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Preparing Liberal Arts Majors for Their Careers

Elizabeth Krishnan, Associate Director

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The conversation in higher education on declining enrollment in the humanities receives more attention and national press every year. Several factors for this downward trend commonly rise to the top in these conversations:

 
  • iconThe rising cost of college education

  • iconEducation as career preparation

  • iconThe economic reality in the 21st century

 

Given the state of the economy and the rising costs of a university education, we cannot decry our students’ mindset toward majors they perceive as directly applicable to careers. Students enter college with little understanding of the curricular content in a major let alone the vast opportunities available to them no matter what they major in. They do their best with the limited knowledge they have to choose a major that will serve them well in their career. No wonder, then, we frequently hear the following student remarks in our office:

Katharine Brooks’ writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education in her article titled “Close the Gap Between the Liberal Arts and Career Services” (2009), “The absence of a clear career path is an important factor in declining enrollment in the liberal arts that hasn’t been adequately dealt with by most colleges. As things stand now, students are asked to take a leap of faith that what they learn will ultimately reveal its value.”

Addressing declining enrollment in the humanities involves neither gutting the curriculum to cater to industry nor turning a cold shoulder to a very real and lasting reality that our students are interested in career preparation. A possible response involves acknowledging that students often make decisions around majors with career applications in mind and limited information.

 


Career Applications

In order to provide students who are in the midst of choosing a major with examples of career applications, the Career Center recognizes the importance of being familiar with the varied occupations available beyond, for example, the traditional paths such as history majors working in museums or English majors work in publishing. Here’s a sample of what our alumni in the humanities are currently doing:

The Career Center also educates for the reality that many of our students are not choosing a life-long career when they choose a major. Here are some examples of alumni switching industries and professions:

Although it may not be immediately evident what liberal arts majors bring to these varied professions, upon examination it is patently clear that there is synergy. No matter what profession students pursue, we need the liberal arts to teach students to think critically and expansively, to act independently of group think, to innovate fresh approaches when old ways of thinking are no longer useful, to recognize injustices, and to be called to act upon their integrity. By fostering these abilities we help raise the “common good” to light in the workplace.

 


Skill Development

majorsLikewise, the Career Center recognizes the value in concretely discussing with students the skills they develop with humanities majors that employers value.

We know that the humanities provides many windows into studying the human condition - our vices and virtues from varied perspectives in the arts, history, literature, culture, and philosophy, to name a few. We know that such study provides our students with the perspective to ask the larger questions, the critical thought to evaluate messaging and information, the empathic insight into another’s experience, the sensitivity to communicate effectively, and the ability to analyze and solve problems. And we intuitively know that these skills are needed to address the world’s pressing challenges. But we cannot rely on ideals and abstractions when we are educating our students who are sifting through their major options. The Career Center educates with employment data and examples such as this image from an annual survey, conducted by the Association of Colleges and Employers.

Because employers value these skills, Google - one of our top 3 employers - hires all majors. In fact, Google has hired more of our alumni for non-technical positions than technical.

Career Centers are instrumental in career education and preparation; however, partners are needed to strengthen the student outcomes. Below are some suggestions for ways to position the humanities in students’ minds as relevant to their careers.

 
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Educate our students about career applications

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Support students’ discernment and ability to connect their skills and interests to career choices

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Provide students with the tools and strategies to prepare for their job search

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Addressing career applications in conversations with students and in marketing efforts does not mean reducing the value of a humanities major solely to career. We can recognize the reality upon which students are deciding upon majors and the work they are pursuing, while also prizing the core content within the curriculum. Let us help students apply the liberal arts sensibilities and skills in every arena of the corporate, public, and non-profit sectors.

 
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