“The liberal arts aren’t just about what you learn, but about learning how to learn.” The admissions department at Lawrence University loved to intone this slogan, and then to quickly connect it to expert claims about the career-value of a liberal arts education. Employers actually really like liberal arts graduates. Why? Many workplaces seek people who can easily expand their skills and knowledge. In the long run, a strong learning aptitude can be much better than a single practical skill-set.
There are studies that apparently show this, and I’m not out to pick a fight with good data. They may be right about the long term, but they don’t tell you about what might happen in the months (and maybe years) after you graduate with a liberal arts degree. Here are four things I wish someone had told me about (un)employment after graduation.
1. You can’t necessarily step back down employment-wise.
The summer after my senior year of high school I worked in retail for a minor league baseball team. That December I started working at Target, which I did during academic breaks for a few years; then for the last two summers I worked in customer service for a school supply distribution company. I figured from this trajectory that if I couldn’t quickly find work related to either of my majors (religious studies and music), I could just take some office position a few dollars-per-hour better than my last summer job. I’d be fine making much less than my engineering-major friends; as long as I’d agree to the work and the wage, companies would be glad to have me, right?
Wrong, for two reasons:
2. Companies don’t love people who loved school too much.
This summer I went in to interview for a large insurance company. Upon arriving I took the Wonderlic, a general-intelligence test. Paige, my HR-contact, was so thrilled by my 34/50 score (the average is 20) that she scrambled to arrange a third interview with an extra department. In an email later that day, she told me that “everyone was very impressed with my interviews” and that she hoped “to report good news” within about two business days.
Over a week later, I got a rejection email. What had gone wrong? It turns out they thought I was sure to go to grad school in a few years, and they wanted to hire people who would likely make their careers within the company. I was overqualified, too good for them – too brainy and driven – and they didn’t want to invest in someone like me. Which brings me to the second thing I hadn’t figured on:
3. Employers may veto you for ridiculous reasons that you can’t do anything about.
Later this summer I interviewed for an administrative assistant position that would actually relate to both of my majors. I interviewed with the three people under whom the assistant would work; I thought I interviewed well, and I looked forward to hearing from them the following week. The next Thursday morning I got the rejection email; that evening at a choir rehearsal I saw Peggy, one of the three interviewers, and I asked her how I could’ve interviewed better.
“Oh, you interviewed impeccably,” she told me, “and as soon as you walked out the door I told the other two that I wanted to hire you.” Then what went wrong? “Dan vetoed you because he thought you’d be really bored and discontent in the position.”
Funnily enough, Dan had raised that concern in the interview. I told him then about how menial work hadn’t stifled me in the past, and in an email I told him about things I do in the evenings to pursue my interests that my job might not engage. Despite that, he preferred his own guess about my psyche over what I explicitly told him about my life and experience.
4. Jobs that really draw on a liberal arts education are rare.
I’ve never expected any employer to care about my academic familiarity with Plato and Shakespeare. Some parts of a liberal arts education just aren’t practical, employment-wise – they’re about filling you out as a person, not specifically equipping you for any likely line of work – and that’s perfectly fine. But you might not guess from the sunny admissions-talk just how useless your liberal arts education might feel when you graduate.
One of my mid-size city’s job-websites has over thirty pages of postings. At first glance, this was exciting – in thirty pages there’s just got to be a great variety of full-time work, and there should definitely be something that works decently with my set of liberal arts skills and experiences. The most striking aspect of my job-search thus far – even more than employers finding me unacceptably overqualified or making flatly ridiculous judgments – is just how few jobs track closely with a liberal arts education. There are pages of specifically-skilled jobs in areas like medicine and engineering, and pages upon pages of jobs in menial labor, and even multiple pages of casino openings. At any given time, there might be a small handful of interesting positions where a liberal arts education is probably crucial for acquiring the necessary skill and experience.
The problem with all of this isn’t that it makes a liberal arts education a terrible deal. Again, I’m not out to fight with good data, and apparently reliable studies show that liberal arts educations typically end up pulling their weight over the course of a career. (And besides, capitalistic utility – income, benefits, etc. – isn’t the only kind of criteria for valuing a job.) I just hope that I can help some fellow liberal arts students avoid being caught off-guard, like I was, by post-graduation (un)employment misery.