I work as a Career Adviser at a small liberal arts college in Indiana. More often than I’d like, I have students come in for appointments feeling lost and overwhelmed and disappointed in their choice of major. Most often these students are seniors, which is understandable. Why? Because, as liberal arts majors about to graduate, they feel like they are about to be cut loose and thrown into the “real world” with no clear-cut path in front of them.
I can relate. It’s easy, as a college senior or recent grad in the liberal arts, to look at your peers in vocational or technical schools with envy. Why didn’t I do that? you think. Life would be so much easier! At least, that’s what I thought after walking out of my institution’s doors with a B.A. in history and anthropology. Now what?
The value of the liberal arts seems to be on everyone’s minds lately. Even the President recently apologized for taking a jab at art history majors while making the case for more specialized training. On the other hand, Thomas L. Friedman’s op-ed piece on How to Get a Job at Google and this HuffPost article on the value of humanities majors both argue that the liberal arts can and do prepare students for a job. With the economy still limping along, college students (and their parents) want to make sure their college education has worth. But how do you measure the worth of an education?
It’s true that a liberal arts degree does not set you up for a specific job in the way a degree in, say, Dental Hygiene or Aviation Maintenance does. No, a liberal arts degree does not prepare for you a job; it prepares you for a career.
Ah, career. What does it mean, exactly? As a Career Adviser, I run into a variety of (mis)perceptions of this word. Some academics fear it–when we talk about preparing students for a career, they immediately imagine a gray little cubicle in a dreary office, a once-bright mind drooling over a keyboard and punching out data for some nameless corporation. But that is not a career; that is a job.
Let’s open our friend, the dictionary. (Or dictionary.com, in this case.) The first two definitions from the World English Dictionary are as follows:
A path through life. This is a career. It is not a job; it is not even a series of jobs. It is your life work. The things you do, whether paid or unpaid, which make up your life story. Aha. So even though my job title is Career Adviser, my career involves so much more than that; my writing, my research, the work I do for my church, the volunteering I do through community organizations–that is my career. No matter what jobs I hold along the way, I know my career will always revolve around these things, because these things are a part of who I am and what I do on a daily basis.
A liberal arts degree prepares you for a career–for your life work, for your ongoing development as a human being, for a life of learning and engagement. The technical skills needed for many of the jobs out there can be learned, fairly quickly and easily. It takes more time and effort to develop skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.
As hard as it is not to compare yourself to others, my biggest advice to liberal arts grads is to do just that. Your career path will not be straight or direct, and that’s okay. Allow yourself time to explore, to develop your interests and skills. Focus your energy not on landing a job, but on building the life you want. Most importantly, be creative. Your career path does not have to look like your parents’ or your friends’, nor does your definition of success.