In the Personal Finance community, there is a lot of buzz about the importance of a “marketable” degree usually followed by some examples involving a philosophy major flipping burgers or a music major waiting tables.
With student loan debt becoming the teetering tower of Jenga blocks that it is; it makes a lot of sense to be practical and major in something that has a reputation for high-earning potential. Computer science, engineering, accounting, and business are all noble majors that hold the promise of interesting work and a nice fat paycheque to fund a decent lifestyle. But there’s something to be said for a liberal arts degree.
Liberal Arts: “You’re majoring in what?”
I was recently reading a Forbes article, written by an Engineer with an MBA incidentally, that talks about the value of a liberal arts degree. He says great things about the technical and professional degrees like engineering and computer science, but he says the graduates of the future have liberal arts degrees.
He points out that today’s economy shows a trend towards outsourcing jobs to India and China , jobs ranging from computer programming to behind-the-scenes finance stuff that can easily flutter off into the sunset to happily roost in Asia somewhere. If that’s the case, learning a specialized set of skills might not always have the bright and shiny future you originally thought it would – due to that outsourcing possibility.
If we are to survive in a more expensive “knowledge economy”, we must become more than ‘ers (engineers, bankers, computer programmers etc.). The economy will demand people who can think creatively and critically, those that not only think outside the box but can then build another box if the first one fails. Liberal arts majors are trained to do just that in their degree.
Critical thinking and advanced communication skills are the degree’s product – not a specialized set of skills or knowledge base like accounting or computer science degree. A careerbuilder.com article talks about good writing skills as a make or break situation with cover letters and resumes, citing that one out of five people get bounced from job competitions due to bad writing. Liberal Arts majors come out with superior skills on this front due to the endless challenge of writing papers on obscure topics (“Discourse on Gender Influences in Bioethics” was a random paper I wrote in my final year).
More importantly, it’s the ideas that a lot of managers at blue chip companies are interested in – innovation, creation, and “off the wall” solutions that separate Liberal Arts majors from our more left-brained counterparts. Honestly, you try connecting ideas like the 1739 War of Jenkins’ Ear to the sociological implications of farming in the West Indies for four years and see if you don’t come out with cock-eyed view of the world.
Liberal Arts: “So what job are you planning to get with that degree?”
For some, this is an easy answer: nursing students will become nurses; accounting students will become accountants; and a management student will become a manager. Liberal arts majors do not have the luxury of a linear path from school to career goal. Usually the answer is a glib, “do you want fries with that?”, or maybe an honest, “I’m not sure”, or a plan to enter a field that does not promise a high income. Either way, we usually end up finding our own success – quite successfully.
In an Academia article, the writer points out that while liberal arts majors have a slightly higher risk of being employed immediately after graduation and with lower entry level salaries, they tend to catch up by mid-career with their technical career colleagues. Referring to a 2008 Payscale.com mid-career survey, he points out that philosophy majors were likely to be making $81,000 compared to accounting majors at $77,000, nursing at $67,000 and biology at $65,000. Naturally, there will always be technical salaries that blow these figures away but I think for a degree that’s been declared “useless” over and over again, it’s pretty sweet.
Liberal Arts: Modern citizens of the world
So far we’ve only been using one measuring stick to measure success and that’s money. This is important because that’s what people want to go to college for – to get a good job and make more money (according to a 2011 Gallup poll that my Acadamia friend quoted).
There’s also the added benefit that Liberal Arts breeds better citizens – we educate ourselves in politics and vote intelligently; we critically assess newspaper articles and write letters to the editor; and we’re keen to involve ourselves in social causes to make the world a better place. Okay, obviously not all of us.
This is not to suggest that our left-brained technical colleagues aren’t involved and concerned citizens – it’s just that liberal arts trains you specifically to think and act like this whereas the technical degrees do not. If it does happen that you are exposed to these ideas while in training – this is a byproduct of and not the purpose of your education.
To use an Academia article example, a civil engineer may intern at an organization that is creating a more sustainable, eco-friendly neighbourhood – the civil engineer may become more concerned about the environment as a result of this internship but it was not the primary purpose of that experience.
In sum, there are some definite benefits to having a clear cut answer for the almighty “What are you doing after your done school?” question. If you do what moves you, and you’re smart and work-hard, chances are you’ll find a way to make your passion work for you.
Personally, I know an Accountant who actually does bridal & model make up on the side – it’s quite a lucrative side-business for her. I also know a firefighter who creates beautiful bridal fascinators and other creations as a side business, as well.
I work in the health care system and I write this blog on the side. Where there’s a will – there’s always a way.
Yakezie Carnival hosted by Growing Money Smart
Jones, N. (n.d.) Liberal Arts, and the advantages of being useless. Academia. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/2454947/Liberal_Arts_and_the_Advantages_of_Being_Useless on May 18, 2013.
Morsch, L. (2007, Sep 24). Why employers like Liberal Arts grads. Careerbuilder.com, Retrieved from http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-415-Getting-Hired-Why-Employers-Like-Liberal-Arts-Grads/ on May 18, 2013.
Ranadive, V. (2012, Nov 13). A Liberal Arts degree is worth more than any trade. Forbes, Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/vivekranadive/2012/11/13/a-liberal-arts-degree-is-more-valuable-than-learning-any-trade/ on May 18, 2013.
Santo, C. (2012, June 6). Top ten obscure wars. Listverse, Retrieved from http://listverse.com/2012/06/06/top-10-obscure-wars/ on May 18, 2013.