepares students to think for themselves critically and creatively. It’s not training for that first job out of college; it’s preparation for a lifelong career,” says Alexa Gaeta, Director of Admission for Agnes Scott College (GA). “Our graduates think outside the box understand multiple perspectives and develop effective solutions to life’s challenges big and small.” And while technical skills are increasingly necessary in virtually every profession employers are recognizing that those skills can be taught on the job. But graduates with the interpersonal problem-solving and communication skills gained as liberal arts majors are much more difficult to find. That makes liberal arts grads highly valued by employers!
WHAT ARE THE LIBERAL ARTS?
As a liberal arts major you’ll get an overview of the arts humanities (the study of the human condition) social sciences mathematics and natural sciences as well as a variety of skills that will help you excel in the workforce. It’s an educational style that can trace its roots back hundreds of years—and it has only gotten better with age.
“By giving students flexible and transferable skills—knowing how to find and evaluate information communicate well verbally and in writing [and] work with others whose backgrounds and ideas are different from their own—we’re not just preparing them for their first job we’re preparing them for a lifetime of career choices and changes,” says Michael Zimmerman, Academic Vice President and Provost at The Evergreen State College (WA). “Job-specific skills and requirements will change. Foundational skills for success developed and strengthened through the lens of … a liberal arts setting will remain critical and relevant throughout a student’s life.”
Some of the more common liberal arts majors include communications English foreign language history philosophy political science mathematics psychology and sociology.
How do you decide what to major in? You might pursue an interest you already have or take several classes before deciding. “Some students arrive knowing exactly what they want to do. Careful advising and close mentoring ensure that students are able to begin making steady progress in their chosen major field of study right away while simultaneously taking full advantage of a diverse liberal arts curriculum,” says Emily Chamlee-Wright, Dean and Provost of Washington College (MD). “Other students enter [college] fully open to discovering new areas of interest. Typically students have chosen a major by the end of their sophomore year.”
And no matter what you major in you’ll come out of school with in-depth knowledge of a particular area as well as a range of skills—like communication writing and analytical thinking—that will help you grow professionally. Jobs in the real world require a variety of different skills and many students today are preparing for jobs that don’t even exist yet. “Over the course of their four-year liberal arts education students make a profound shift from being learners of content to creators of new knowledge,” explains Chamlee-Wright. “The shift results in a … deep confidence in one’s ability to find solutions to problems no one has encountered before and to establish and operationalize a plan for effective action when there is no prescripted path to follow.”
Furthermore “Knowledge is nothing if you cannot express it,” says Dean Clark, Vice President for Enrollment at Carthage College (WI). “The liberal arts student sees the world in a broader spectrum than the career-oriented student utilizing the education across disciplines to enhance their communication and critical analysis of information and situations.” Written and oral communications are key components of the liberal arts curriculum he adds.
WHAT DO LIBERAL ARTS MAJORS LEARN?
It might be easier to ask what you won’t learn. One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is the chance to explore multiple areas of interest. You’ll also acquire the practical skills you’ll need for lifelong learning and achievement—like research writing composing an argument speaking and asking questions.
“Students learn the craft of asking ‘How do I know that this argument is right? What new thing might I learn discover or create if I looked at an idea work of art or scientific experiment from a different vantage point? What important questions have yet to be asked and explored?,’” says Chamlee-Wright of Washington College. “When this habit of mind accompanies us in all spheres of our lives; when we know that we are called upon to navigate uncharted waters; when we are confident that we are equipped with the lessons of the past to discover and to create the new; when the prospect of this discovery or creativity thrills us; this is what it feels like and what it means to be a liberally educated person.”
WHAT KINDS OF JOBS DO LIBERAL ARTS MAJORS GET?
Because the liberal arts cover such a broad spectrum of subjects there’s no one set career path. Liberal arts majors find themselves in a variety of fields including business education media public service medicine and law.
If you’re worried about competing against those with more “practical” or narrowly defined degrees such as business or engineering don’t be. The possibilities are endless. “Ask yourself what field of work an engineer will engage in upon graduation and you can guess it every time—engineering!,” says Christopher Gage, Dean of Admission at Hanover College (IN). “Ask yourself what a biology major from a liberal arts institution will do upon graduation and you might say ‘work in the field of biology’ but [a biology major] could also be a teacher pharmaceutical representative lab technician or museum curator.”
HOW CAN A LIBERAL ARTS DEGREE HELP YOU COMPETE?
As a liberal arts major you’ll most likely have at least one year of practical experience under your belt—something graduates from other programs are much less likely to be able to claim. That’s because more so than other programs a liberal arts major leads students to pursue opportunities outside the classroom.
“Internships and research opportunities enhance what and how students learn and allow them to apply those skills to the ‘real world’ even before they graduate,” says Clark. “The ability to show an employer that they can apply the knowledge they’ve gained in the undergraduate setting gives our students an edge when [being considered for] employment or graduate programs.”
Liberal arts majors tend to be not only good critical thinkers but also creative thinkers. That gives you a real edge when seeking employment and in your job whatever that might be. It’s an advantage that will last as long as your career does.
“At Evergreen we put a strong emphasis on critical and interdisciplinary thinking working independently and in teams learning across significant cultural and philosophical differences and effective communication,” says Zimmerman. “Employers understand that how someone functions in the workplace is just as important as what they know or can do. That’s a big part of what a liberal arts education can provide.” The skills that are fostered by a liberal arts education will help liberal arts graduates better compete in the job market and adapt to the changing needs of the job landscape. In fact a 2011 survey of employers revealed that 55 percent wanted to hire graduates with a “broad-based education that helps them choose their best career path.”
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF A LIBERAL ARTS MAJOR IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
If you feel passionate about a subject outside of the liberal arts such as medicine or engineering your choice of major may be clear. But if you’re undecided a major in one of the liberal arts is a good choice because it doesn’t set limits on what you can explore.
Students who are looking for a learning community focused on both depth and breadth are well suited for the liberal arts experts say. “Students who are the most successful are those who have developed a strong work ethic who are intellectually curious who have had a broad and deep academic high school experience and who have shown evidence of being a positive advocate for themselves,” says William J. Brown Jr., Vice President for Enrollment at Lebanon Valley College (PA). “Students who clearly like being students and a part of an active intellectual community perform very well.”
So the next time someone asks you what you plan to do with a liberal arts degree go ahead and tell them the truth—anything and everything.
Anne Flounders is an education writer and editor in Connecticut.