Lost in Translation: Matching Liberal Arts Majors to Job Titles
The first step in shaping a successful post grad career is imagining how your specific skills, knowledge, and experience will translate into a variety of job titles. This step can be challenging for liberal arts majors, especially when the title of a student’s degree does not match the title of the target job. Most history majors do not become professional historians. English majors do not always pursue careers as English teachers or writers. Not all linguistics majors choose jobs as foreign language teachers or interpreters. Do liberal arts majors really lead to meaningful and lucrative employment? And how do new grads move beyond defining their career aspirations by the title of their majors?
In 2014, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released a report titled How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment, which documented how liberal arts disciplines prepare graduates for long-term professional success. Authors Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly analyzed data from the 2010-11 US Census Bureau's American Community Survey and found that liberal arts majors at their peak earning ages (56-60 years) earn on average $2,000 more annually than individuals who majored in professional or pre-professional fields as undergraduates. Moreover, liberal arts majors who continue on to complete graduate or professional degrees experience a significant boost in earnings, an average of $20,000 annually. The unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates is 5.2 percent, well below the national average and nearly equivalent to the rate of those holding professional or pre-professional degrees.
Responding to Humphreys and Kelly’s analysis, AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider stated: "Recent attacks on the liberal arts by ill-informed commentators and policy makers have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts to individuals and our communities. As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions.”
If studies in liberal arts do indeed lead to successful careers in a variety of professions, how can graduates repackage their skills, knowledge, and experience in the application process to attract a wide range of employers? In his book, How to Get Any Job with Any Major, Donald Asher (known as “America’s Job Search Guru”) identifies the key skills that liberal arts majors can offer employers. Some of these include:
- Interpersonal communication (writing and speaking) li>
- Research and information retrieval
- Foreign language and/or cross-cultural knowledge
- Critical and analytical thinking
- Creative thinking
- Learning and synthesizing new ideas quickly
- Effective with ambiguity
- Functions well as a team member
Listing key skills on a resume or in a cover letter can help an employer envision how you might fit into a particular company’s needs and culture. Even better, consider describing your skills in more specific detail by tying them to tangible tasks. First, recall the types of assignments you completed in the courses taken within your degree program: weekly discussions, written assignments such as critical essays or analyses of data, or research leading to an annotated bibliography and research paper. Next, consider the micro-tasks required to complete those assignments. You might come up with a list that looks like this:
Performing a critical self-evaluation of your acquired skills will better enable you to discuss what you can bring to potential employers. It will also help you sort through job postings and relate to the language used to describe job requirements. Consider creating a portfolio of work, from both your undergraduate studies and previous employment, which illustrates the best examples of your acquired skills.
For the liberal arts graduate, the job search is often a matter of translation. Successful applicants discuss their knowledge, skills, and experience in job-specific language that matches the needs of employers.
Asher, Donald (2004). How to Get Any Job with Any Major. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press.
Humphreys, Debra & Patrick Kelly (2014, Jan. 22). How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/nchems-report
New Report Documents That Liberal Arts Disciplines Prepare Graduates for Long-Term Professional Success. (2014, Jan. 22). Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/press/press-releases/new-report-documents-liberal-arts-disciplines-prepare-graduates-long-term