Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How To Actually Get A Job With A Liberal Arts Degree

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When I started college, I chose to be an English major because I liked Anne of Green Gables and  those 'free writing' exercises in fourth grade.  

That was literally the amount of thought I put into the decision. 

And I thought even less about what I'd do with my degree - until my first visit home and the 8 million "So, are you going to be a teacher?" conversations.  So, when I returned to school I did a variety of things  that resulted in me landing a 'real' job - like, with benefits and a (fairly) livable wage and business cards!  So I must have done something right. Later, I actually came to hate said job but that's not what we're talking about right now.  This is the story of what I did to get a 'real' job, straight out of college, with a liberal arts degree.

Disclaimer:
I graduated with my BA in 2002, when the economy was very, very different.  I know that there are many smart, hard working, qualified people who have done All The Right Things and still can't find a job.  And that makes me want to weep and stuff my face with cheese.  I don't want anyone to view this post as an affront to your job hunting efforts, I can only tell you what worked for me.

How To Actually Get A Job With A Liberal Arts Degree


Realize that your classes probably aren't preparing you for the workplace.
Liberal arts programs teach you how to make and support arguments/read and write well/be an informed, well-rounded citizen of the world.  But they don't necessarily teach you about the software used in your field, how to navigate office politics, how to write grant proposals or any of the super specific skills that you'll probably need.  Is it heart breaking that many of us pay $40,000+ for an education that doesn't help us get a job?  Yes.  Sadly, the only person who's responsible for your employability is you.

Take classes (or learn skills) that will make you employable and set you apart from other job seekers
.
You don't have to switch your major to Marketing or Accounting, but no one will ever regret taking a class in social media, basic computer programing or bookkeeping.  And these skills will make you approximately a million times more appealing as a job candidate.  Work for an arts non-profit? Help manage their Twitter account.  Using your Women's Studies degree at a shelter?  Manage their mailing list and newsletter.  History Majoring it up a museum?  Help them balance their monthly budget.

Do internships.  Even if they're low-paying.  Even if you're broke.
By the time I graduated, I'd completed four internships and every.single.summer I questioned this decision.  I was earning minimum wage while my friends made real money waitressing and working in factories.  When I graduated, I had a pretty impressive skill set and equally impressive debt.  My friends had less debt but fewer skills.  I got a job almost immediately and was able to start paying down my debt and working my way towards a career.  Suckily, a lot of my friends floundered because they'd never really developed a professional skill set.  The financial sacrifices you'll make for those internships will pay off later.  Tenfold.

If you want to work in a creative field, start a blog.  Like, today.
If you want a job that involves writing/design/art/decor/music, get thee to WordPress.  Having a blog will help you develop your voice/aesthetic, connect with people in your field and it'll show potential employers that you're a reliable initiative-taker.  Assuming you don't post three times a week for a month and then forget about it. 

Make peace with networking.
Puuuuuke. I know.  But 'networking' is really just another name for 'making new friends' and 'staying in touch.'  If you've done an internship, make sure you stay in touch with the people you met there.  Reach out to alumni who work in your field.  Ask neighbors or your parents' friends who work in your field if you can buy them dinner and pick their brains.

There's way, way more to job hunting than Monster.com and Craigslist.
Here's how I got my fresh-out-of-school job:  I went to Switchboard.com, typed in the word 'creative' and cold-called every.single.business listed and asked if they had an internship program.  You could do the same.  Check out non-profit specific job sites,  Google "museums [city name]," talk to the Careers office at you college.  And under the heading of 'I know you already know this,'  edit your cover letter and resume to better fit every job you apply to. 

Know that you might need two jobs for a while - one that gets your foot in the door and one that pays the bills.

When I was working as an event planner, I got a roommate to help cover all my bills.  When I was teaching ESL, I had two other side gigs to help me stay afloat.  It's entirely possible that the really awesome job you find coordinating an after school dance program is part-time and low-paying.  And  you'll have to wait tables/bartend/barista to make ends meet.  And it might be tempting to completely fore go the low-paying, part-time job that's actually in your field.  Because you could make more money and have more time if you just bartended.

But here's the thing:  the only thing that full-time waitressing is going to prepare you for is a career as a waitress.  Which is totally okay if that's what you want!  But if you really want to work in the field you studied, try to view that part time job as your golden ticket and the waitressing job as a necessary evil.  If you're patient and hard working and take initiative, something good will happen.  Eventually.

