March 17, 2010
In defense of the liberal arts major
I was a liberal arts major, though I let my parents talk me out of getting my B.A. in English lit and into getting one in journalism because it was "more practical." (Don't laugh -- it was the eighties.) If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't let the recession sway me toward getting a business, nursing, or another seemingly practical degree. I'd major in reading and writing again in a heartbeat.
Still, it's hard not to wonder if in today's upside-down economy this is really the best move. Is studying the discipline(s) that interest you most rather than studying those that might give you a bit more job security the best use of a college education?
Two career experts say yes.
If you don't have your heart set on a specific, more technical career, like being an actuary, an engineer, or a doctor, "it doesn't really matter what you major in," says Alexandra Levit, whose books include They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World and New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career.
For those who aren't sure what field they'll want to pursue after graduation, Levit is 100 percent supportive of majoring in the liberal arts.
"The less sure you are of what you want to do, the more general your major should be," she says. "A liberal arts degree gives you a good general academic experience that includes analytic skills, comprehension, reading skills, and speaking skills."
In case there's any doubt, all the aforementioned skills will serve you well in the corporate world.
"What I hear over and over from employers in every industry is how poor the communication skills are of graduates," Pollak says.
A liberal arts background can help remedy that.
With a B.A., "You have to know how to speak and write and communicate your ideas to other people," Pollak says.
It's understandable that you (or your parents) might worry that immersing yourself in the arts and humanities for four years will lock you out of a more specialized career in IT, healthcare, or any other business sector should you take an interest in it after college. But this fear is unfounded, says Pollak, who's watched majors from every corner of academia enter just about any business sector you can name.
"I've seen philosophy majors become doctors and pre-law majors become veterinarians," she says. "Yes, choosing a major is an important decision. But you can always take more classes and make changes to your career later on."
In other words, if you're passionate about a topic, don't shy away from throwing yourself into it now, while you have the chance.
As Pollak put it, "When else in your life do you have the opportunity to study philosophy and art history and comparative literature like that?"
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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