The ancient Egyptians supposedly had a saying: “Man, know thyself, and you are going to know the gods.” If I had to amend that statement to sum up this “Liberal Arts at Work” intersession class, it would probably be: “Liberal arts student, know thyself, thy interests, thy passions, thy summer jobs, thy accomplishments, thy favorite classes, thy internships, and thy travel experiences, and you are going to know thy dream job…eventually.”
All joking aside, many liberal arts students have wondered what they’ll do with their degrees and wondered if they were worth the time and the effort. I myself have wondered that, too. But after a few days considering my whole background in this course, I’m beginning to see that my focus in English provides me a very solid foundation upon which to build a career. And the same is true for any student with a similar background.
There’s probably not a single college student who hasn’t wondered what is the point of their degree or had relatives tell them that they should go into a more lucrative career like engineering or science. While it’s true that those more technical areas tend to make more money than liberal arts, it’s a stretch to say that a liberal arts background will leave a student unemployed. A 2014 report coauthored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems stated that that the unemployment rate for liberal arts graduates was 5.2 percent and 3.5 percent for workers aged 41-50, “just .04 percent higher than the rates for those with a professional or preprofessional degree.” That same report found that 4 out of 5 employers think “that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.”
The word “broad” is key to this discussion. According to the University of Kent, the number one skill employers are looking for is verbal communication, or the ability “to express…ideas clearly and confidently in speech.” Robert Morris University also noted that employers are looking for students who are “curious,” “adaptable,” and “problem-solvers,” all skills liberal arts students develop. Think about it: how many times have you studied a subject because it interested you? How many times did you start writing about it, hit a snag, and then found another way to finish that paper? How much information did you have to process and then distill into a coherent and understandable argument? All that trial and tribulation has made you more valuable than gold in employers’ eyes.
So far from being unmarketable, a liberal arts degree probably better prepares you for the workforce than any other degree! But even if we understand that, we still have questions: “What do I want to do with a liberal arts degree? What am I good at? How can I convince employers to hire me?”
As for what you want to do, I suggest trying what Katharine Brooks suggests in You Majored in What?: construct a Wandering Map. Take a blank sheet of paper and write down all the interesting things about yourself, whether that’s a certain job you held, an internship, or a cool place that you’ve been to. Whatever it is, write it down. Once you’ve got as much as possible, start looking for all the categories these different things belong in. For example, I wrote things like “martial arts,” “movies,” and “published poetry,” all of which indicates my strong interest in the arts. Then look at the themes connecting these items. Maybe playing college football prepared you to be a good team player for your last internship. Maybe your desire to work in a non-profit is related to your extensive volunteer experience. Whatever it is, the point of the map remains the same: learn what you’re most passionate about and see how all the different points are connected. It’ll give you a great idea of what to consider.
As for what you’re good at, try taking the CliftonStrengths Finder test. Created by psychologist Don Clifton, the test is designed to tell you what your five greatest strengths are out of 34 major themes, like “Achiever,” “Maximizer,” and “Context.” Each theme is made to tell you what your talents are and how you can turn them into your strengths. These can then be used not only to figure out what you’re good at but also to sell yourself to employers.
Let me demonstrate by discussing my own results. After taking the test, I learned that my five greatest talents are “Harmony,” “Deliberative,” “Restorative,” “Empathy,” and “Intellection.” This means, respectively, that I look for areas of agreement; I’m careful about making decisions; I’m good at problem-solving; I’m talented at sensing others’ emotions; and I like to think a lot. These characteristics can be useful to employers in some way. For example, employers want people who are good team players. Suppose I was in a group that split over a source of conflict. My strength of Harmony could be used to come to a consensus for the group and smooth out the tensions. My Empathy could also be helpful here in understanding everyone’s emotions, which could aid me in making peace. Being Restorative also factors into this situation in that I’m trying to solve the problem of the breakdown in communication, and being Deliberative could matter in that I don’t make any actions that could further ruin the group dynamic. Understanding these different strengths can help us understand what areas we can fill in for employers and what we can do best.
And that’s what matters the most: that we know ourselves and our passions. Forget about the salary, benefits, and unpaid vacation time. Well, don’t forget them, but don’t let them decide your future either. Find what makes you feel alive. As Harold Whitman once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go for that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”