Are liberal arts degrees really “useless?”

“A liberal arts degree? What are you going to do with that?”

Pretty much anything you want, as long as you’re willing to learn. You can thrive when automation hits, and you can even lead a technology company if you choose.

The dreaded question: “what are you going to do with a history degree?”

Susan Wojcicki may not have known the answer to that when she effectively co-founded Google in her garage alongside Larry Page and Sergey Brin, but I’d say her options are pretty good.

There’s a tendency to point to STEM as the only sane option for school because a handful of disciplines on that side of campus feed into booming industries right now. Computer Science, Engineering, and Nursing are all the rage right now because they’re in demand.

But that doesn’t represent the entire working world or its needs. Education isn’t just about getting a job, either, although it should absolutely be a big part of the equation.

You’re left with this sinking feeling that you somehow chose wrong, even thbough your teachers and parents encouraged you to do take this path.

Did you actually make the wrong call?

No.

Liberal arts programs aren’t designed to train you for a specific career path, which is why they don’t lead to any single professional area. What you really want to know is if you’ll be spending the rest of your life serving coffee and barely getting by on the rent cheque.

The answer to that is also a resounding no.

Here’s why:

  • Liberal arts majors go on to make perfectly adequate salaries that match professional programs, on average.
  • Soft skills make liberal arts professionals ideal for leadership and other high-level positions, which tend to make a lot of money.
  • Liberal arts students are suited for crucial roles in society, including journalists, lawyers, marketers, educators, researchers, analysts, policy creators, and financial planners.
  • Liberal arts programs are only going to become more important as automation and off-shoring replaces repetitive white-collar work in the western world.

 The liberal arts are not only useful, but crucial—and they’re only going to become more important to the working world as time goes on. This is why the liberal arts are absolutely worth it.

Table of Contents

Liberal arts graduates make good money over time

Liberal arts graduates make great CEOs

Liberal arts unlock important career paths

Hardly anyone else can write, and it's a critical skill

The soft skills get you promoted into leadership positions

Liberal arts graduates make good money over time

There’s a strong view out there that liberal arts graduates are doomed to stay unemployed or underemployed for their entire lives, earning minimum wage at Starbucks. That’s incredibly misleading, according to the employment and salary data out there.

The answer isn’t nearly as simple as “jobs or no jobs,” but it can be boiled down to 3 statements based on hard data:

  1. Liberal arts graduates share equal unemployment rates with STEM and professional program graduates right out of college.
  2. Liberal arts graduates experience higher underemployment rates than STEM and professional programs right out of college.
  3. At their peak earning periods, liberal arts graduates earn a little bit more than professional program graduates and about 75% of what STEM graduates earn.

Take a look at this bar chart comparing salaries during immediate graduation and. peak careers:

  • Liberal arts students start out a little bit ahead of the pack right after graduation (ages 21-25).
  • STEM students end up with the highest salaries at the peak of their careers (ages 56-60).

Bar chart measuring average salaries at graduation and peak career between graduates of liberal arts programs, STEM programs, and professional training programs.

Liberal arts graduates find survival jobs as fast as anyone else, take longer to build careers suited to their education, and then end up earning a good amount of money. They are by no means staying underemployed forever. Yes, STEM graduates do earn more on average by their peak careers, but graduating with a liberal arts degree isn’t going to doom you to a life of serving coffee.

You’ll earn a good salary either way.

A word to the wise: the rise of automation and the business trend to off-shore technical white collar work is going to throw these numbers off-balance over the next 10-20 years. Don’t jump into a purely STEM or purely literary program just yet! Get a solid footing in both to arm yourself for the future.

Liberal arts can groom you for leadership (and leaders earn more)

Ever had the impression that earning an expensive MBA or an engineering degree 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 just about every STEM program out there.

For those keeping score, Business ranked the highest out of all 7 education types for leadership skills in business—and the Humanities ranked second. Leaders with a Humanities background scored higher in overall leadership qualities than those with backgrounds in Engineering, Law, Information Technology, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences.

Even better, leaders with Humanities backgrounds can leverage three of their 5 strengths to carve out a niche where Business-educated leaders fall behind:

  1. Effective communication skills
  2. A results-first approach to work.
  3. Inspiring excellence in others.

That’s good news for liberal arts students! It means that the skills you develop throughout your education and career prime you for leadership (read: promotion) later in life.

And guess what? Leaders get paid well.

