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Is there hope for liberal arts majors?

Though it's only the beginning of the school year, the thought of a job after graduation is rumbling around in the back of most students' minds. Everyone knows it's a tough economy, that jobs are scarce. The conventional wisdom says that the real job opportunities are in technical fields, and that students without technical backgrounds are out of luck. The perception that there is a serious lack of jobs for liberal art graduates hangs like a dark cloud over tens of thousands of very smart, very capable, very well-educated people.

Several years ago a now-retired CEO of the St. Paul Companies, a large insurance organization, addressed a leadership development group in St. Paul, Minnesota on the type of people his company recruited, trained, and promoted. He spoke at length, and with considerable passion, about the importance of having broadly-educated people in the top management ranks of his company. He seemed to be saying that any technical specialist could run the business adequately in the present, but only people with wide-ranging interests--the core of a liberal arts education--could be sufficiently visionary to position the company for the future. Mary Pickard, Director of Community Affairs for the St. Paul Companies, remembers the same CEO: "He was always stressing the need to recruit people with good analytic skills--people who could think and write well."

There is no reason to believe that even with the increasing technological complexities of the world, there should be any lesser role for those with well-rounded liberal arts backgrounds.

As is often the case, the outlook for today's liberal arts students is a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that the economy is in tough shape. Jobs are scarce. But the good news is that there are always opportunities for people who can think, talk intelligently and persuasively, and write. These are the very skills liberal arts majors spend their college years acquiring. Following graduation, the challenge is in finding the right niche in which to apply these skills. This involves focusing on the skills you have; being ready to acquire new skills, training, and education; and being imaginative in identifying career opportunities--looking beyond the Fortune 500.

The Strengths of a Liberal Arts Background

A liberal arts background prepares students to do anything, though it may sometimes seem to prepare students for nothing in particular. Liberal arts students can spend years reading obscure literature or studying ideas and events from times and places far removed from today's fast-paced, highly technologized world. They can also be studying complex social interactions or learning to harness the dynamic power of an art form. Whatever the subject matter, a good liberal arts education provides very practical skills in three key areas: thinking, writing, and presentation. These are the assets a liberal arts graduate should be presenting to potential employers.

Thinking Skills: Whether the subject is history or music, the liberal arts teach students to absorb and analyze information, identify the important or relevant elements, and construct theories or solve problems. Generally this analytic work gives students the chance to develop research skills, work independently, and test their ideas against those of their peers, their instructors, and others down through history. It is the ability to see many facets of a problem and find the connecting links that becomes an important skills in the work world.

Writing Skills: Perhaps the most important skill a liberal arts student can acquire is effective writing. The ability to use standard, written English is a vital business skill in every industry and every organization. One of the great strengths of a liberal arts education is that it generally requires students to write extensively in all courses of study. The simple practice of writing is the best way to become a comfortable, effective writer. Whether one becomes a technical writer--read through the technical manuals for your computer, and you will probably be looking at the work of a liberal arts major collaborating with computer scientists and designers--or a manager writing memos, the ability to communicate in writing is a crucial skill that liberal arts students have considerable opportunity to develop.

Presentation Skills: Liberal arts students also learn to present their ideas and questions to others. Whether presenting a paper to classmates in a seminar, or asking intelligent questions of a lecturer, the liberal arts prepare students to speak effectively and persuasively, to understand the dynamics of an audience, and to confidently present a position and publicly defend it without becoming defensive. Clearly, advancement in the business world depends as much on effective presentation skills as on technical competence.

Two additional, but closely related skills that are becoming increasingly important are flexibility and the ability to learn. The trends in employment are toward less stability in both the availability/longevity of jobs and in the kind of work done on the job, and toward the need for employees to train and retrain to keep their skills current. In both of these areas the fundamental skills of a liberal arts background are extremely valuable.

Applying the Skills of the Liberal Arts to Finding a Job

So, armed with these skills, how can liberal arts graduates get through the door? There are three basic strategies to building a career based on liberal arts training: 1) getting in the front door, working directly in the field of your major; 2) getting in the side door, using the skills of your major in other fields; and 3) getting in the back door, working completely outside your major field of study. Each of these areas will likely require additional education and training, some of which may be provided or subsidized by an employer, and some of which may remain the responsibility of the student/employee.

The Front Door: In every liberal arts field of study there are people working and making a living. Historians work for the National Park Service, as well as for regional, state, and local history organizations. Botanists work for landscape firms, greenhouses, and building maintenance companies. Artists work for advertising agencies, graphic design firms, sign companies, theaters. There may be very few jobs in any given specialty, but there are some.

Two steps a liberal arts grad might have to take in order to gain a position in the field of his or her major are to start at a very low level and work up by demonstrating ability and initiative, or to continue with graduate education in order to enter the job market with an advanced degree.

The latter approach is essential in some fields and dangerous in others. Some jobs require an MA or a PhD, while in other circumstances advanced degrees without some work experience effectively block one from the job market.

The Side Door: The side door represents opportunities to look to areas beyond the narrow confines of one field to find other places where the skills of a given discipline, or of the liberal arts in general, are useful. A teaching degree might successfully lead to educational publishing. a history or arts degree into arts/cultural administration or development (fundraising); a sociology/political science degree into marketing or public relations, psychology into sales; drama/theatre into presentations or training. The key is to remain focused on your skills, not on a narrow, definition of a particular job.

