People say that history degrees, English degrees, and more or less all humanities degrees are useless.
No offense to those people in your life, but that’s pretty ignorant.
They’re not entirely wrong about the skills mismatch between liberal arts programs and entry-level jobs, though—nor are they entirely right. Liberal arts programs teach many soft skills that need to be honed over the years, but they don’t always teach you how to handle things like:
- Light project management
- Financial management
- Industry-specific software
That’s what a lot of entry-level positions are expected to handle these days, while all of those soft skills of yours are expected of the executives and managers doing all the hiring (the irony). It’s a pretty big mismatch between what you were trained to do and what employers expect from you immediately out of school.
Part of that is just corporate delusion—employers don’t want to train people because many of them have taken the short-term view only, letting their fears eclipse their better judgments:
- They can be more concerned with shaving the salary budget than acquiring an employee who brings tons of value to the table.
- They often fear that employees will leave after being trained, leaving them empty-handed.
It’s not a clearly measurable thing, but it’s certainly a prevailing attitude these days. Instead of taking on training, many employers offload that responsibility onto job seekers. Not a winning strategy, but the 2008 Recession and the need for ever-growing profit margins has swung the popularity pendulum toward job-ready programs, leaving liberal arts students without the entry-level skills they used to acquire on the job.
Despite all of that, there’s a lot to be said for the liberal arts in the workplace, and it’s still worthwhile. You just need to understand how to make it all work.
Are Bachelor’s Degrees Still Financially Worthwhile?
First of all, a lot of people ask if getting a bachelor’s degree is still worth it these days. That’s still a resounding yes, and you can read why right here.
If you’re in a rush, the highlights are:
- Bachelor degree holders still make twice as much as high school grads.
- Graduate degree holders make three times as much as high school grads.
- Earning a degree earns you quite nearly an extra $1,000,000 over your lifetime.
- You still have 80% of your working life to earn after paying off student loans.
- Educated people report being happier in polls, in case happiness is important to you.
So it’s still worth getting a degree, even if it takes liberal arts students longer to find jobs out of the gates.
Here’s what liberal arts students bring to the table and what makes it useful in the working world.
Most People Can’t Write, But Liberal Arts Students Can (Most of the Time)
Yes, most people suck at writing. My first boss was a narcissistic investor with a background in engineering, and he thought he was the best writer in the area. It was a painful experience, and he hired several STEM grads to back his point of view instead of producing high-quality written content (the business’ whole service).
And these people are everywhere. They think that they’re good at writing because it’s a “soft skill,” and measurement is entirely subjective.
But it’s not. It’s really, really not.
You know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever had to read bad writing, then you know how wrong that attitude really is. If you’ve ever seen an awful movie, then you know it, too.
And that doesn’t mean that chemists and engineers can’t be good writers. They absolutely can! But liberal arts grads will have the advantage in the realm of communication for several reasons:
- They’ve spent 4+ years taking writing-intensive courses.
- They’re more likely to have taken actual writing courses.
- They (should) know what the rhetorical triangle is and how to use it.
- They’ve studied literature across the ages and the historical contexts where they worked (and didn’t).
But liberal arts students can do all that… if they were paying attention in class. And many don’t, unfortunately, but that’s another discussion for another day.
Writing underpins so much of what liberal arts grads go on to do out there:
- Company memos and reports
- Press releases
- Content writing
- Community management
- Sales collateral
- Parsing analytics reports
- News articles
- Speeches, emails, and newsletters
It’s a big deal. It’s not the only important thing you have to offer, but it’s a flagship skill that you can sharpen even further than your fellow liberal arts grads have done so far. Make this skill yours to command.
Other Skills Liberal Arts Grads Bring to the Table
Writing isn’t the only skill that you can bring. Take a look at these, for starters. Many of them are soft skills, making them more important at mid and high-level jobs.
- Good old-fashioned research
- Synthesizing information
- Abstract thinking
- Rhetoric (presentations, marketing, negotiation, etc.)
- Cross-cultural knowledge (yes, it’s important)
- Foreign Languages
- Can deal with ambiguity
Want to move into higher positions later in life? Management? Executive leadership? Consulting, even? Then you need some of those skills.
Critical thinking is there if you work for it, but the same can easily be said of STEM fields. It depends on the person.
Liberal Arts Feeds Important Professions
You can do a lot with those skills. Take a look at this list of professions suited for the liberal arts skill set below.
- Researchers and Think Tanks
- Human Resources
- Technical Writing
- Business Analyst
- Financial Planning
- Operational Management
- Political Science
Those fields aren’t too shabby. Many of them pay quite well beyond entry level positions, even if those entry-level jobs will make you work for your money.
Many of those fields are incredibly competitive. That’s what happens when the number of bachelor’s degree holders rises by 580% in under 50 years, unfortunately.
Tech Companies Like Liberal Arts Grads
Someone working in an established tech company once told me that my liberal arts background was “the brightest feather in my cap.”
He’s not the only person with that opinion. Tech companies have found that they need to include liberal arts graduates to inform things like product development, not just marketing.