“According to both Anders and Stross, the ever-expanding tech sector is now producing career opportunities in fields — project management, recruitment, human relations, branding, data analysis, market research, design, fund-raising and sourcing, to name some — that specifically require the skills taught in the humanities. To thrive in these areas, one must be able to communicate effectively, read subtle social and emotional cues, make persuasive arguments, adapt quickly to fluid environments, interpret new forms of information while translating them into a compelling narrative and anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arise.

Programs like English or history represent better preparation, the two authors argue, for the demands of the newly emerging “rapport sector” than vocationally oriented disciplines like engineering or finance.” [Source]

Timothy Aubrey, reviewing works by George Anders and Randall Stross

English Professor, Baruch College, City University of New York

Here’s the rub, though: you can’t really list soft skills on your resume. Because they’re so hard to quantify,  nobody is going to believe you if they see them written on your resume or cover letter. Hiring managers will just roll their eyes and move on to the next application if you do that. 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 throughout your career.

Company leaders make good money. Not every leader has a liberal arts background, but a very good portion of them do. Those soft skills that people mock actually dictate who’s a viable company leader and who isn’t (take a second look at how engineers scored in that study).

Keep focusing on building hard skills early in your career, but don’t shy away from your soft skills as you grow, either. Lean into them.

Liberal arts graduates make great CEOs

For all the emphasis put on programming, engineering, nursing, and business school, some of the most successful people in the world come from a liberal arts background. What sets these people apart is that they used that background as a springboard to learn everything they could and to see the big picture. They didn’t stick with companies that believed in measuring success through how many words an employee can type per minute.

These people leveraged their background in the liberal arts to become well-rounded business professionals. I bet you’ve heard of somet of them.

Susan Wojcicki

Susan Wojcicki

CEO, YouTube

Susan Wojcicki graduated with a Bachelors Degree in History from Harvard in 1990, was a founding member of Google, and now runs YouTube as its CEO.

Jack Ma

Jack Ma

CEO, Alibaba

Jack Ma graduated with a Bachelors of English Literature in 1988, worked as a teacher, and then founded one of the world’s largest eCommerce sites: Alibaba.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

CEO, Oprah Winfrey Network

Oprah Winfrey earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from Tenesse State, and has become one of the world’s most famous philanthropists.

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina

CEO, Hewlett-Packard

Carly Firiona earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy and Medieval History from Stanford. She served as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005.

Brian Chesky

Brian Chesky

CEO, Airbnb

Brian Chesky graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design, then worked as an industrial designer before founding Airbnb.

Whitney Wolfe

Whitney Wolfe

CEO, Bumble

Whitney Wolfe earned a Bachelors Degree in International Studies, co-founded Tinder  in 2012, and then founded Bumble in 2014, serving as its CEO.

Stewart Butterfield

Stewart Butterfield

CEO, Slack

After getting his Bachelors Degree in Philosophy, then co-founding Flickr in 2003, Stewart Butterfield co-founded Slack in 2014 and became its CEO.

John Hanke

John Hanke

CEO, Niantic Games

Hanke earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin, joined Google for 11 years, and then became CEO of Niantic (which made Pokemon GO).

All of those CEOs used their liberal arts backgrounds as a means to see what others didn’t, often infusing customer empathy and a holistic business outlook into their companies. That is why they’ve become so successful.

It’s also part of the reason why technology companies want to balance their engineering and software development talent with professionals from the liberal arts:

“The study points to estimates from LinkedIn that suggest ‘between 2010 and 2013, the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from undergrad outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10 percent.’ ” [Source]

Sydney Jonson

Assistant Editor, Edsurge (former)

Successful professionals balance their technical skills with skills and perspectives earned from their liberal arts backgrounds. In fact, most of them used their liberal arts backgrounds as a platform to acquire additional skills and knowledge down the road. 

Liberal arts unlock important career paths

Not everyone gets to be a CEO, of course. There are plenty of roles that liberal arts graduates can and do fill outside of the executive suite. Many of them are quite important to society, too, and even technical jobs of the future are going to require the skills one learns from a liberal arts education.

