8 Surprising (and Not-So-Surprising) Job Skills Gained from a Liberal Arts Degree
Many, if not most of us liberal arts students will not find jobs with the same title as our degrees. For example, after my successful double major with good grades and multiple internships and student jobs, I am neither a “comparative literature-ist” or a sociologist.
That’s OK with me.
Some students pursue a particular major with a clear vision of what this will mean for their lives and careers post-graduation. They pursue specific, career-oriented paths (such as engineering, pre-med, or journalism), or are so passionate about academics that they plan to continue in their chosen field through a PhD and a career in academia. These trajectories are all perfectly good options and, if this is your plan, good for you!
For many of the rest of us, however, our liberal arts educations will lead to careers that utilize our education and skills gained, but in a less direct or obvious way. This is also a good thing. You are going to school to become an educated person, and to gain skills and knowledge that will serve you well for the rest of your life.
The Surprising Skills Gained from a Liberal Arts Degree
Learning How to Learn
The other way to frame this is “adaptability.” If you have the ability to teach yourself or be led to new skills and ideas, you can find (or create) a niche for yourself in the job market. A degree plus verifiable skills can form the basis of a great career. Companies like to hire and train fast learners. They also like to bet on go-getters who augment their educations with non-degree-related skills. Want to take that liberal arts degree and go into a STEM field? Free online sources will teach you to code or design websites.
Your degree helped you learn how to be a good learner—how to integrate new ideas and interests with your other skills. With that skill mastered, you can always learn others.
Polite (and Effective) Disagreement
Liberal arts studies push you away from the idea that there is a single “right” way to approach most problems or ideas. There is rarely a single unified reason behind a historical event, a human tendency, or an environmental change. Situations are rarely black and white, and your education has prepared you for that uncertainty.
It has also trained you to creatively support dissenting opinions. This style of thought and blueprint for behavior can make a difference in startups, team membership, leadership, and creative problem solving.
Being a Self Advocate
If you complete four years in an obscure or “useless sounding” degree, you have already endured more than your fair share of external doubters and detractors. You have (mostly likely) learned to articulate your passions and your mindset and the importance of what you have chosen to study. You have also (again, in most cases) probably had to defend your research interests or perspectives to professors or advisors.
Self-advocacy can be a useful job skill in two main ways. The first is as a resume skill—that you can articulate passions around a variety of subjects, meaning you would be a valuable member of sales or advocacy in any number of ways. The second way it can be a career-changing skill is that you can translate this into finding a job and (hopefully) moving up the ladder or finding cool projects for yourself.
Not-So-Surprising Skills from a Liberal Arts Degree
In the “real world,” being a clear communicator is an invaluable skill. Being able to take in and understand large amounts of information and translate it into arguments or synopses is something you can get paid for.
This can be useful in a writing-focused position—such as a copywriter, report writer, or in advertising—and it could be applied to a host of other jobs, from product development to business consulting to outreach. From governments to NGOs to corporations, we use words communicate our messages. So being able to find and use the right words and compose powerful calls to action can lead to interesting job opportunities.
Anyone can conduct a Google search. We have more facts at our fingertips than humanity has ever had before. But motivated students learn the ability to research deeply and strategically—to dig past the first factual level to pursue different insights, examples, theories, and perspectives. This is an important skill to bring to content creation, problem solving, product development, planning, etc.
Good research skills can also help bring to light dissenting voices and to spot potential problems. Being able to find facts, and to bring together multiple sources to support an argument, can serve you well in many industries.
“Critical thinking” is one of those critical soft skills you get as a liberal arts student. Your degree encourages you to apply different lenses to a situation and to bring different theories to bear on a topic. The ability to problem solve creatively and to pair this with a familiarity with critical research skills is incredibly valuable for many roles, from researchers to team leaders to project developers in all kinds of fields.
All those group projects you hated in school? For many people, those continue in the “real world.” The good news is that if you’ve made it this far you probably have some effective skills for operating in a group setting—dividing up work, getting things done, and putting together a cohesive product at the end.
Bosses like employees they don’t have to chase to get the work done. The ability to sit down and produce a finished product—whether it’s a 12 page academic essay, business report, or presentation—is something many liberal arts grads can do with minimal hand-holding. Being able to push through with tasks in a work day is what will make you an effective employee.
A Final Note
These liberal arts skills are real and valid results of your long and difficult education. Know that they are valuable, and give yourself credit both for learning about the subject that you chose and for having the grit to make it to graduation.
That being said, the ability to prove that you’ve implemented these skills outside the classroom will take you much further than the skills alone. If you’re a good writer, show you’ve published (in academic journals, campus publications, online, newspapers, etc). If you want to demonstrate leadership and innovation, start a student group or a local organization.
The best thing you can do for yourself as a liberal arts future member of the “real world” is to pursue your passions with an eye to your strategic future. This doesn’t mean resume padding—it means putting what you’ve learned to use.
Good luck out there!