I see raised eyebrows when I sing the praises of a liberal arts education. A flood of questions arise. How will you find a job after graduation? What did you do besides read deep books over the past four years? What skills does a liberal arts degree give you in the workforce?
Those questions are all relevant and understandable, especially given the precarious nature of our economy. It makes complete sense that companies would prefer to hire graduates who have already accrued experience in their field to save on training costs. However, before we begin to panic that your efforts for the past couple of years have been completely futile, it is important to reconsider the values and aims of a liberal arts education–and how they can comfortably fit within the framework of the “real” world–before we consider ways that we can market our education to employers.
The ‘core’ of the liberal arts:
At the heart of the liberal arts lies a holistic and broad approach to life and learning. Its emphasis does not lie in the systematic accumulation of knowledge and facts but rather in the gradual development of critical thinking, research, communication and problem-solving skills. The aim of it is the formation of intelligent and critical thinking citizens who will see college as the beginning of their lifelong journey of learning and growth.
The holistic view of the world and the unquantifiable skills of critical analysis, communication and problem-solving is something that is directly relevant to the workplace. Though specialization in a subject is key to some industries, most require a broad base of understanding in a variety of different subjects. However, it is always important to remember that it is not only the knowledge you bring into the workplace–but rather the capability to learn and synthesize complex material. In this way, I suppose that paging through War and Peace and mentally dissecting Arisotle’s Ethics has in some ways prepared you to delve deeper into the study of financial markets and derivatives. The key thing to do is believe this–and communicate this to your employer in an interview or a cover letter.
In addition to being able to parse through complex arguments and material, liberal arts majors have developed ways of expressing themselves in written and oral form. By the same token, no matter what industry you enter, people who have a firm grasp and command of the English language are always marketable. You’ve debated in discussion sections and written research and philosophy papers–and, while this might have seemed as a simple classroom assignment in the past, look at these exercises as building blocks of skills that employers will be looking for and that will set you apart.
To supplement or complement?
Although the liberal arts do develop and cultivate a desired skill set, it is still incredibly important to gain work and leadership experience. This can take a variety of forms, such as: summer internships, jobs during the academic year or running or joining a student organization. The key here is to be truthful about what you are interested in and passionate about–and subsquently deciding whether you wish to supplement or complement the skills that you are gaining in the classroom.
If you find that you want to supplement your skill set to include more quantifiable skills that are desired in the workplace, you can do this in a variety of ways. Most liberal arts schools do not have “marketing” or “business” classes, but that does not mean that you should limit yourself to courses offered at your school. I took an online marketing and business class as a non-degree student during my winter vacation at a local community college. I also opted to take a grad school course with the graduate School of Management in addition to my regular academic course load.
To further supplement my liberal arts education, I took on a summer internship that required extensive market research to further develop those quantitative skills–and used the lessons that I learned at the internship to launch a marketing campaign for an organization I run on campus. For a while, I considered a job in the government and public sector, so I decided to take a course online to increase my computer skill set and get a tutorial in grant writing (Ed2Go classes are relatively cheap and very useful).
These are just a couple of ways to expand your skill set, but the main point is to take initiative and look beyond what is right in front of you. Such efforts demonstrate your proclivity to improvement, personal initiative and intellectual curiosity to an employer. If you show a consistent pattern of learning these skills in a classroom setting and then applying them to a job, internship or organization, it sends the signal to future employers that you are capable of transforming learned information into relevant action.
You can also always choose to complement your communication and critical thinking skills by taking on research-heavy internships, doing research with a professor, or joining an organization on campus dedicated to expanding and nurturing a desired skill set (such as Roosevelt Institution). Whatever you decide to do, remember that all curriculums and programs have something to offer, but different skills will be emphasized in each one. The point is to assess what emphasis you want to make on your resume, and seek out activities and engagements that either supplement or complement what you are learning in the classroom.
In the end…
Know yourself, take ownership of your education, and internalize what you read. With some introspection, you’ll realize that you are more than a number cruncher or a mechanic laborer–and you will be able to speak about the philosophical and ethical aspects of leadership in addition to the organizational component that you develop by leading an organization. Once you truly believe that you have unquantifiable skills to offer, your confidence will shine through.
Accruing internship, work, and student leadership experience is an important step of garnering experience–but a worthwhile pursuit in a subject of choice is the most important step of garnering a sense of purpose. Learn to communicate this, but remember: changing the tides means first changing your mindset.