Collaborating with and supporting humanities students may represent some of the most challenging—and rewarding—opportunities for career advisers. Outside of applying directly to graduate programs, these students can face challenges because their paths to internships and permanent employment are often not as well defined as those for more career-specific majors.
Yet, as a longtime recruiter (and full disclosure: former English major) who has successfully placed hundreds of one-time English, philosophy, and psychology majors, I propose that the greater challenge may be an initially uncomfortable fit with traditional job-search methods. The philosophy major who has thought far more deeply about Rousseau’s writings than resume writing may not instinctively pivot to a dialogue about “branding” or self-expression through scannable keywords. For career advisers, the real gold lies not in portraying these tactics as a necessary evil but in helping students discover how their natural strengths and inclinations can best serve them in the search process.
For starters, amid the ongoing debate about the marketability of a liberal arts education, employers say they want the critical thinking skills that are, in fact, the cornerstone of a foundation in the humanities. In the well-publicized 2013 survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities more than 90 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
The real question is how to guide our students in applying the well-developed critical thinking muscle to navigating the job marketplace. Without suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach, here are some places to jump in:
1. Start at the Beginning—Before talking about a student’s resume or a specific job posting, probe for the thought process behind the original selection of a major or course of study—and how that thinking has evolved. Recruiters like this question too, even for more experienced candidates, because it helps to construct a useful narrative. The reasons are less important than the student’s/candidate’s ability to demonstrate such qualities as self-reflection and an interest in both acquiring and applying knowledge.
2. Open the Floodgates—As West Chester University Assistant Director of Career Development Amanda Mitchell astutely shares, “the key is to help these students understand the capacity of the degree they are pursuing. Liberal arts students in very specific courses of study may underestimate the breadth of their career options. For example, while a psychology major could pursue an advanced degree to become a counselor, he or she could also immediately apply an undergraduate degree in a variety of fields, including marketing or business.” As a recruiter, I can validate this perspective: some of the most impressive candidates I have interviewed for early-career roles in marketing and management consulting have roots in the humanities and social sciences.
By just changing the lens through which they view their major from restrictive to expansive, our students may experience the kinds of “aha moments” that blow their job explorations wide open. You might recommend Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads by Sheila Curran and Suzanne Greenwald for a highly accessible, case-study based approach. The format will also expose your students to the kind of storytelling that will serve them well in job and internship interviews—did you know that Chief Storyteller is an actual corporate job title?!
3. Become a Translator—Help your student demystify jargon-y sounding job-search terms like “branding” and “value proposition.” Draw parallels between these phrases and verbal constructs that are more familiar to liberal arts students. For example, finding central themes in a work of literature really isn’t all that different from identifying common threads in your student’s academic and co-curricular experience to date.
4. Compare and Contrast—While other students might find the following suggestion the ultimate in geekdom, no one aces the classic compare and contrast exercise like the humanities major. Leveraging strengths in research, analysis, and written expression, consider encouraging your student to draft a very informal essay—or even a steam-of-consciousness-like journal (the actual format is less important than the exercise)—examining prospective career options. For example, a political science major might compare and contrast opportunities in government service versus nonprofit associations and foundations. You can guide your students to core resources such as “What Can I Do This Major?” as a starting point, and encourage them to deepen their explorations through online publications, associations and informational conversations with alumni.
Added bonus: Should this process lead to a targeted career direction, your student will already have lots of meaty data to draw on during actual job or internship interviews. Recruiters love to probe for such qualities as sincere motivation and resourcefulness. What better way for a student to demonstrate these attributes than by walking a recruiter or prospective employer through a thoughtful research process and key learnings about a field or specific organization?
5. Highlight Communication Skills—I may have saved the best for last. While many humanities students take their strengths in oral and written expression for granted, employers are bemoaning the lack of these skills in the workplace. As a recruiter, this is probably the number one complaint I hear from employers about recent graduates.
From cover letters to resumes to LinkedIn profiles and electronic portfolios, humanities students have a clear home court advantage. You can help them to recognize this and encourage them to differentiate themselves through the sheer power of the written word. In a future post, I will explore some concrete ways to help them maximize this advantage.
And here’s some really encouraging late-breaking news to share with your students—the Association of American Colleges and Universities just published a survey showing that the long-term return on investment for liberal arts majors, reflected in annual earnings, actually exceeds that for some “pre-professional'” majors.
There is so much more to say about this topic. NACE members, what practices have worked best for the humanities students you advise and support? Your responses need not be in essay form.