Are Liberal Arts Degrees Still Valuable?

Korina Karampela talks to Sheila Curran and Suzanne Greenwald – the co-authors of the ‘Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads‘ – about the value of liberal arts education and whether it has changed due the recent economic recession.

  • How can a liberal arts degree set up young people for career success?

Today’s graduates enter a work world where they will likely change jobs and careers multiple times.  Liberal arts graduates, in some ways, have a certain advantage in the strategic use of their transferable skill sets.  With a strong foundation in problem solving, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and communication skills, to name a few, liberal arts grads navigate well in the real world of career adaptation.  Regardless of subject matter, they apply valuable professional skills in a variety of workplaces.

  • Did the recent economic recession change the career prospects of the liberal art graduates?

Yes. When the market constricts, liberal arts grads tend to feel it the most. Employers need to sift through hundreds of applications, and they can afford to be picky, selecting only those with the most relevant experience.  And there’s the rub.  Experience.  Liberal arts grads need to put their skill sets to the test. Real work experience, often through early internships, will help set their resumes apart.  Also, this is an excellent, relatively low risk way to get one’s feet wet in a particular field.  Or rule out one field to make way for another.  

"Real work experience, often through early internships, will help set their resumes apart" says Suzanne Greenwald.

“Real work experience, often through early internships, will help set their resumes apart” says Suzanne Greenwald

Only then, can liberal arts grads start to effectively articulate how they successfully used their skills to solve a certain problem, organize a project, communicate an idea, realize their potential. This will also help them learn to play to their strengths. Often, the “hook” for a liberal arts grad is a weak spot in the workplace, such as strong communication skills.

  • What is the most common misconception that people have about liberal arts degrees?

The biggest misconception is that liberal arts grads want to go into the field of their major.  But in fact, the Psychology major may be in interested in small business marketing and development.  The Russian Studies major may be interested in global health or the foreign service.  The English major may be interested in social media networks.  

There is this myth that studying liberal arts is a luxury.  That it’s a fast path to unemployment.  It’s certainly true that, even in the best colleges, jobs are hard to come by.  But, if students supplement their liberal arts education with critical, relevant work experience, emphasizing application of strengths, theirs is just as competitive as any other job seeker on the market. 

  • What are the 3 ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ young people who consider getting a liberal arts education need to be aware of?

    " There is this myth that studying liberal arts is a luxury" says Sheila Curran

    ” There is this myth that studying liberal arts is a luxury” says Sheila Curran

The Do’s are:

1. Do get as much work experience as possible.  Find internships that truly are learning experiences, not just “doing time” in an office making copies and getting coffee.

2. Do learn how to tell a compelling story about why you chose your course of study.  Then, connect the dots.  What does that course have to do with your professional interests and personal aspirations? 

3. Do build your connections web and learn how to effectively network. Start with alumni in fields that interest you. Keep refining your story and your interests through your conversations.

The Don’ts are:

1. Don’t wait until your final year to start thinking about your career. You’ll have already missed out on too many summers of potential work experience.

2. Don’t listen solely to your parents and friends. They love you, they support you, they’ve got your back.  But, they don’t often know what it takes to be successful in this modern-day economy.

3. Don’t burn any bridges.  For example, don’t accept a position then renege on an offer.  Don’t ignore the receptionist on your way in or your out of an interview.  Don’t make people angry because this is what you will be remembered for, not your sterling list of accolades and achievements.

The bottom line: To improve job prospects, liberal arts students need to aggressively pursue internships and other career-advancing opportunities while at school.

Korina Karampela is the founder of b4iapply, author of 2 books, consultant and speaker. She has worked in senior positions in the pharmaceutical industry for 12 years and has an MBA from MIT Sloan. Her b4iapply blog is recommended by The Guardian for professional development. She is the author of “b4iapply to college: the great little guide to success“.



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3 Responses to Are Liberal Arts Degrees Still Valuable?

  1. Pingback: MOOCs. part 2 | What's So Liberal about Liberal Arts?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow, this is a very good article, but it can be argued that those internships and “real work experience” can achieve the same results even without the degree. I think employers now are looking for hands on skills and certifications that back that up. Just because you graduated with a liberal arts degree does not mean that you necessarily have the skills that were mentioned above. We are in a highly technological world now, These skills are better demonstrated when a person takes an actual “skill based” class and succeeds getting the documentation that they can perform the skills at a certain level. I think the survival of the universities is to begin to shift to what the industry needs, especially now that the technology is here, 30 years ago and before, the above mentioned article was probably truer, since that generation was in the early stages of developing the technology. But now that the technology is here, companies want people who are familiar with the technology, and can manipulate it and/or improve on the existing systems. Liberal Arts degrees do very little to teach the technology that is out there, unfortunately, and thus the reason for the high unemployent rate.

  3. Gina Ney says:

    I agree with the authors that you can still combine a liberal arts degree with paid or volunteer work experience, internships and experiential learning, and still come out ahead. Now that many schools seem to be teaching to the tests, and students are taking as many AP classes as they can to get into a good university, when are they going to be able get that well-rounded education if not in college? I think the real reason many recent grads don’t have jobs is the lack of understanding of just what it takes to get hired in today’s competitive job market. The career center should be one of their first stops when they get to campus freshman year. This allows time for career exploration and research well ahead of actually needing to apply for positions. All of those great career workshops, webinars, and resources that most university career centers offer should get as much priority in students’ smart phones and calendars as hanging out with friends.

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