Just ask this executive from Intuit (a $5 billion financial technology company) what he thinks of your liberal arts education:

“The “STEM only” mindset is misguided because it focuses narrowly on job preparation. It assumes that the rise in advanced technology in the workplace means most career opportunities will be those requiring highly technical skills, and students should therefore focus their studies vocationally…. As technology and automation tools handle an increasing number of tasks in the workplace, these uniquely human qualities will be especially crucial for today’s graduates because the jobs that remain will be those that can’t easily be performed by a robot or a computer…

My quick answer: don’t ditch that liberal arts degree.” [Source]

Alex Chriss

Chief Product Officer, Small Business, Intuit ($5 billion annual revenue)

He’s right on the money. The jobs of today and tomorrow require more technical skills than than jobs from a decade ago, but they won’t carry professionals on their own for much longer. That’s why liberal arts majors can bring a competitive advantage to the workplace, starting with these career areas:

U

Journalism

Journalism isn’t dead. It’s evolving. The Internet has facilitated the rise of fake news, but it’s also empowered writers and researchers to tackle niche subjects that never used to make it into newspapers.

Law

History graduates do beautifully here, leveraging their skills in research, argumentation, abstract thought, and the ability to identify patterns. The dark sense of humour probably helps.

Education

There’s a reason schools ahve trouble finding math teachers: mathematicians don’t have a background in communication, and they may not have spent 4 years practicing soft skills in group seminars.

Think tanks

We understand the world through literature and data. Think tanks, policy groups, and researchers make that happen. The world is undergoing big changes, and we need think tanks to help us adapt.

Entertainment

You can get into entertainment through all kinds of programs, but most forms of entertainment need writers: television, radio, games, novels, comics—they all need writers.

z

Marketing

Marketing is a double-edged sword. It’s a growing industry, but there are too many snake oil salesmen to count. You’ll get ahead here with skill development and strategy.

Human resources

Today’s hiring landscape is cold, broken, and robotic. I discovered this early on in my unemployment stint, and I can tell you that a little bit of communication and empathy will go a long way.

l

Technical writing

Technology is complicated—not everyone can be an expert! That’s where technical writers come in. Isolate the mechanics of how things work for everyone else on the team.

Financial planning

Financial planners have never been more needed, but word on the street is that they can’t get enough people who can speak plain english. There’s more to it than financial literacy.

Non-profits

It is staggering just how much money not-for-profit organizations raise in our communities. Interested in even planning, relationship building, and marketing? Start here.

Sales

Most people don’t like the idea of working in sales, but you don’t have to work in a call center. Work this skill into every other kind of role you hold and you could get promoted to sales manager.

Politics

Poling, statistical anlysis, policy development, speech writing, campaign management, community outreach…Big money changes hands in politicss, even locally.

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. You can get your foot in the door for any of these industries with the right combination of courses, certifications, portfolio projects, and networking.

Even lawyers start as freshmen who don’t know exactly what they want to do in life, but you can absolutely build a fulfilling career in any of these professional fields (and beyond) with a liberal arts degree.

Hardly anyone else can write, and it’s a critical skill

Did you know that writing is the third-most desired skill in a new hire?

According to surveys conducted by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, it comes in close behind oral communication and teamwork skills.

  • Oral Communication 85% 85%
  • Teamwork skills in diverse groups 83% 83%
  • Written Communication 82% 82%
  • Critical thinking and analytics reasoning 81% 81%
  • Complex problem solving 70% 70%
  • Information literacy 68% 68%
  • Innovation and creativity 65% 65%
  • Technological skills 60% 60%
  • Quantitative reasoning 56% 56%

Source: Association of American Colleges & Universities

Most people suck at writing even though it’s critical to success in the workplace, and that is a core advantage for liberal arts graduates. It’s definitely become one of mine.

Case in point: an old boss of mine was a narcissistic investor with a background in engineering, and he thought he was the best writer in the city. Naturally, he decided to create a textbook-writing company—but instead of listening to what the employees with the writing backgrounds had to say, he hired people without any writing experience who followed his word as gospel truth.

It was painful to watch as the business deteriorated from the inside out. It closed down within a couple of years, unsurprisingly.

And these people are everywhere. They think that they’re good at writing because it’s a “soft skill.” They believe that the measurement of written work is entirely subjective.

But it’s not. It’s really, really not. Let’s take a page from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing to see this dynamic in action (you’ll get a chuckle, too):

You’ve probably had a similar experience already. If you’ve ever had to deal with awful writing, then you know how widespread (and flat-out wrong) that attitude really is.

There’s a reason for that. According to a study from Partnership for 21st Skills, employers think that a lot of new graduates lack writing skills. Specifically:

  • 46.4% of graduates with a 2-year diploma have deficient writing skills.
  • 26.2% of graduates with a 4-year degree have deficient writing skills.

