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Putting Your Liberal Arts Degree to Work
A college degree lets employers know that you’ve learned skills in a specific field. And with a degree in liberal arts, the skills you’ve honed include those that employers want in their workers.
According to studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers often rank skills such as critical thinking and communication - hallmarks of liberal arts training - above technical aptitude as essential for career readiness.
“Liberal arts study helps students develop strong foundational competencies,” says Paul Timmins, director of career services for the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Robert Vega, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees: “Regardless of the industry, we need people who can solve problems, write well, speak well, bring multiple perspectives to decision-making; we need people who are good managers, who are cross-culturally competent. All of that is liberal arts.”
But what, exactly, are the liberal arts? In the broadest sense, a liberal arts education is an approach to learning that involves diverse coursework so students develop a range of knowledge.
Liberal arts majors are often organized by subject, such as social sciences. Within the subjects, students may focus on a particular discipline, such as geography. But some schools offer a major in liberal arts or liberal studies, which provides an overview of many subjects instead of a single one.
Whether majors are identified as liberal arts may vary by academic institution. For example, some universities house the mathematics department in the college of liberal arts and sciences; others may offer math via the college of engineering.
Liberal arts graduates have degrees with concentrations in or work in fields such as commercial art and graphic design, communications, economics, English language and literature, fine arts, history, journalism, political science and government, psychology and sociology.
They may also increase their career options by getting additional education - and by taking steps while still in school to prepare for the labor force.
As a liberal arts student, you’ll typically take courses that involve research, analysis and writing, and that span several subject areas. In these courses,you develop both core skills and a range of knowledge that can be applied throughout a career.
Liberal arts courses that integrate technical instruction may help you gain technical competence, too.
“The liberal arts curriculum is changing, and students in these disciplines are learning to use new technologies,” says Mark Peltz, a dean of career development at Grinnell (IA) College. “Liberal arts students really are forward-thinking, innovative and creative in these fields.”
“The breadth and depth of a liberal arts education allows people to transfer their skills into new contexts,” adds Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. “Where rapidly changing technology means rapid obsolescence, that adaptability is more important than ever.”
To expand your career options, consider taking business or technical courses to supplement your degree. Doing so may qualify you to enter occupations with specific requirements, such as those in STEM fields.
A bachelor’s degree typically isn’t enough for entry-level jobs in some liberal arts occupations, such as sociologists and historians. So when deciding whether to get a master’s degree, it may be helpful to look at data for master’s degrees by field that show which workers enjoy a wage premium for continuing their education.
Majoring in liberal arts also provides a foundation for study toward a professional degree, such as law. Many types of graduate programs - including those as specialized as business and medicine - are open to qualified applicants from any field of study, including liberal arts.
And positioning yourself for employment in ways that go beyond the classroom - such as securing internships - is important no matter what your major.
– Domingo Angeles and Brian Roberts
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), www. bls.gov/careeroutlook/2017/article/liberal-arts.htm
About the Authors: Angeles and Roberts are economists in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
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