I’m a Liberal Arts Major…Now What?
Published: September 6, 2019
Author: Dave Johnson
If you’re a rising senior in a liberal arts major, this blog is for you.
Five years ago, I made a long-term, high-risk financial decision: I became a History major.
Screams of horror ensue.
My parents were “thrilled,” especially my dad, who is a 3rd-generation engineer. Their “excitement” was shared by every other adult in my life. For my last two years of undergrad, I had the same conversation at every family reunion or trip home:
Adult: So what’s your major?
Me: I’m a history major!
Adult: Smiling weakly as the hope they had for my future comes crashing down. Oh, that’s great. Now isn’t your brother a business major?
Wash, rinse, repeat.
To their credit, there was a fair reason for their concern. STEM or pre-professional degrees provide a clearer direction towards gainful employment than liberal arts degrees. Graduates with degrees in Computer Science, for example, have a clear career path and will likely be competitive applicants in a growing industry. I love my history degree, and I will never regret using those four years to explore my passion, but it didn’t exactly give me a roadmap towards post-graduation employment.
So while I didn’t like being reminded of my impending financial doom during every family gathering, I did understand, and share, their concerns. These concerns also proved to be prescient: I went through a nasty spell of unemployment for a few months after graduation.
Since I’m writing this blog, you can tell that everything has worked out since then – I have a great job with excellent growth potential in an important and expanding industry. So how did I win the millennial lottery by getting a Tech job with a liberal arts degree? I can’t give you a definite answer, because that would be dishonest. Luck was certainly involved, as is, sadly, the fact that I’m white, male, and upper-class. I can, however, say that a few factors helped me out a lot. If you’re a liberal arts major, maybe the following steps will help you like they helped me.
Get an internship (duhhhh).
Is this an obvious step? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth repeating. I’d also say that getting an internship is especially important for liberal arts majors because it provides the career direction that your major doesn’t. An internship gives you exposure to an industry, be it marketing, accounting, or contracting. That simple exposure can end up opening a door into a larger career path once you graduate.
For example, I was an “Operations Management Intern” (i.e., “Flunky-at Large”) at a small web design agency in Raleigh, N.C. I did a bit of everything, from conducting client onboarding interviews to logging our weekly accounting, but some of the tasks I happened to take on were SEO keyword research. This was my grand entry into Digital Marketing.
Fast forward to month two of my job hunt (i.e., unemployment) after graduation, and I finally realized that my SEO experience was what most employers were interested in. I reframed my resume and cover letter around SEO. Even with only tangential experience to SEO copywriting, it was enough to get an interview, and then a job offer, from an agency in Raleigh to do SEO copywriting. Without the internship, I would have had no idea that SEO copywriting even existed.
It’s also worth noting that there was no particular skill set required for this position; the company was just looking for someone who would show up on time and be generally competent at whatever they were asked to do. The moral here: don’t hold back from applying to an internship because it doesn’t relate to your major. In fact, if you have a liberal arts degree and you don’t want to go into teaching or graduate school, you should apply to internships unrelated to your major. You’ll be surprised at how far having good grades and being enthusiastic in interviews will get you, and that internship will give you a good starting point for what jobs to apply to after you graduate.
Get a summer job (internship or otherwise).
When you’re in the job hunt for the first time, it’s frankly just important to have some entries on your resume that aren’t school-related. This could mean getting an internship (see Step 1), but it doesn’t have to. I’d say it’s more important to just have any job in the summer, whether you’re working retail, being a tour guide, or playing in the mountains as a camp counselor (shameless plug for another blog entry here!).
If you can go back to the same company every summer, that’s even better, since that gives you the opportunity to be promoted. I worked as a camp counselor for five summers and managed to get promoted twice during that span. This shows potential employers that I was able to not only hold down a job, but to have done it well enough be given more responsibility.
Besides giving you a solid couple spots on your resume, getting a summer job is also important because it lets you…
Find relevant experience in unrelated jobs.
The interview question that all liberal arts majors dread is, “What is your relevant experience?” It’s tricky because we can’t talk up our schoolwork like, say, a biology major applying to a lab job could. Unless the interviewer happens to find your views on mercantilist theory fascinating, the interview will go nowhere (note: tried this once, was unsuccessful, will not try again).
This means that it is all the more important to be able to find relevant experience in the things you do outside of school. Your internship or summer job might give you direct experience in the jobs you’re applying for, which is awesome. If it doesn’t, then you can always find relevant experience if you look for it.
Let’s say that you’ve worked in retail before. That means you have direct experience in a client-facing role, along with some anecdotes on how to deal with difficult customers that your future interviewers will love. You also can use your experience with inventory management to elaborate on how you’re comfortable working with large data sheets. I can think of a few jobs that would place a premium on these skills (hint, I work with large data sheets in a client-facing role).
For entry-level positions, I honestly think that the jobs you had in the past are less important than your ability to apply them to the future job you’re interviewing for. If you’re a liberal arts major, then this should actually come pretty easily to you. After all, you have 4 years of experience in critical thinking and forming connections between ideas.
If you can find relevant experience in unrelated jobs, then you shouldn’t have problems with the next step:
Don’t be afraid to apply outside your comfort zone
Fun fact: I have never been hired for a job I was directly qualified for. I was a program manager for my last three years working at camp. I applied to at least 10 program manager positions after I graduated and I never even got an interview.
In contrast, every time I got an interview it was somehow for a job that I had never done before. What made the difference in these situations is that I had just enough direct experience from my internship or previous jobs, leavened with a generous amount of relevant experience I was able to apply from other, entirely unrelated jobs. That’s how an internship at a web design agency led to a job as an SEO copywriter, which in turn led to a job in the tangentially related field of paid digital advertising, which, incidentally, was my first position at 3Q.
Epilogue: You’ve got this!
So, if you’re a rising senior with a liberal arts degree, or if you’ve just graduated, I understand if you’re nervous. Graduating from college is hard, and job hunting is daunting. Hopefully everything I’ve said in this blog will make you a little bit more confident that you CAN get the job you’re looking for, even if it has nothing to do with your college major. Take a breath, don’t panic, and think about what experience you have. You’ll get that interview you’re looking for.