Lynn O’Shaughnessy, higher education journalist, author of The College Solution, and expert on all things college and financial at the College Solution Blog and CBS Money Watch, recently wrote a thought-provoking piece called “8 Reasons Not to Get A Business Degree.” I highly recommend Lynn’s post for college students wrestling with the daunting task of choosing a major. I was intrigued to find that employers favor liberal arts majors because of their critical thinking, communications and teamwork skills.
That said, how can a liberal arts major prepare for a job in the real world?
1. Prepare for a career in the same content area as your major. This is the most direct, purist approach, not requiring that you think outside the box. It also requires great passion, superior talent to your peers, and perhaps a graduate degree in the field, since many content areas are highly competitive with few available positions.
Examples include: a music conservatory performance major seeking a job in a major symphony; an English major aspiring to earn a PhD and become a professor at an elite college; an archaeology major aiming to become the next Indiana Jones; an astrophysics major seeking to become an astronaut.
2. Translate your major into a more broadly saleable version of your content area. This approach keeps you involved with the content area you love, with less risk about the prospects of making a living. There are more positions, so you don’t have to be a freak-of-nature prodigy with perfect luck to succeed. It requires thinking ahead and taking additional courses, choosing a specific concentration in the major, or a graduate degree.
Examples include: a music major who takes the music education track and gains teaching certification; a chemistry major who concentrates in food science to work in R&D for a food manufactuer; a criminal justice major who earns a law degree aspiring to become a district attorney.
3. Transfer the core skills required in your major to a more broadly salesable content area drawing upon the same fundamental competencies. Sometimes two content areas that appear very different on the surface actually have deep underlying similarities, in terms of the fundamental skills required and the thought patterns involved. This kind of transfer is really thinking outside the box!
This approach almost always requires additional undergraduate coursework, or a certificate or graduate degree that adds a brand new layer of content skills that is integrated with the original content area based on their inherent compatibility. This is the classic idea of the liberal arts college grad who gets an MBA, with a natural link between the undergraduate major and area of concentration chosen in graduate business school.
Examples include: a psychology major who transfers his capacity to understand human behavior and decision-making into a career in marketing; a mathematics major who transfers her analytical ability into a career in financial analysis, economic forecasting or intelligence cryptology; a theater major who transfers his ability to captivate an audience into a career in sales or public relations; an art history major who transfers her visual, conceptual orientation into a career in advertising.
A New Educational Fusion. In his thoughtful response to Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog, Daniel L. Everett, Dean of Arts & Sciences at Bentley University, a business-oriented school, discussed how undergraduate institutions are combining liberal arts foundations with business training. In my view, this is an encouraging direction. There are even schools where you don’t begin a BBA program until junior year, such as Emory University (Goizueta Business School). In the first two years, students satisfy liberal arts requirements, trying prerequisites like accounting to see if they possess a business skillset.
Educational fusion does not only apply to business. Many liberal arts colleges have 3-2 programs with engineering schools, to train engineers with a Renaissance educational foundation (imagine that!). In a recent US News & World Report article, Lynn O’Shaughnessy also reports on that educational development. I believe there are opportunities to combine liberal arts with many types of “practical” training programs at the undergraduate level. The possibilities are endless…
What about a 3-2 culinary program, so an intellectual undergraduate could enjoy a world-class liberal arts foundation, and then gain professional training for another passion that is more directly related to employment? And become a true “Renaissance chef?” Brown University has teamed up with Rhode Island School of Design with a dual degree program for the truly sophisticated artist. Just to keep it all in Providence RI, how about Brown teaming up with Johnson & Wales’ College of Culinary Arts?
Don’t hold your breath on too many wild, creative partnerships like this between undergraduate institutions. It may be up to the student to create one’s own education through an undergraduate degree, certificate programs and graduate degrees. But it can be much more interesting than just majoring in business!
Relevant reading: Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career by Sheila J. Curran, From College to Career: Entry-Level Resumes for Any Major from Accounting to Zoology by Donald Asher, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career by Katharine Brooks, Now What? The Young Person’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Career by Nicholas Lore.
Related posts: Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA, Your College’s Career Center, So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship… What To Do?, What Is Informational Interviewing? and College Internship and Entry Level Resumes. From my other blog: Why Study Liberal Arts in College?