Take a look at these pie charts to get a sense of how many people that really is:

That doesn’t mean that chemists and engineers can’t be good writers. They absolutely can be! But as a liberal arts graduate, you have years of experience over graduates from other disciplines here—and that’s because liberal arts disciplines tend to be literary by nature. If you graduated in History, Philosophy, English Literature, or a stream of Cultural Studies, then you have a particular advantage here for several reasons:

  1. You’ve spent 4 years taking writing-intensive courses.
  2. You’re more likely to have taken an actual writing course (this is super important).
  3. You know how to use the rhetorical triangle to make air-tight arguments.
  4. You’ve studied literature in various forms, understanding where, when, and why it’s effective.

That’s a killer advantage for you as a recent graduate. Having worked with plenty of programmers, executives, small business owners, and even a few investors, I can tell you that very few of them communicate effectively through writing. Even most marketing people don’t seem to write very effectively, if we’re being honest here.

And that’s a shame, because mastering communication is part and parcel of “information literacy,” a highly valued white collar skill in today’s professional landscape.

And you can build on that skill as a writer to outshine all of them. You might even outshine specialists in other areas with your ability to distill ideas with more clarity and to pitch them with more precision.

The importance of writing skills in the workplace

Writing underpins so much of what liberal arts grads go on to do out there. The skills that arts programs impart are almost guaranteed to put you on a career path in which you’ll engage in these tasks:

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Copywriting

Conveying a message is the heart of sales and marketing, which is the key to growing most businesses out there, if not all of them. Persuasive writing is an incredible skill that build relationships for brands of all kinds, making an emotional connection whre none existed before.

Proposals

Proposals bring ideas to the people that need to approve and fund them, making them crucial for NGOs, agencies, and even corporate initiatives. This is how projects begin in most places, including startups. You may need to convince investors, too.

Company memos

Corporations from the 20th century lived on memos, which have evolved into a way to facilitate and scale company culture in the age of the startup (i.e. now). You’ll still find these in some form through Slack, email, and project management platforms.

Content writing

This has caught on in the last decade as a core skill in digital marketing. It merges strategy, research, and persuasive writing to create a knowledge base for companies that acquires, nurtures, and converts leads into customers.

Sales and collateral

Some of the best salespeople out there work their magic in person, but you can’t shmooze every decision-maker in every company. Writing for sales bridges the gaps between those meetings to win business.

News and press releases

News and journalism never went away, even if they’re not making as much money as the glory days. You’ll also need to write news pieces for company press releases, tradeshow material, and everything of the sort.

Community management

Public relations isn’t what it used to be. You won’t just draft stuffy press releases—you’ll manage your company’s brand in micro-moments over social media, webinars, and affiliate relationships.

Distilling complexity

Writing isn’t just about persuasion—it’s also about bridging the gap between experts and non-experts. This tends to take the form of reporting on performance metrics, like web analytics or business goals.

Writing is a big deal. It’s not the only important thing you have to offer, but it’s a flagship skill that liberal arts graduates can sharpen further and further throughout their careers to win where other experts might not.

Make this skill yours to command and you’ll find that it can also amplify the effectiveness of your other skills—even unrelated things like coding. Being able to crystallize and convey your ideas is the key to moving into other roles, and plenty of business leaders out there agree. You don’t need to believe me, though. Believe Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp:

“If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. [His/her] writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing clear writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.”

Jason Fried

CEO, Basecamp

Personally, I’ve found that I’m quite effective in roles involving web analytics and digital strategy because I can explain things clearly to executives and other department heads who lack the expertise, such as:

  • What traffic fluctuations mean.
  • What caused a certain trend and how to amplify or counteract it.
  • How to forecast based on conversion rates.

And guess what? Those executives come to me for things outside of my job description because even they need someone who can distill complex ideas to get at the point. This has increased my prominence every company I’ve worked for so far, and it made me difficult to replace.

  • Editing and proofreading award submissions? Check.
  • Becoming the go-to copywriting guy? Check.
  • Submiting strategy proposals to investors? Check.

Mastering your writing skills actually accentuates all of your other skills to everyone else in the room. That’s why it’s not just a convenient skill in its own right. It’s critical to your employability as a liberal arts graduate.

The soft skills get you promoted into leadership positions

Writing isn’t the only skill that you can bring, and employers know it. Let’s take another look at that list of desired skills, as reported by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

  • Oral Communication 85% 85%
  • Teamwork skills in diverse groups 83% 83%
  • Written Communication 82% 82%
  • Critical thinking and analytics reasoning 81% 81%
  • Complex problem solving 70% 70%
  • Information literacy 68% 68%
  • Innovation and creativity 65% 65%
  • Technological skills 60% 60%
  • Quantitative reasoning 56% 56%

I left “oral communication” unhighlighted because, honestly, it’s arguably a hard skill these days. Still, look at that list! They’re soft skills, not hard skills that come with one particular program over another.

