What Good Is a Liberal Arts Degree in the Job Market?

Liberal Arts degree jobLiberal-arts degrees get a bum rap. After all, what in the world are you going to do with that philosophy or American history degree? And why spend $30,000 and upwards annually to learn about it?

Well, actually, it's because a liberal-arts degree is a versatile ticket to a wide range of jobs, and it's sought out by many employers. Few jobs are out of the reach of a liberal-arts major, says Katharine Hansen, writer for the job-hunting website Quintessential Careers and author of A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way Into the Hidden Job Market.

"Sometimes liberal-arts majors struggle a bit more than other majors when launching their careers, but the evidence shows that they tend to advance farther and be more sought out by CEOs for high-level jobs," Hansen says.Liberal-arts majors looking to apply for graduate school are also looked well upon. Stanford University's MBA program prefers not to take applicants with undergraduate degrees in business; instead, liberal-arts majors are among the preferred applicants.

Max Mallory is graduating from Sarah Lawrence College this spring, and while he focused on theater and social sciences, he has decided to focus on a career in law by doing internships at a boutique law firm and the District Attorney's office, and planning to go to law school in the fall. How will these two different majors help turn him into a lawyer?

"Being a trial lawyer ties the dramatics of theater with the content base of law," says Mallory. "And while I may not have specialized knowledge in one specific area, my degree teaches me how to think, be critical and creative. I've learned excellent communication skills in writing, verbalizing, articulating, and arguing and defending a position. I'm able to think critically and abstractly in a way I don't see with students who are in more specialized institutions."

Michelle Marion graduated two years ago from Georgetown University with a degree in French. Not the most secure degree when the economy is tanking. But Marion waited tables for a few months to pay the bills and look for an appropriate job. It turned out to be at an aerospace company.

"My responsibilities, which actually had little to do with the fact that I spoke French, were vast and varied," she says. "They had more to do with skills such as researching, organization and self-motivation that I learned through through the multi-disciplinary four years I spent in college."

Mason was willing to start in a junior assistant position and wound up in a senior position -- with a big pay increase in six months. She says that she knows other French majors who got good jobs at consulting firms, financial companies and government agencies. "Their knowledge of French may have helped them get where they are, but I think their liberal-arts education played a bigger role as they climbed the career ladder."

Internships and networking aside, how do you market yourself to employers as a liberal-arts grad? Hansen has these suggestions:
  • Believe in your degree. You majored in French or philosophy because you had a passion for it, right? Use that passion to your advantage. The more you believe in the great choice of major you made, the better you will market yourself to employers. Your passion shows enthusiasm, a love of learning, commitment and dedication.

  • Sharpen your focus. Yes, your degree qualifies you for a wide range of jobs. But employers want to know what you want to do in a job, so the more focused you are, the more hireable you are. Use your school's career center to hone in on careers that align with your skills, values and interests, and to craft cover letters and resumes that target those careers.

  • Market your skills. The very good news for liberal-arts majors is that communication skills are what employers desire most. You've learned how to communicate orally and in writing, whereas many business majors lack those strengths. If you've taken a foreign language, that's also a plus, as language skills and multicultural sensitivity are highly marketable skills today. Use your communication skills to your advantage in cover letters, resumes and interviews.

  • But give your skills a boost. Computer skills are a must for most jobs, so take a class to beef up those skills. If you're interested in a business career, you can learn a lot by reading publications like the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Business Week, and watching the business cable network CNBC. Study job listing for the types of jobs you're interested in and see what skills are required. If there's one or two that keep popping up that you're deficient in, figure out the best, quickest way to get up to speed.

  • Craft a cover letter and portfolio that shows off your degree. A cover letter can tout your liberal-arts skills because it can use more narrative language than the resume to show an employer the connection between your skills and his needs. Because you've researched and written a fair number of papers and reports in your four years, use the best as writing samples in your portfolio of work. Remember that your total college experience helped you develop skills. Involvement in extracurricular groups showed your leadership, teamwork skills and competitive drive. A compelling, well-written job application makes a big impression on employers.

  • Determine whether you need more education. There are some fields, like social work or law, in which opportunities are extremely limited with a bachelor's degree but better with a master's. If your career path dictates grad school, take that path. But consider it only if's truly right for your situation. If you've had enough of school and want to get out into the world, don't give up in defeat and say, "Well, I guess I'll go to grad school." Keep a positive attitude about the value of your liberal-arts degree.
And consider the story of John Urheim, who graduated from Cornell University with a degree in sociology and recently retired as CEO of a biotechnology firm in Colorado. How did a liberal-arts graduate end up running a high-tech company?

Urheim's response: "Who better than a liberal arts graduate?" He says that liberal arts prepared him to think clearly and understand the relationships between science, market forces and human behavior. "Liberal-arts majors are always prepared to learn and adjust to the unexpected."
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