The side door also opens into entire areas many students do not first consider. Many students dream in one way or another of having a successful career in a Fortune 500 company. but there are many opportunities for creating satisfying careers in the government and nonprofit sectors of the economy. The nonprofit sector has been particularly responsive to liberal arts graduates, in part because the nature of the work of many nonprofits involves the application of liberal arts disciplines like sociology, political science, or the arts, but also because most (though not all) nonprofits cannot afford to recruit specialists as can private businesses. The staffs in nonprofits are generally smaller (which provides tremendous opportunities to gain broad experience in many work areas), and while the salaries are usually lower than in private business, they aren't necessarily that much lower. Taken as a whole, the nonprofit and government sectors offer good work experiences, opportunities for relatively fast advancement for those demonstrating vision and initiative, and meaningful work. This last benefit used to be seen as something naively altruistic, but doing personally satisfying work--which the service-oriented nonprofit sector often provides--is increasingly appreciated as an important clement of a person's total well-being.

The Back Door: Two strategies for getting in the back door are:

1) Doing "traditional" things in new or emerging industries. Apply your writing and presentation skills to new companies in environmental industries, or to new organizations in the nonprofit sector. Use your fluency in languages to open doors in international business as a translator or in a marketing role; or look for work in areas of the U.S. where bi-, tri-, or multilingual people are in demand. Think about industries where people of different languages or cultures interact: from the social service sector to the hospitality/travel industry, communication skills are vitally important.

2) Continue your own education. This might take the form of graduate training in your field of interest, perhaps in preparation for a teaching or research job. You might shift gears and obtain professional training in addition to your liberal arts education: law or business school, social work, library science/information technology, or leadership credentials. Other continuing education options could include professional association seminars in any given field or industry, or extension courses at local colleges or universities. Any of these steps shows a prospective employer that you are willing and able to take initiative, to acquire new or better skills, to prepare yourself to get the job done.

Other Areas of Opportunity

The back, side, and front door approaches outlined above are most appropriate in a search for a "regular," career-path job, even if in non-traditional organizations. But there are other ways liberal arts graduates can begin successful careers.

1) Take an entry-level jobs to gain experience in an industry. If you don't know exactly what job you wish to go after, or your college credentials won't open the doors you want opened, take any job you can get in the industry of choice. A year or two of work will provide an understanding of the kinds of skills necessary to get ahead (which defines the types of additional education or training that will be useful to you), and will give you a strong sense of whether that particular industry will be of interest to you over the long haul.

2) Use your non-major courses to prepare yourself to get into a formal training program within a company. Insurance companies, financial service firms, and organizations in other industries have training programs for recent college graduates. Getting in requires persuasive selling skills on your part, but if you can get in you will probably succeed.

It is important to focus the courses you take outside your major. A few math, computer science, or marketing courses can give you enough familiarity with those disciplines to enable you to talk intelligently about them in an interview--and actually have some skills an employer will find useful. A pattern of "practical" courses can help overcome the perception that your philosophy or fine arts major hasn't prepared you to be useful in the work world. In fact, those majors, like all of the liberal arts, can be extremely good preparation for success in the world, but it is up to you to demonstrate this.

3) Start your own business. Self-direction in school--your research skills, your ability to be verbally persuasive and to write well, and to meet deadlines--is good preparation for self-employment. This probably won't be in your major field, but as you become more successful you will have the time and resources to return to your academic interests.

Use your network to find freelance projects, just as you might use it to gain leads about jobs. Frequently good performance as a freelance serves as an audition that leads to full-time employment. Assess your skills: what can you do well that will solve someone else's needs?


People are drawn to the liberal arts out of a sense of curiosity and a personal interest in a particular area of knowledge, not because of good career options after college. But the passion that makes one a good student of history, psychology, political science, music, or any of the other liberal arts fields also makes one good at many other things: reading, discovering, thinking, interpreting. These are the skills that are in demand in the world. Liberal arts majors need to bear in mind that the knowledge they have gained is valuable, and the skills they have developed are marketable. Let your peers in engineering or computer science sell the steak; you sell the sizzle.

There are a number of standard reference books on finding a job or creating a career. Any library will have What Color is Your Parachute? and dozens of similar titles. These books can be useful in helping students focus their over all strategies for finding jobs or identifying careers.

Several less familiar books of interest specifically to liberal arts majors are:

Jobs for English Majors and Other Smart People, by John L. Munschauer (Peterson's Guides, 1991). A good general book for learning, about how liberal arts skills can be applied in the work world.

The 150 Best Companies for Liberal Arts Graduates, by Cheryl Woodruff and Greg Ptacek (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992). This book is useful not so much for the company listings (which are valuable), but for the case stories of recent grads who have found good jobs, sometimes by networking, sometimes by happy accident--both of which are ways things often happen in the post-college world.

Offbeat Careers: The Directory of Unusual Work, by Al Sacharov (Ten Speed Press, 1988). An older, slightly dated book, but still fun to browse through, for ideas about how to get off the beaten path.

Profitable Careers in Nonprofits, by William Lewis and Carol Milano (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1987). Another older title, but useful for its perspective on work in the nonprofit sector.

Graduating into the Nineties, by Carol Carter and Gary June (The Noonday Press, 1993). Good for thinking about many of the life and career-building, issues faced after landing that first job.
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Title Annotation:job opportunities
Author:Jennings, Randolph
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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