4 Smart Job Strategies for Liberal Arts Grads
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The Fiscal Times
March 25, 2014

With graduation just over a month away for many college seniors, the job hunt is finally a priority.

The good news is that today’s graduating seniors face a slightly friendlier labor market than their peers did in recent years. But conditions are still tight, and most companies can be picky about the candidates they select for interviews and then ultimately hire.

Liberal arts majors are among those graduates who may have the toughest time finding a job. The usefulness of a liberal arts degree has come under fire in recent years as employers increasingly look for potential hires who already have the skill sets needed to hit the ground running; and some studies show that liberal arts majors, who - if they’re attending a college that specializes in liberal arts - often pay more for their education, tend to make less once they begin working.

Related: The Surprising Reason College Grads Can’t Get a Job

The average salary for liberal arts majors last year was $38,000. That’s a 3 percent increase over 2012, but still the lowest among all categories tracked by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The top-paying industries for liberal arts employment were in sales and marketing.

The realities of the modern job market have pared the ranks of liberal arts colleges in the U.S.,  whose numbers have dwindled from 212 in 1990 to just 130 in 2012, according to a report in the journal Liberal Education. Supporters of liberal arts degrees, however, point to studies that show earnings equal out over time and claim that liberal arts majors, who presumably have learned to think, reason, and write reasonably well during their years of study, prove more valuable to employers over time and are more adaptable than those with a more narrowly focused education.

“The hiccup point is those first few years out,” says Stacie Hagenbaugh, director of career development at Smith College, the private liberal arts college for women in Northampton, Mass. “Students who have a degree in something specific, where they learn to make a widget, can go and get a job immediately making that widget. But when it’s time to imagine what the widget 2.0 is, they fail. That’s where you need the liberal arts majors.”

The difficulty for new liberal arts graduates is getting past that “hiccup point” to get hired in today’s market. Here are four ways to do it:

1.       Take some STEM coursework. If you’re dead set on majoring in art history or poetry, you should round out your college experience and resume with classes that will resonate more with most employers. Take classes in a STEM-related field like economics or computer science. If your school doesn’t offer such classes or if they don’t fit into your schedule, consider taking extra classes at a local community college or via a MOOC.

Related: Why the Liberal Arts Aren’t Worthless

You should also look for ways to incorporate quantitative learning into your major. Social sciences majors might take a statistics class, for example, or a communications major might take a graphics design course.

2.       Highlight your skills. Make sure your resume draws attention to the skills you’ve gained in any classes you’ve taken. Philosophy majors, for instance, tend to have the ability to reason well and synthesize huge amounts of information; they also have solid research chops, says Eric Greenberg, an educational consultant in New York.  “Pulling out the skill set is really important if you have a less marketable major,” he adds. “You need to address on your resume and in interviews what you got from that major – otherwise you’re already starting from behind.”

3.       Focus on the internship. One of the most important things employers are looking for is new employees who can on-ramp as quickly as possible. Employers want applicants with real-world experience, who can show that they’re used to working in an office environment. The more experience you have, the better, so start looking for internships the summer after your freshman year, and see if you can gain additional experience during the school year. “Fundamentally, what employers are most impressed by is work experience that shows not only that you’ve accrued skills, but that you’ve also used them,” says Matt Sigelman, CEO of labor-market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies.

In many cases, a solid internship and a letter of recommendation can carry even more weight than your major or GPA. Look for an internship that will give you the most hands-on experience, even if it’s at a smaller-profile company. Spending a summer at a small public relations firm where you’re writing releases and dealing with clients, for example, will give you more fodder for your resume than making copies and doing errands at a giant firm.

4.       Make networking a priority. The secret weapon for job hunters at many liberal arts colleges is a strong and successful alumni network. Most schools have local alumni associations throughout the country. Join the one in the city where you want to work and reach out to those who have successfully transitioned into successful careers. Remember, these folks started with the same degree and skill set that you have. They also understand how valuable your education could be to a potential employer. “Business and engineering majors know the value of networking, but liberal arts majors might need it even more,” says Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

In addition to using your alumni network, join professional associations to meet people in your desired field and use LinkedIn to reach out to contacts who work at companies that may have openings. If possible, apply to jobs via someone you know rather than through online systems, since automated resume scanners are less likely to see past an unrelated major than are humans who have heard your story and can see the potential in it.

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Life + Money Editor Beth Braverman covers all things personal finance. Formerly a senior reporter and social media editor at MONEY magazine, she’s also held gigs as a newspaper reporter and trade magazine editor.