4 Tips for Making the Most of Liberal Arts Degrees

Liberal arts grads may have a harder time securing a job after graduation, but it can be done.

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Type "liberal arts degrees are," into Google, and the search engine suggests you finish the line with "worthless" or "useless." And how should a liberal arts student respond to that charge? As their friends with degrees in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—see their courses on lists of "hottest majors," liberal arts students face different lists and a harsher job market. 

According to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in November 2010, "liberal arts graduates receive fewer offers, less compelling offers, and at dramatically lower compensation levels."

The report cites one reason employers may be having a hard time finding and hiring liberal arts graduates: new "technological approaches to identifying and evaluating candidates."

The report adds, "The skills that these graduates bring to the table may well be very important for the employer but are more difficult to define and identify in a short-hand, data base-driven process."

[Avoid these common college résumé mistakes.]

But that challenge doesn't mean a student who loves philosophy should major in engineering because it may be a degree that more easily lands jobs.

"If you major in something you don't enjoy, you're not going to excel at it," explains Lesley Mitler, president of Priority Candidates Inc., which helps college students and recent graduates land their first jobs.

Here are four ways liberal arts students can ease the job search:

1. Know your strengths: Sarah Romeo graduated with an English degree from Fordham University in New York, and she's now an art assistant at the Penguin Group publishing company.

"I've found that my writing skills have really helped my negotiating skills as well. And I've saved the company a lot of money in arts and image purchasing because I know how to reason my way out of a paper bag," she says.

Romeo also thinks her liberal arts education has helped her think on her feet.

[Explore the rankings of National Liberal Arts Colleges.]

"I know people at my job who will spend a long time trying to figure out what they need to say, whether it's in a meeting or in an E-mail. And I feel like I save a lot of time because I can eloquently say it and come up with plenty of ideas on the fly," she says.

2. Supplement your courses: Mitler, at Priority Candidates, thinks internships can be particularly valuable if taken in a field unrelated to the student's major. A liberal arts major, for example, could intern at a finance company.

[Learn why non-summer internships are a better fit for some students.]

"That real world experience will positively impact your ability to get a job post-graduation, because you're developing particular skills in a field or different fields, even if that's not what you're studying at school," she says.

Mitler also suggests that students take a few specialized classes outside their major and beyond the required electives. Liberal arts students who are interested in finance, for example, could test out courses in mathematics and economics. That way, Mitler says, they'll have a few rudimentary skills that may qualify them for an entry-level finance job without having majored in the subject.

"They're called entry-level jobs because they're entry level," she says.

So even if finance majors may have a learning curve on liberal arts students, the latter has a greater number of "softer" skills—such as critical thinking, reasoning, and communicating—that make them a desirable long-term hire, Mitler explains.

3. Showcase your skills: Kathleen Powell, director of career exploration and development at Denison University in Ohio, says that the best way for students to tell employers why they're the best candidate is by proving it with examples.

"Examples tell the story of how they conducted research, functioned in an internship, presented at a conference, played a sport, or held a leadership role within a student club or organization," Powell says.

Mitler adds that if a student works on a large research paper, she often encourages them to bring it to the interview so they can better show the employer how they planned and organized the report.