Do any of you have job-finding advice?  How many of you are currently looking for work?


24 comments

  1. I was one one of those people who started from the bottom at the company I wanted to work for.

    I started at the receptionist with a degree in Mass Communications. I volunteered to help out wherever I could - mainly writing small articles or editing reports.

    When the Marketing Manager quit, I got set to apply but I didn't have to - I was offered the job straight away!

    Now I do marketing for a backpacking company which means I get paid to talk about travelling all day.

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  2. Network! Ok, I'm the first to admit that I know next to nothing about the art of networking. However, it's not hard to talk to people you already know about what they do. If your friend has a cool job, ask how he or she got it. Ask if the company's hiring. Particularly if someone has a similar education, or has had similar work experience. A lot of people don't end up working in the field they got their degree in. (I'm certainly not writing literary criticism for a living.) It's important to keep an open mind, especially if you have a liberal arts degree.

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  3. I studied Creative Writing at university (and went on to do an MA in Writing for Young People). I did a lot of great creative classes but I also chose to study modules in publishing and professional writing (such as copywriting etc) so that I was better prepared. I started writing reviews in my second year and getting those published online for various websites, then things went on from there. I now work as a freelance writer and actually get paid! You have to put in the effort and be prepared to take chances, and also be prepared to do work for free for a while so that you can build up a portfolio.

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  4. My situation is much about luck but it involved a lot of perseverance. If you got your liberal arts degree because you were (like me) under the impression that as long as you have a degree (of any kind) you will get a job, I have advice for you. It is totally okay to have done this, I don't regret it for a moment, but the second that diploma sits in your sweaty palms, GO FIND A TEMP AGENCY IN YOUR AREA. Seriously. There are a million of them out there and they are looking for you specifically. Most will place you in an office for 1 to 2 months at a time. The pay will be livable in most areas (most aim for the $12/hr range) and you will very quickly gain a TON of experience!! I held three temp jobs (and a "permanent" job that turned out to not be very permanent) in about 8 months and at the end I had more than enough skills to get my foot in the door in the administrative "green" industry. 2 years since getting my BA I have a GREAT career which is more than can be said of most of my classmates. Temp agencies sound like a cop out, but they really do work.

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  5. I stuff my face with cheese when I'm upset, too.

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  6. A big, resounding Yes to everything Sarah said! My experience was very similar and this is spot-on.

    Side note re my internship experience: I got one of the best internships ever from across the ocean, with a designer who had no jobs listed at all. I was studying abroad, decided I wanted to work for a designer over the summer, and started by emailing my favorite one just to see if, by chance, she might be looking for an assistant (after, of course, I'd slaved away at an online portfolio to send her). Her company hadn't posted any listings, but I figured I'd start at the top and work down. To my SHOCK, she said "Sure," and hired me.

    Lesson: companies you want to work for may very well want help, even if they don't know it. The person who comes to them with a passionate lust for working there Ii.e. you) has a MAJOR foot in the door already!

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  7. Gaah. I wish I knew this stuff when I started my BA. Now I'm almost done and I realize I've gone about it the wrong way, as I've realized from job hunting.... I haven't really learned, done much, or taken advantage of classes/job/volunteer opportunities that are applicable to the real world while at uni. Thanks for this article, Sarah. I'm off to go salvage whats left of my university degree.

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  8. This post is a blessing. Your first paragraph? Me, me, me. Right down to Anne of Green Gables. I graduate college with my BA in English Lit in, uh, 26 days, with nary a job prospect in sight. Thank you.

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  9. This post is a major help to me as well. Thank you so much for writing it. Even though I'm not graduating with a liberal arts degree (I'm and environmental sciences major), the jobs in my field are limited. I've printed this out and posted it on my wall.

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  10. Such an important post. I will certainly share this one. My husband and I have been struggling for a year to find work (he has a liberal arts PhD and I have an MA and an almost PhD in the same field--I quit mine last year).

    I went into the liberal arts because I loved asking questions and talking about all the answers. I was inspired to be a critical thinker! Yes, it is good to be a critical thinker, but then my undergrad turned into a masters, and then into a PhD, and then now, I can't even get an interview at Starbucks. I have lots of teaching experience but little administrative, non-academic experience. I thought people would see my potential, but sadly, no.

    So yes! I love this post. Do what you love, even if it's liberal arts, but work hard alongside your studies to get some experience. Be creative. Work two jobs. Volunteer your time. Yikes, I wish I had known this before!

