As someone from a liberal arts college, I understand the perceived difficulties of obtaining employment after college. Your parents, other family members, and family friends may have warned you against pursuing a liberal arts degree due to limited employment opportunities. It seems like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees are all the rage with the best employment opportunities. Business and other pre-professional degrees are still perceived as employable, whereas a liberal arts major might as well work at the local coffee shop (no offense). However, I am here to tell you that your career and ultimate success is more determined by your individual self, creativity, ambition, work ethic, and motivation rather than the type of degree you get.
What is a Liberal Arts Education?
I will define a liberal arts education as an education in a non-professional field, including the natural sciences, physical sciences, humanities, and social sciences. It does not include pre-professional programs such as pharmacy, nursing, and business. It also does not include graduate professional programs such as law or medicine. The liberal arts do have some overlap with STEM since the sciences and math are technically liberal arts. Liberal arts programs generally require completion of a diverse, multi-disciplinary foundation of courses. For example, I had to take writing, philosophy, kinesiology, physics, Judaism, American studies, media studies, and computer science in addition to my economics and math classes that were directly related to my degrees. None of these classes were joke classes either.
Why a Liberal Arts Degree Can Be Advantageous
The job market is constantly changing and evolving. The people who succeed in the long-run are the people who can adapt to the changing landscape, recognize trends, learn new skills, think critically, lead, communicate effectively, and collaborate with others. Notice none of those items are germane to a particular degree. A strong foundation in the liberal arts trains a student in every single one of those areas. Studying widely across disciplines and topics empowers an individual to recognize trends, think critically, and adapt to changing situations.
Here’s a hypothetical example. Suppose you start your career in procurement. Just because you started your career in procurement doesn’t mean that you’ll spend the rest of your life working in procurement. You can start off in procurement, then move on to a position involving business development because people saw how outstanding and creative you were with negotiating with suppliers. They figured you could negotiate revenue generating partnerships with other companies. Then you decide to create your own company with all the relationships that you’ve developed. This new company uses all the skills and connections you’ve picked up along the way. My point is, your career doesn’t move in a linear path. It zig zags across functions and industries. A liberal arts education develops the insight for you to perceive all the possibilities. Steve jobs once said,“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.” By the way, although Jobs never graduated college, he studied calligraphy, dance, and Shakespeare at Reed. In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he attributed the wonderful typography on the first Macintosh to his study of calligraphy.
A liberal arts degree also prepares one for upper management. At the upper management level, executives are not concerned about whether or not the numbers on your spreadsheet tie together or what’s the best material to use to lower our costs while maintaining quality. They are concerned with managing a company and its strategic direction. They need to know the big picture, understand the competition, and inspire their people. These aren’t skills that you learn with a particular degree. These are skills you learn by exposing yourself to a wide variety of topics, understanding different methods of thinking, and interacting with diverse people. These are skills that a liberal arts foundation develops. The CEOs of Starbucks, Avon, Disney, HBO, and Whole Foods all have liberal arts degrees, and not necessarily from elite schools.
Finally, a liberal arts degree prepares you for grad programs. You spend four years learning to read, write, think critically, and solve problems. What exactly do graduate exams such as the GRE, LSAT, and GMAT test you on? Those exams test you on exactly those skills.
How to Equalize the Playing Field
Unless you obtained your liberal arts degree from an elite college (think Amherst, Williams, Princeton, Harvard), you’ll be at a disadvantage getting your initial job out of college when compared to most business graduates. You most likely won’t have the network or job specific knowledge that business graduates have. How can you level that playing field?
Internships. Do them both over the summer and part-time during the school year. Work for free and work in different industries. Just make sure that the internships can be related to a business career. See if your career center has resources for finding internship positions. When I was in college, I interned in accounting, wealth management, consulting, and equity research even though I don’t currently work in any of those areas.
Volunteer. Don’t just volunteer, but take a leadership role. See if you can take on financial, leadership, or fundraising responsibilities. These responsibilities develop skills that translate well over to the real world. In college, I took a finance director role for a volunteer organization. I kept track of expenses and revenue for a volunteer program involving over one hundred children with immigrant parents in Los Angeles, mainly of Asian and Latino descent.
Leadership Positions. Take on leadership positions in general. This will teach you to collaborate with others, influence people, and develop overall maturity and poise.
Side Business. Not only can you make some money, you’ll learn a lot from building and running a business. Since it’s your own business, you’ll have to do everything on your own. You’ll have to learn new skills, influence strangers, and manage relationships. I knew someone in college who created a business to deliver ramen to drunk college students throughout the night. He now owns an entire food, tea, and hookah chain with locations in the US and overseas.
Global Experience. Study, volunteer, or travel abroad to broaden your horizons. Don’t just go to have fun, but understand how different cultures and countries do things. Not only will it make you a more well-rounded candidate, it will make you a more interesting person.
Network, Network, Network. Reach out to alumni, you’d be surprised at how many are willing to help. I used to go through my alumni database and send friendly messages to people working in industries I was interested in. I would try to set up a phone call to talk about career, school, etc. You never know who may be looking for an intern or employee.
Strong Cover Letter. As a liberal arts student, you’re trained to write effectively. All those hours spent researching and writing papers do not go to waste. If you can write an amazing cover letter, that may be the edge you need to land that interview.
Sell Your Liberal Arts Education During the Interview
All the experience and knowledge in the world is useless for landing a job if you can’t convince your potential employer to hire you. If you are coming from a liberal arts background, I recommend that you talk about how your education has taught you to think critically and communicate effectively. These are two very important job skills that most people have trouble with. In addition, talk about your global experience, internships, volunteer activities, etc. These extracurricular activities will demonstrate your ability to hustle and be a self-starter, two qualities that all employers look for.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it is bad to major in a pre-professional degree. There definitely are benefits to those degrees, especially early in a career. There are definitely many successful people with pre-professional backgrounds. However, I firmly believe that a liberal arts education is better at preparing people to recognize trends, think critically, and adapt to changing situations. Life is a marathon with unexpected obstacle courses, and a liberal arts education prepares you for the long-run (pun intended). As long as you have the determination, self-belief, work ethic, open-mindedness, and drive, you can learn to succeed with a liberal arts degree.
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