Majoring in Liberal Arts Could be the Key to Your Success
When you tell your parents you want to major in a liberal arts subject like history, philosophy or English, their first question is likely to be, “What kind of job can you get with that major?” The answer: almost any job you want!
According to a 2014 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), 93 percent of employers say a candidate’s demonstrated ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major. In addition, four out of five employers agree that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
“Liberal arts programs give students skills that they carry with them throughout an entire career, not just their first job,” says Rachel Hiser, assistant director of content marketing at Heidelberg University (OH). “Having a broad education allows students to make connections across disciplines, which can make them a more desirable employee.”
So, it seems liberal arts graduates are particularly well suited for today’s job market and the jobs of the future—some of which don’t even exist yet.
What you will learn as a liberal arts major
Liberal arts is the foundation of higher education in America. “Its value and tradition carry back to the founding of Harvard in 1636,” says Chris Gage, dean of admission at Hanover College (IN). “Liberal arts is still relevant today, and in many respects is more valuable as the world has become smaller and more interconnected than ever before. The need for individuals to communicate and appreciate cultural differences is salient to a young person’s career opportunities and advancement.”
Some of the more common liberal arts majors include communications, English, foreign language, history, philosophy, political science, mathematics, psychology, economics and sociology.
As a liberal arts student, you’ll take courses in the arts, humanities (the study of the human condition), social sciences, mathematics and natural sciences. You’ll also learn a variety of skills, such as critical thinking, verbal and written communication and problem solving, which will help you in the workplace. For example, no matter the specific liberal arts major, the curriculum for all students at Agnes Scott College (GA) focuses on developing leadership skills in a globalized economy.
“Liberal arts students learn from a global perspective and see the world, including business environments, through a unique lens that allows for sound judgments and ethical and meaningful decision making,” says Hanover’s Gage.
Nick Mulvey, dean of admissions at Carthage College (WI), agrees that a solid liberal arts education will teach you the skills needed to be successful and to continue to adapt to a changing world. “No college can provide you with the vocational skills you’ll need to do your job 25 years from now, because those skills and that job might not even exist yet. But a liberal arts education can teach you how to think, how to learn and how to adapt, which will prepare you for the changing future and put you at a distinct advantage in the marketplace,” Mulvey says.
Liberal arts employment opportunities
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.
According to Michael Zimmerman, provost at Evergreen State College (WA), the AACU report also notes that at their peak earning ages, liberal arts majors bring home larger paychecks than professional majors.
While technical skills are increasingly necessary in virtually every profession, employers now recognize that those skills can be taught on the job. And if you plan to go on to medical school or law school, a liberal arts education can position you well for success in graduate school.
“Survey results published in the The Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2013 suggest that simply having a major in a particular field just won’t cut it anymore,” says Sarah Neal, senior assistant director of admission at Agnes Scott College. “That same survey indicated employers believe colleges are not doing enough to prepare students for the workforce. Employers know they are going to teach new hires on-the-job skills, so these employers are looking for employees who have broad knowledge and who can be taught quickly. They are looking for employees who know how to think, not necessarily what specifically to think.”
Evergreen State’s Zimmerman says the humanities and social sciences offer a clear competitive advantage in our increasingly interconnected world. “Historical knowledge creates a foundation upon which we build the future. Rigorous philosophical discussions teach us to develop and defend positions. Reading and writing programs make us strong communicators. These qualities are all prerequisites for jobs in a modern economy.”
If you’re worried about competing against those with more “practical” or narrowly defined degrees, such as business or engineering, don’t be.
To best compete with other job candidates, Heidelberg’s Hiser recommends participating in college experiences that will make you stand out. “When you graduate, there will be thousands of other students graduating in your same major. It’s the experiences you have in college that employers will ask you about—study abroad, leadership roles and internships are all good examples.”
Carthage’s Mulvey says other co-curricular activities are important as well. “Getting involved in professional organizations, service learning groups and other experiences outside the classroom is key to success,” he says.
Being able to clearly articulate what you’ve learned and what skills you bring to the table is also important. “Liberal arts students who can articulate the value of their liberal arts education, who can explain how they are able to work collaboratively, think creatively, communicate effectively and transcend and merge disciplines appropriately, will be able to ‘sell’ themselves to any employer looking for a new employee who is likely to go beyond the bare minimum job description,” Zimmerman says.
Determining if a liberal arts education is right for you
If you feel passionate about a subject outside of the liberal arts, such as business or engineering, your choice of major may be clear. But if you’re undecided, a major in the liberal arts is a good choice because it doesn’t set limits on what you can explore.
“While fulfilling her science requirement, a student may learn that she loves astrophysics and could see herself working at NASA,” Neal says. Alternately, while studying biology, a student may discover a passion for working in a laboratory. Or a student studying English may get an internship at local advertising agency and discover she loves copywriting.
“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.”
Consider your interests and your learning style when deciding on a major. “An inquisitive mind and someone with varied academic interests is a perfect fit for a liberal arts program,” says Gage.
You can begin exploring your interests and possible liberal arts majors in high school. “Take as many general education classes as possible in math, the natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts and humanities,” says Kelle Silvey, director of admissions at Westminster College (MO). “Anything students can do to support their written and oral communication skills is always beneficial.”
By your sophomore year of college, you’ll likely know which liberal arts major you want to pursue.
And 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.
Scott William is a freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.