Liberal Arts and STEM: Happily Ever After?



Pamela Weinberg
Twitter: @pamelaweinberg
Blogs from Pamela Weinberg.

A recent New York Times headline stopped me cold. It was entitled: “A Rising Call to Foster STEM Fields, and Decrease Liberal Arts Funding.” The article spoke of a handful of state governors who were suggesting that students majoring in liberal arts would not receive state funding for their education and that only those students “educated in fields seen as important to the economy” would benefit from funding.

As a liberal arts major and a career coach who believes in the value of a liberal arts education, this was stunning. Of course teaching students “hard” skills is important. Nobody would argue that teaching undergraduate students how to code is a bad idea. However, there is much evidence that hard skills alone don’t make for a successful employee. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, a study conducted by USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism found that “Future leaders must be strong in quantitative, technical, and business skills. But to advance in their careers, they also need to be good strategic thinkers and must have strong social and communications skills.”

The WSJ article made the case for the importance of continuing to offer a liberal arts curriculum to students. The author makes the critical point that liberal arts and STEM needn’t be an “either/or” proposition. A blog speaks of the many smaller college and universities, such as Rochester Institute of Technology, which have created cross-disciplinary or integrated curriculums, that require STEM students to complete a general education program. At the same time, liberal arts schools like Lafayette University are beginning to reform their curriculums to keep them more relevant.

Critics of liberal arts education will make the case that majoring in a liberal arts field doesn’t guarantee a job with high earnings. This is true. No major can guarantee that. However, some of our country’s most successful and well-paid CEOs majored in liberal arts disciplines: Mark Parker, President and CEO of Nike (political science), Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks (communications) and Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company (television and radio)

One of the tenets of a liberal arts education is practicing critical thinking. According to the WSJ article “Technical and business skills can get graduates in the door, but an ability to think critically and communicate effectively can play an equal, if not larger role in determining success.” It would seem then, that students of all majors would benefit from a mix of courses that are STEM based and liberal arts based.
I would love to hear your opinions on this—please let me know how you are advising your liberal arts majors in their career searches.

6 thoughts on “Liberal Arts and STEM: Happily Ever After?

  1. The Liberal Arts + STEM is the only way in which we can prepare ourselves for a future that is continually being invented. What are the jobs of the future? What will we be doing in 5 years? These are no longer simple questions as the world of work and technology evolve at a pace more rapid than ever before. The professional of the future MUST be able to read, write, research, critically think, use imagination AND apply the “hard skills”. Utilizing the human brain through efficient analysis and communicating effectively on a global scale is what is needed in order to continue to produce innovation in engineering, the sciences, math and technology. It is the global skill set. It is the future. We all must engage.

  2. When working with liberal arts students I always think about how important it is for them to narrow down a few potential areas of interest so they can truly focus in on developing the skills necessary for those fields and lines of work. The conversation, for me, really aims at getting them to think about how they can set themselves up for success in the job market and beyond. Helping them unpack and name the key skills they are developing that connect to the skills employers are searching for is always helpful. The conversation, however, has to go further. If they have a few key areas of interest, it can be valuable to have them look into entry level and mid-level positions within those areas. Doing so enables them to get a better sense of how their skills connect to the work, while also helping them see where they have gaps and might need to do additional volunteering, interning, or other skill development. I think it is also crucial to debunk myths around majors.

  3. I used to work in career services at a public liberal arts college. When advising students about career preparedness, the challenge I had was coaching students on how to articulate the value of a liberal arts education in the interview process. History students, for example, had a difficult time explaining how their major prepared them for a job in business. There wasn’t a direct connection between the name of their major and the job titles to which they applied. I thought it would be much easier working with students pursuing degrees in technology or engineering where they could search for jobs with titles that referenced their degrees.

    When I got to New York Institute of Technology, I found that students were challenged in finding how they could lend their skills and knowledge to jobs NOT directly connected to their majors. While liberal arts students were challenged with honing in on a few jobs they could apply for, technology and engineering students had a hard time with expanding upon the positions for which they could secure.

    As Karen and Nolan commented, the focus needs to be on the ability to articulate the skills gained in the pursuit of a degree and how they can lead to professional success for an organization. Liberal arts students are generally stronger in written and verbal communication, critical thinking and problem solving and with research and analyzing data – all skills that leaders in a variety of industries have. The goal is always to prepare students for both getting a job and having the capacity to advance in their careers. I believe that the liberal arts help significantly in helping students advance in a chosen career. So if a student graduates with a technical degree – or another very specialized degree- liberal arts courses can help them develop the skills necessary for career advancement. They can also help in developing skills needed in community participation, which is just as important as developing employees.

  4. I just attended a short workshop about STEM career paths during the Innovation Rodeo at the Calgary Public Library. The acronym used was STEAM as often as was STEM. I am paraphrasing Dr Gina Cherkowki: in essence she said one does not need to promote one discipline vs. another and indeed without the ability to communicate effectively it is very difficult for those so called STEM experts to either express or promote their ideas particularly when the listener of customer is not a STEM expert.

  5. And so the debate goes on. Yet the issue is not EITHER Liberal Arts OR Job-Skill/STEM Majors…it is “Both-And”.
    In an article I wrote while at Career Vision, “Educational Requirements for the 21st Century: Liberal Arts or Job-Specific?
    I suggest that today’s students need to include both sets of knowledge and skills to launch a successful and meaningful career. And since a choice of a major often reflects an area of subject matter rather than an occupation or career, the article also addresses how to increase the employability of liberal arts majors. Let me know what you think.

  6. Amy Bravo expressed the topic extremely well. There is so much information available albeit not all of it user friendly relative to effective work search. However when seasoned workers cannot seem to understand the difference between former work duties and the skills it took to perform them and/or how to describe accomplishments in terms that will demonstrate they have the ability to perform in a new position it is no wonder young people are confused. I may have said it before however I also see evidence that many young people think all they have to do is wave their diploma around as if that demonstrates anything other than they are good test taker.

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