{Rants & Raves} Yes, You Can Get a Job After College With a Liberal Arts/Humanities Degree

Let's value the liberal arts degree

Reading this thoughtful post this morning got me thinking about a topic that I haven’t discussed publicly in ages: the marketability of a liberal arts degree in the information age. With the holidays upon us,  this topic has new resonance for families of college-aged kids–many of whom may be contemplating a change in academic major in the new year. The topic of this rant, therefore, is timely. And there are many of us who can help reframe the value of a liberal arts degree.

As someone with two history degrees who, for a time, managed a college campus career office at a major research university, I know first hand the value of identifying skills demonstrated in the pursuit of a liberal arts/humanities degree as being transferable to other occupations. Writing, research, organizing, presenting, intrinsic motivation, and critical thinking are required to complete an undergraduate degree and vital for long-term success in whatever the field one chooses or discovers after college.

When professors mindfully require use of appropriate technology for class, students gain even more marketable skills. Individual students can then work independently (or with academic or career advisers) to fill in gaps that they may need to round out their skills set to fit a particular entry level job description. This extra work may include internships or even run-of-the-mill campus or off-campus jobs through which they demonstrate tenacity and gain employment references.

What we need to do better as parents, educators, advisers and other stakeholders in young talent is to actively encourage students to learn how to identify and articulate what they’ve learned to prospective employers. We’ve got to do a better job teaching them to sell the value of their degrees. For too long we’ve rolled over and just gone with the public misperception that liberal arts degrees lack value. It’s just not true. I’ve got a liberal arts degree. I’ve been employed, and now I’m self employed as an author. All of my friends from college who majored in liberal arts that I’ve kept up with? Employed. Some are doing very well financially, in fact.

Recent college graduates in the humanities do struggle to land a job for a variety of reasons. In my personal and professional experience there are three things that can hang this particular group of students up: 1) the economy; 2) a failure by individual students to build internship or job references and a work history to demonstrate their ability to be good employees; 3) an inability to articulate the skills they’ve acquired by graduation. In other words, success or failure largely depends upon a blend of overall availability of entry-level jobs and individual initiative.

We can’t control the job market or a students willingness to build the professional network on which they will build their careers. We can, however, do a lot more to help them explain why what they know and have demonstrated in the process of securing a liberal arts/humanities degree have value beyond college.

The best way to teach young adults about the transferability of their skills to a variety of job titles is for classroom faculty to brainstorm a chart (in conjunction with professional academic and career advisers) that explains what broad, basic skills employers seek and pair those with what is obtained in a particular major. Personally, I think that such charts should be made available to all students at the start of every semester with each course syllabus and tailored to that particular class. With them educators would be saying: “Students, here’s what you’re going to do this semester (syllabus) and here’s how what you do will translate to the real world (chart). Hold on to this for your resumes and job interviews so you can use them to explain what you’ve done here.” In addition, it would be worthwhile to require some sort of portfolio and a mandatory capstone class that helps senior-level students sum up their educational experiences and prepare materials for the post-college job hunt (resumes, letters of recommendation, cover letters, etcetera). If faculty aren’t doing these things, then students and parents might want to call the department and request politely that they do so.

Meanwhile, parents can help prompt discussions about transferability of skills and encourage students to avail themselves of campus career centers where trained professionals can help nurture deeper understanding of the “value” of a degree.

Ultimately, if all stakeholders in a students’ life-after-college success committed to doing these things–and we all began to actively challenge pundits who deride the value of humanities in the real world, we might finally begin put to bed the notion that liberal arts degrees underprepare students for life after college.



    • I was thinking after this posted that if professors used the chart, students in non-liberal arts disciplines who take, say, survey classes in the field would get an education on the value of the degrees, too. This might help bring up a new generation of future employers who are more open-minded.

  1. That was a very thoughtful post. But I’m not sure I can agree entirely. We should value liberal arts degrees (I don’t have one, but the rest of my family do), but as with other degrees, too great an emphasis on ‘what job can I get’ in many ways can devalue the actual learning.
    I believe this kind of insidious thinking has seeped into other degrees that society ‘values’ , making people more interested in getting a piece of paper than in the process of learning how to think critically. I’ve seen it personally in engineering, science and mathematics, where there is a lack of engagement in the process of learning and a push to ‘get a pass’ without having to think through the implications of what students are learning. It’s an idea that a degree is merely vocational and only personally valuable that I find deeply distressing.
    I think these ideas have begun to permeate through our society which means that it becomes easier to devalue learning that has no obvious vocational focus. The ability to think critically, with deep knowledge about socially important ideas is invaluable and is one of the most important things that can be learned through a liberal arts degree – and the people who have this ability to think in these ways deserve to be respected and heard (just think about historians like Niall Ferguson who can put economics in perspective beyond late 20th century assumptions).
    Helping kids to understand that their skills and abilities are marketable is great, but I would be very hesitant to suggest that this should be a part of every liberal-arts class. That in many ways could devalue the actual learning about the ideas themselves.

    • I hear where you’re coming from but here’s the reality–in engineering and even computer sciences, a chunk of the faculty tend to have more practical experience outside of the classroom and in workplaces.

      Within the humanities, that’s very, very rare. The campus is their workplace.
      The notable exceptions are in the performing arts, where, curiously in my experience, many faculty are more open to exploring the transferability issue because they’re used to bridging that gap.

      Asking the faculty to spend, oh, an hour or two one semester to develop such a thing in tandem with people on campus who are more sensitive to the transferability issue (advisors and counselors) and then attach it to a syllabus isn’t a call for lecture in every class. Once the document is made, it’s there.

      Many schools already have capstone classes in place and they often include only one session of career stuff. With college costs skyrocketing–and humanities programs being cut, this type of advising may be the best way to keep liberal arts IN the academy. It’s worth a shot given as we’ve never really tried it across the board before.

      • That actually sound quite reasonable. When I was doing my degree, the engineering faculty ran a course on skills required in the work-place – time management, working in groups, reporting and being able to give talks and answer questions. It was a great course that focused a lot of the learning we had done in other courses in a framework that matched the work environment we were most likely to experience on graduation. Something like that within a liberal arts degree makes perfect sense, as does what you say here.

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