And they’re all things you can learn, nurture, and master with a liberal arts background.

Those skills are geared more toward mid- and upper-level positions, true. They’re also not straight replacements for other hard skills. You can’t program an application with leadership skills, obviously. But it shows that there’s a lot of opportunity to grow with organizations by leveraging those soft skills… after you get your foot in the door with hard skills, too.

You see, the future of work isn’t about just hard skills or soft skills. It’s about merging them both to become a professional powerhouse that can spot trends, create a vision, and implement it. I’m not a visionary, of course. But Steve Jobs was:

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”  [Source]

Steve Jobs

CEO (former), Apple

Steve Jobs isn’t the only person out there who thinks so, either. After surveying executives around the world, the World Economic Forum produced a global challenge insight report that outlines the most high-paying skills for 2020.

Here’s how they rank:

  1. Complex problem-solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordination capabilities
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Decision-making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

Why are soft skills important in the workplace? Automation is coming.

Look at how many of those are soft skillsjust about all of them. There’s a reason for that: automation. A report from McKinsey and Company estimated that as many as 800 million jobs worldwide could be effected by or even lost to automation by 2030. The report was published in November 2017.

%

of today's jobs (or less) can be fully automated.

%

of today's jobs could be automated by 30% or more.

By the numbers, automation will most likely replace only 15% of work across the globe, but that’s not the same as replacing 15% of jobs.

6 in 10 jobs for today’s market cover tasks and responsibilities of which 30% or more could be automated. That doesn’t mean 15% of jobs will disappear. That means most of those jobs will need to adjust themselves to perform new work, filling the vacuum where that soon-to-be-automated 30% used to live.

In fact, fewer than 5% of today’s jobs could be fully automated, according to that same report. But as automation grows, the job market’s focus will shift to include more and more soft skills that empower people to accomplish more with automation at their disposal. Liberal arts could very well play a role to fill the gap as those technical roles evolve to include new responsibilities.

Automation is going to change the way that we work across most industries. Soft skills are going to play a big role in redefining who pulls ahead in the professional landscape as a result. You’ll still need technical skills, but the professionals who will pull ahead of everyone else will merge their specialties with soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication, and lateral thinking.

Listen to what Ravi Kumar, President of Infosys, has to say:

“Last year alone this compounding problem resulted in more than 2.4 million vacant STEM jobs — that’s a figure larger than the population of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the nation. Just two years before, the U.S. graduated only 568,000 students in STEM disciplines. It doesn’t take a STEM grad to see that there’s a basic math problem here.

And with so many people assuming that STEM jobs must be filled by STEM talent, it’s easy to see why roughly 40% of the American public believes we’re in a crisis.

That’s where liberal arts graduates can fill a critical need.” [Source]

Ravi Kumar

President, Infosys ( $11.8 billion annual revenue)

Liberal arts  graduates do need to acquire more hard skills to get a foot in the door, but they also bring skills that haven’t gone out of style in the last 70 years. These skills get more important as you move higher up the professional ladder, and not all of them are soft skills, either:

  • Good old-fashioned research
  • Synthesizing information (part of “information literacy”)
  • Abstract thinking (read: strategy and trend-spotting)
  • Rhetoric and persuasion
  • Cross-cultural knowledge in a globalized market
  • Foreign languages
  • Being able to deal with ambiguity

Want to move into higher positions later in life? Management? Executive leadership? Consulting, even? Then you need to learn these kinds of soft skills over time. Liberal arts programs don’t have a monopoly on soft skills, but they do tend to facilitate them beyond a controlled laboratory, which is exactly where they’re most useful.

The future of the workforce literally depends it.

The verdict: are liberal arts degrees really useless?

Far from it. Liberal arts graduates go on to make rewarding careers for themselves with solid pay, and there are plenty of paths from which to choose. Even better, people with liberal arts backgrounds already have a critical piece of the puzzle to survive and thrive in the automated future of work.

Liberal arts graduates do not spend their lives serving coffee, nor do they pursue useless jobs. Liberal arts graduates go on to be journalists, lawyers, teachers, fundraisers, and policy creators. They make the world a better place with lateral thinking and an eye for the big picture.

It’s not the only path to success. But it is the foundation for lifelong learning and cross-pollinating skills for the future, making it the first step on your path to long-term success.

Are you ready to take the next step toward a job?