Some research out there suggests that tech companies really like to hire people with liberal arts backgrounds to complement their technical workforce. Without getting too carried away (as this study was based on LinkedIn estimates), it looks like tech companies hired more liberal arts majors than engineers or computer science majors by a factor of 10% between 2010 and 2013.
There’s plenty to rein in there:
- It was just a 3-year period
- It’s based on estimates
- It might have been a short-term trend
All of that could be true. But it does show that tech companies have identified a niche for liberal arts majors in their organizations, and you can definitely earn employment with them.
Don’t worry if you see an article saying something like, “this interpretive dancer does robot choreography at Stanford for a PhD program!” That’s just some classic wow factor to hold your attention—and obviously the 0.001% of people out there. The rest of that video contains valuable insights, though, and you should watch it.
More productive are the insights we get from these companies:
- A fair amount of tech CEOs these days studied liberal arts. Not all or most, but more than you’d think.
- Liberal arts grads bring empathy, emotional intelligence, and a holistic view to algorithms that need to anticipate human needs.
- Liberal arts backgrounds help people ask the right questions, especially “large-scale human problems.”
- Vocational training can’t train you for the “job of tomorrow,” but a liberal arts background does help you adapt to it when massive workplace changes occur.
I’d encourage you to wear it like a badge instead of hiding it. No, you’re not going to replace engineers or software developers. But you’re going to learn everything you can, think laterally, and cross the vertical silos that separate management from developers from operations from marketing, and so on.
Tech Leaders with Liberal Arts Backgrounds
- Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb
- Mandy Ginsberg, CEO of Match Group (dating sites)
- Jack Ma, Chairman of Alibaba
- Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube (a big Google property)
- Stewart Butterfield, Co-Founder and CEO of Slack
- Carley Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard (former)
- Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn
- Whitney Wolfe, CEO of Bumble
- John Hanke, CEO of Niantic (made Pokemon GO)
- Bill Gates was enrolled in a pre-law program before dropping out to start Microsoft.
- Mark Zuckerberg was studying psychology as well as computer science before dropping out to start Facebook.
If you still don’t believe that tech companies value the liberal arts, then you can read more about the upward hiring trend from these publications:
- Washington Post: Tech companies are hiring more liberal arts majors than you think
- Forbes: That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket
- PBS: How these humanities graduates are finding jobs in Silicon Valley
- Maclean’s: Yes, you will get a job with that arts degree
- Huffpost: Liberal Arts is the Foundation for Professional Success in the 21s Century
- EdSurge: As Tech Companies Hire More Liberal Arts Majors, More Students Are Choosing STEM Degrees
Leaders Get Paid Big Bucks
Ever had the impression that earning an expensive MBA doesn’t necessarily make you a better leader?
You’re not wrong.
DDI, a leadership consulting company, did a study on a sample of the 2016 graduating class and produced some interesting findings. Chief among them was that undergraduates from liberal arts programs scored better in leadership skills than students from business and engineering programs.
That’s not a hard skill you can claim on your resume for an entry-level job, of course. Hiring managers will just roll their eyes and move on to the next application if you do. What’s important here is that you can not only catch up to STEM grads’ salary ranges in time—you can surpass them by growing into an empathetic, motivational, and nurturing leader at some point in the future.
Company leaders make good money. Not every leader has a liberal arts background, but a very good portion of them do. Those soft skills people mock about liberal arts disciplines actually dictate who’s a viable company leader (and who isn’t). Lean into those skills and nurture them as you grow—don’t be ashamed of them.
Liberal Arts Degrees Impart Education, Not Vocational Training
Last but not least is the part that so much of society tends to forget: liberal arts students aren’t choosing a career path at the same time as their majors, like engineering or software development.
It’s also about education, not just vocational training. Yes, you need to justify your financial returns after getting that degree. And you will. But there’s more to education than just getting job-ready skills.
That’s why it’s called an “education.”
You get to learn about humanity’s stories, belief systems, their histories, the underlying reasons why people do what they do, and even why civilizations rise and fall. You get to learn the mechanics of language, and you read case studies on everything from successful business founders to history’s dirtiest secrets, and everything in between.
Case in point: if more people took history classes, then they might recognize the “fake news” plague on today’s society is the post-modern equivalent of 19th-century America’s “yellow journalism” problem, which is thought to have swayed public opinion on supporting the Spanish-American War.
Bismarck also fabricated a pretense with “fake news” to unite German principalities around Prussia, creating modern-day Germany. Decades later, Mussolini used “fake news” to create an imperial narrative for Italy. I’m not even going to bother with North Korea.
If only someone working at Facebook had known all that before fake news used it as a vehicle to sway a federal election.
There’s more than enough room to learn new technical and job-specific skills as well. That needs to happen in liberal arts programs, without question.
But getting rid of the liberal arts would throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I’s the focus on learning history, languages, literature, and cross-cultural knowledge that contributes toward the skills companies really want from leaders:
- Understanding the bigger picture
- Infusing empathy and emotional intelligence to products and services
- Synthesizing information and ideas
- Communicating to audiences on their terms.
You don’t get any of that by training someone for one job and only one job.
You will have to grapple with not having a career path laid out before you, though. That’s also what this website is about, and there is most definitely a path to success. It’s just not the same for everyone.