I met my first helicopter parent in September, 1995. He called demanding specialized career services for his son. No matter that the young man had only just matriculated at Brown University. His problem? The son had met some fellow students who had convinced him to study philosophy instead of computer science. It wasn’t necessary for the parent to tell me what was really on his mind: “What on earth can you do with a degree in philosophy?”
When it comes to liberal arts and careers, there’s a black hole of ignorance that is often filled with myths and assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions is that you can’t possibly find employment unless you supplement your liberal arts degree with a more practical second major like Economics. But look around. Contrary to what you might believe, there are few cultural anthropology grads driving cabs. And, there are no support groups, to my knowledge, for unemployed history majors. Salary and position after graduation are influenced more by the interests of the liberal arts grad than the subject matter of her degree.
Regardless of actual post-graduation results, it’s a rare liberal arts grad who doesn’t have some trepidation about the future. I had my own encounter with reality when I immigrated to the United States. The temporary agency I approached took one look at my newly-minted degree in Russian and Persian and advised that they might be able to find me a minimum wage job—if I learned to type. Luckily, as experience proves, where you start off bears little relation to where you can end up. The question is, “how do you get from a liberal arts degree to work you love?”
The “Easy” Way
The easiest way for liberal arts grads to find high paying, high prestige jobs is to impress recruiters from the investment banks and consulting companies that recruit on campus at top colleges. But there’s a catch: you have to possess not only a high GPA but also a demonstrated interest in–and talent for–the kind of work you’re pursuing. In addition, you’ll need something that sets you apart from other candidates. The way you distinguish yourself may not necessarily relate to the content of the job. Christina, a history grad from Stanford University, was hired as associate consultant by the consulting firm Bain, Inc. because her work founding an HIV/AIDS organization allowed her to demonstrate creativity, passion and a drive for results.
The “Normal” Way
The on-campus recruiting route usually accounts for fewer than a quarter of the graduating class. Many of their liberal arts peers would have you believe that they had everything figured out—often in the form of more school. They talk convincingly of becoming doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists. But behind their eloquent certainty often lies a deep insecurity about the future. Even at graduation, most liberal arts students are unsure what they really want to do. And if, many years after graduation, you’re still not clear about your direction, you’re not alone.
You may find solace and the advice you need through “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career”, a book which I co-authored with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald. Smart Moves illuminates real career paths through the stories of twenty-three liberal arts graduates from nineteen different schools. Their examples serve as powerful inspiration to anyone who wants to discover a path to career success.
The Smartest Moves to Career Success for Liberal Arts Grads
How do you get from a liberal arts degree to finding work you love? Through the stories of the graduates we interviewed, we discovered five “smartest moves” that were a key factor in everyone’s success: -Figure out who you are and where you want to go -Get experience -Build social and networking relationships -Identify and fill your competence gap -Find your “hook”
Figure out who you are and where you want to go
Easier said than done. And it’s more rare than you might think. In Smart Moves, only Ally identified her passion at an early age. Ironically, she chose a particularly difficult career—actress and director. But the strength of her passion helped her overcome the bumps in her path to success. You can certainly find direction from assessment instruments such as the Strong Interest Inventory or the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. But if you don’t identify an ideal career position through your assessments—and you probably won’t—don’t despair. You’re more likely to find the work you love by starting with smartest move number .
Liberal arts grads can follow just about any career they want to. Unfortunately, the multitude of options can be overwhelming. The solution? Trial runs. It can save time later on if you experience different types of work while you’re still in college. Cara, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, laid the groundwork for her career in marketing by working on the school radio station. Sharon discovered her passion in fashion through internships. Others try on careers by proxy—conducting informational interviews with alumni, parents, friends, or anyone else who will share both smart moves and dumb moves. Luckily, there’s no time limitation on getting experience. If you didn’t explore different career options in college, build time into your schedule to do so now.
Build social and networking relationships
Conventional wisdom says that connections are the best way to find work. But what happens when the career footsteps of family members lead you in an undesirable direction, and you’ve exhausted your external fan base? Don’t balk at talking with people outside your immediate social circle. Sure, you’re most likely to find good connections among the colleagues in your professional association. But you can often find help in the most unlikely places. Ray ultimately found his way to a position as Indiana Jones stunt double through his hair stylist. She didn’t personally know the man who was running the auditions. But she was, in Malcolm Gladwell’s vernacular, a “connector”.
Identify your competence gaps
One of the best ways to get ahead in your career is to look not just one step, but several steps, ahead. Find your ideal job and work backwards. Assess what required skills, abilities and attitudes you already have, and identify the areas in which you need to develop. After seeing a teenage friend die of leukemia, Brad knew he wanted to alleviate unnecessary suffering on a world-wide scale. A lofty goal, indeed. With a degree in biology Brad had a good academic background. But he needed practical experience in a number of areas. Since graduation, Brad has systematically identified and eliminated his competence gaps by working in the pharmaceutical and financial industries, and volunteering in a Foundation that awards funds for health-related projects.
Find your hook
Once you’ve found your ideal position how do you stand out from the crowd? Sometimes simple things will make the difference, like sending handwritten thank you letters immediately after an interview, or researching your interviewer’s background on the Web. Other times, your strategy needs to be a little more creative. All graduates, no matter what their educational background, can benefit from studying the career success of others. But when career direction and the paths to success are less clear, stories take on additional significance. If you’re a liberal arts grad, find stories that have meaning for you. The more you know about the career paths of those you admire, the better able you will be to find your own direction.
First published in BusinessWeek.com