My first career fair experience was less than stellar. I was at a conference for college women in leadership, and becoming more and more aware of my impending entrance into the “real world” after graduation. I’d never been to a job fair before, and thought this a perfect opportunity to give it a shot. But I didn’t expect my major to count against me in this setting.
I walked through the rows of tables a few times, not really seeing anyone I was overly interested in. I finally settled on a setup with an eye-catching, colorful logo, and approached one of the recruiters with my resume in hand. As I introduced myself and explained that I was looking for a job after graduation, I watched with growing dismay as her expression clouded.
“So, why exactly are you here?” she asked, gesturing toward her table. “You’re an art history major.”
My confidence was shaken after that, and I was greeted with more or less the same response from the other recruiters I spoke with throughout the day. No matter what other skills I mentioned having, no one was interested or took me very seriously. One recruiter actually broke off my conversation mid-sentence to speak with another student behind me with a more promising resume.
What was I doing wrong? Was my lack of self-assurance that palpable? I wasn’t sure what to think. I found myself feeling more scared than ever about the future. How was I ever supposed to support myself if everyone was so dismissive, simply because of my degree?
It took me a few months to get out of this mindset. I knew my parents had been somewhat bewildered when I finally settled on Art History as my degree; my love of ancient Egyptian art had drawn me in, and by my first semester of my senior year, I was enamored with the world of art analysis, and ways art reflected or rejected societal values during the time it was created. I wouldn’t have pegged myself for an art historian during my freshman year, but I was happy.
Now, it seemed, the rest of the world didn’t agree I had made a smart decision. I had an art history degree—thus I could only discuss art. I had no other skills that could be applied to other industries. I had been reduced to my degree alone, boxed in based on the stereotype of my field held by others outside of the discipline.
It took a lesson in my Research Methods class this past fall to get me thinking differently. Much of the class was career-oriented, so we talked about the job search struggle that art history majors often face when coming out of college. As I had suspected before, this isn’t a problem unique to this discipline, and it is all too common for undergraduates with Liberal Arts degrees. For one lesson, we practiced writing cover letters for any position, highlighting skills that a degree in art history enables a student to develop. These skills are by no means only applicable to the field of art history; in fact, many are desired in almost every office or place of business. What employer wouldn’t want an employee with ample experience in critical thinking and written communication? We discussed these things at length in my class, and it was very eye-opening for me.
Sadly, these negative views of Liberal Arts degrees are still prevalent enough that classroom lessons like the ones I had in Research Methods are necessary talking points for students in these degree programs. I understand how harmful this mindset is to students in Liberal Arts and Fine Arts colleges. With my English minor, I traverse both schools, and have often been asked what I can do with my degrees. It’s a question that invalidates the interests of the student in question, as well as all the hard work they are doing at school, simply because these degrees don’t lead to a single visible career path. And that is a problem that scholars and journalists have started to tackle on the national level. Articles have been written in The New York Times and Huffington Post that explain the relevance and necessity of a Liberal Arts education, and the value of these graduates in the workforce. A 2013 HuffPost Business article by Tyler Kingkade mentioned that according to one recent study, only 16% of employers said having background that applies to a specific field is the most important criterion they seek, while a majority of employers said they look for grads with both field-specific skills and a broad range of knowledge for longer-term career advancement. You can read the actual study here if you wish.
A degree does not necessarily guarantee you a spot in that field, either. There is no way to tell where your life will take you when you are fresh out of your undergrad years. Take, for example, the staff here at Towson’s Academic Advising Center. I’ve been employed there as a Student Academic Advisor for most of my undergraduate career, and actually learned a lot about how unexpected career paths can be through my interaction with the advisors there. In our office, we have individuals who have Bachelor’s degrees in everything from English to Sociology to Theatre to Political Science. Ergo, studying a discipline in college does not necessarily mean you will end up in that field. But having studied it shapes the way you view the world and communicate with others, so the skills you gained in school are still relevant throughout the course of your career.
Months ago, I would have been uncertain, maybe even ashamed, when someone brought up my degree, and how “useless” it is. But now, I can confidently say that I am in no way limited just to art analysis. I refuse to let others tell me that I will not succeed because I did not choose the sciences or a business degree. I am a creative thinker, and a skilled communicator—both of which are necessary no matter where you work. I did not select my major based on high employment rates. I chose it because I love it. And I would urge all students to do the same. If your heart lies with Astrophysics, go for it. If you have always dreamed of working on advertising campaigns, get a degree in Marketing and Advertising. And if you have always been interested in sculpture, major in Art and Design.
Don’t be afraid to pursue what you love in college, simply because you love it. And do not force yourself into a program just because it will lead to high-paying job once you graduate, because you will do better academically, and do better in a career, if you genuinely enjoy what you are doing. There are merits to every program. Be the person that changes someone’s mind about the value of a Liberal Arts degree.
Academic Advising Center