What are you going to do with a liberal arts degree in this economy?

Shepherd University graduates face a tough labor market. If your degree is in accounting or nursing and someone asks you what you’re going to do with your degree, you have an at-hand answer: “I’m going to be an accountant or a nurse.” But if your degree is in history, political science, sociology, English, art, music, foreign language, psychology or yheatre, then your response is probably less snappy and precise or perhaps even nonexistent.

I was asked multiple times over the years as a university student, “What in the Sam Hill are you going to do with a degree in political science?” While I didn’t have an at-hand answer at the time, here are some possible responses I’ve picked up along the way.

In terms of economics, as a recent report by Georgetown University showed, holders of liberal arts degrees will get a job – perhaps a bit less quickly than some other degrees (unemployment rates for liberal arts degree holders was 1.7 percent higher compared to the life sciences and 1.9 percent higher than engineers but 4.5 percent lower than architects). Over the long term, liberal arts degree holders usually make a good living compared to skills-oriented jobs. With experience, a liberal arts degree holder makes on average $50,000 compared to $60,000 for a social science degree holder or $63,000 for those in the health field.

While important, perhaps there are reasons other than “making money” that one should consider. What about quality of life? A Cornell graduates survey in 2009 showed that liberal arts majors are at least as satisfied with their lives as their classmates in other disciplines.

The satisfaction, perhaps, is a result of the increased labor market flexibility that liberal arts degree holders have. People will change careers multiple times in their lives. A liberal arts degree prepares one superbly for those changes. Writing, public speaking, complex reasoning, critical thinking, and constructing a sound argument are valuable components of a liberal arts degree. They will never go out of date and they make job seekers flexible in the changing labor market.

Others will pursue graduate or professional degrees. Liberal arts degrees can open doors in this arena too. The Association of American Medical Colleges recently indicated that they accepted a higher percentage of humanities majors compared to any other area of study, with biological sciences coming in second and social sciences third. Similarly, the American Bar Association says that acceptance rates to law school is higher among philosophy, anthropology, history and english majors compared to any other major.

Philosophically and perhaps most importantly, a liberal arts degree helps cultivate a particular orientation toward life – one informed by “critical intellectual dispositions and expanded moral imaginations.” In an increasingly diverse and dynamic market environment, these are assets that enable liberal arts graduates to “think critically, creatively, and independently about important global issues,” said Dean Patrick Jackson at American University’s School of International Service on the American Association of Universities and Colleges’ blog.

Ultimately, though, the future is nearly impossible to predict for specific individuals. To illustrate this point when talking to students, I often mention examples from my own experience as a political science major. None of us predicted the outcome. One former classmate of mine became a political reporter for a newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee. Another classmate became the CEO of a bank in Charlotte, N.C., and a third classmate joined and eventually became the head of a regional, environmental nonprofit organization operating in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. And me, I went on to graduate school and now teach political science at Shepherd University.

So, what are you going to do with that liberal arts degree in this economy? Well, it’s impossible to say for sure, but you’re probably going to make good money, live a satisfied life, and be well prepared to face a changing labor market that is increasingly global and diverse.

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