It’s OK to Get a Job: Employment After a Liberal Arts Education

Having attended a liberal arts undergraduate institution, and now being employed at one, I have something to say: praise God we are now encouraging students to actually be employable after graduation.

*dances*

I guess I should start with why liberal arts colleges do not historically encourage or promote vocationalism.

Liberal arts educations are designed to be interdisciplinary and focused on knowledge and skill development. No, no, no…not actual USABLE skills (you know, things like how to change the oil in a car or write a lesson plan or supervise a team of 4 people); they are talking about cognitive skills. Liberal arts schools love the term ‘critical thinking’ more than anything. They also claim to promote creativity, ingenuity, independence, and analytic thinking. We also want to create the next generation of ‘leaders’ so we work hard to create an environment of social responsibility and civic mindedness. Toward that end, we offer courses like “Entrepreneurship” in place of courses at traditional institutions like ‘Business Management’. We wouldn’t want to constrain our students’ thinking would we? We wouldn’t want them to learn how to manage only in a business setting. This is about creation, development, innovation—not merely management. After all, it takes loads of creativity and innovation to plan my alternative spring break trip to Guatemala to restructure their educational system (read: build schools). The people doing the actual building can manage themselves. I am here to think. To THINK gosh darn it!!! And think I shall.

Because of the emphasis on thinking, liberal arts schools have traditionally neglected to address the development of students’ practical, employable skill set. Though students at such colleges are encouraged to pursue internships during summers or between semesters, these internships are not intended to be entry points into a specific field. They are not supposed to be learning opportunities. No, these internships are meant to be exploratory so that students might ‘see what it’s like to (insert inane, totally unprofitable sector of society in which only 3% of the people have stable jobs)’. As a result, the Career Center at liberal arts schools is more like a ‘who’s who’ of corporate America and/or like a graduate school informational fair. Because really—do you want just any job? Or do you want a career? Building a career requires even more thinking skills than we have time to bestow upon you in 4 years. Or, it can sometimes only require knowing which dormmate’s father is the CEO of Lehman Brothers. After all, building networks is the second goal of a liberal arts education.

But silly me. I didn’t listen. I went to college and decided I wanted to be able to DO something upon graduation. I thought getting a Masters degree in Liberal Arts (yes, that is real) was the epitome of stupid so I wanted to be as far away from that as possible. So beginning my freshmen summer of undergrad I got REAL work experience. I spent school breaks working in the Emergency Room (where I learned how to take blood pressure, admit patients, calculate billing, and a host of other things), doing research at Northwestern University (def learned a lot of psychological experiment techniques), teaching at a gifted and talented summer camp (figure out how hard it really is to be a teacher of middle schoolers), and working in a psychiatric unit (the DMS-IV does not do mental illness justice. The real thing is amazingly difficult to treat). Each of these endeavors took me to a different city in a different state. And through them, I discovered a pattern of strengths, weaknesses, and interests. More importantly, I had the opportunity to use the knowledge I’d gained in my coursework so that I might discover what I’d actually learned.

So few of my friends from college can say the same. Most of them graduated with a plan to ‘attend graduate school’, but no real evidence or track record of skill development in a practical area. In essence, students graduating from liberal arts colleges have a lot of breadth on their resumes, but little depth.

And I see that at present with my undergraduate students. When we meet to discuss their future plans (happily, more and more of them are requesting such meetings), I do my best to steer them toward a real path in which yes, they will find personal happiness and contentment and a sense of doing good, but they will also find a paycheck and prospects for professional growth. This means you can’t just list your leadership positions in school clubs or on athletic teams.

They seem open to this idea. Maybe because they see how awful the economy is and in the words of Carrie Bradshaw, ‘this is not an economy in which to be whipped cream’. Or maybe it’s because this generation is just smarter than mine. Or perhaps there is a cultural shift happening where administrators of liberal arts schools are recognizing the need to graduate employable and competitive students.

I don’t care why. Just as long as I don’t have to write another letter of recommendation for the Peace Corps.

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