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  11. Yup. Yup, yup, yup. I graduated three years ago with a degree in English (another Anne-fan, here) and am now just starting to dabble in some freelance copy writing. I'm still searching for that "real" job that pays the bills a bit more comfortably, but this post has given me some more hope :) I've been thinking about emailing some companies to see if they need help, but have been putting it off -- this is what I needed to hear!

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  12. So - I'm not sure where the idea comes from that if you have a liberal arts degree, you have trouble getting a job - but I don't buy it.

    In a down economy, everyone has trouble finding a job simply because there are not a lot of openings and when there is one, companies tend to want a mid-level person that can hit the ground running. So I can completely understand it being difficult at this point in time to find a job.

    However, I work in HR in Silicon Valley. We hire people with Liberal Arts degrees all the time. In fact, I've heard many of my fellow HR friends say that they prefer hiring people with Liberal Arts degrees because they know how to analyze a problem, summarize it quickly, and synthesize all of the supporting facts. Something that not every major has learned.

    A lot of the big consulting firms actually look for people with Liberal Arts degrees and then there's jobs in sales, marketing, operations, human resources, consulting, support and service. All of those areas tend to just want someone with a degree - regardless of the actual major. So just find some area you are interested in - do internships or temp for a bit if you want to experience some of the different options - and then just dive in. You might be surprised at the warm reception Liberal Arts majors get in the workplace.

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    1. What company do you work for?

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  13. Most of my friends have liberal arts degrees, and most of them are working in the retail or fast food industries. The ones who aren't applied to graduate school, and got in because they basically followed this advice. This economy is bad news for right-brain degrees.
    However, a thought about taking basic computer programming: make sure you're actually taking a basic class! My basic class is anything but, which makes it extra hard. And if you're interested in helping with office newsletters or the like, you should take a class on using Office. Actual programming requires a lot of time spent diciphering gibberish and trying to make it work - it's interesting, but an entirely different skill set from, say, rocking a database or deciding on a good text alignment.

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  15. I did these exact same things and landed a job after graduation. It's difficult and you have to work your tush off, but it works out in the end.

    I also know that several advertising/marketing agencies are looking more at liberal arts students than ever before -- and for good reason!

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  16. It is possible! That's all I want to say. I have a liberal arts degree and have been working in non-profit jobs for 5 years. An arts degree is a fantastic platform from which to build.

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  17. "Networking" doesn't even have to be lame -- I've had six jobs since I started college eleven years ago, and every single one of them I heard about through a friend -- whereas the dozens of resumes I sent to job postings got about half a reply, total.

    (This might not be the same you are trying to climb the ladder in your industry -- and if you are trying to climb the ladder in your industry and hate networking, maybe you should reconsider, 'cos those are the people you are trying to set yourself up to be spending more time with.)

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  18. I have an arts degree as well and spent my 20's working a variety of jobs all around the world but never felt like I could find the right thing. The past year and a half has given me so much clarity - I built a successful location independent business that incorporates adventure travel (my favorite thing!) and helping people, all while living by the ocean in Peru. Can I get a whut whut? The most important thing for me was learning how to leverage myself online AND becoming part of a tribe of authentic business women...kinda like a mastermind. I wish I had done this at 25 instead of 32! I totally agree with everything suggested in the article - for sure - if you're planning to work for other people for your career. But if you really want to break free and go solo (and be seriously $$$ successful), you have to learn how to hustle really authentically and leverage the interwebs. Best thing I ever did!

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  19. I once was told that having a Liberal Arts degree is like becoming a jack of all trades yet master of none. But then again, the long and the short of it is that you can be the best in whatever your chosen field is after you have completed all the groundwork essential to it. So see, it's not that bad, or relatively nonchalant afterall!

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  20. I once was told that having a Liberal Arts degree is like becoming a jack of all trades yet master of none. But then again, the long and the short of it is that you can be the best in whatever your chosen field is after you have completed all the groundwork essential to it. So see, it's not that bad, or relatively nonchalant afterall!

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  21. I find it quite hard to find a job in arts unless it's free lance. This article is helpful for those who have liberal arts as their degree since they'll have a better idea on what they need to do.

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  22. I have written an article on choosing the right degree at
    http://gettingtherightdegree.blogspot.co.uk/

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  23. Thanks for all these tips! I hope you could post more about you being a online environmental science degree student back then too.

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