Transitioning from college to career is never easy, and if you’re graduating with a liberal arts degree the task may seem even more fraught. A recent survey of job seekers and HR professionals from consulting firm Millennial Branding and career network Beyond.com found that only 2% of employers actively recruit liberal arts grads. In contrast, 18% of employers seek out business grads and 27% recruit engineers and computer scientists. Indeed, 49% of job seekers said "no jobs" exist for those with a liberal arts degree.
Don’t despair, liberal arts majors. Whatever your field of study, you can land a job by being strategic about the process.
Whether you need to work or not, working during school is a great idea. At 23 years old, Caitlin Stevens got a librarian job managing a staff of seven. How did she pull that off? "I worked in the library the last two years of college, and I worked part-time in at least four libraries during graduate school," she says, often two roles at a time; not counting the official internships she did.
Many classmates didn’t intern or volunteer. "So they have no experience and wonder why people won’t hire them," she says. "The reasoning I heard a lot from both undergrads and grad students was, 'I'm focusing on school,' but honestly people hiring rarely look at your GPA, so why would you focus on that?" She’s right; only 2% of employers in the Millennial Branding survey ranked GPA as the most important factor in hiring.
Trying different jobs will help you figure out what you like and don’t like. Internships are great, but don’t just look at summer programs. School-year programs might have less competition, and if you arrange your schedule creatively, then you could work a few days per week.
Look for paid internships if you can. A new study from InternMatch finds that students who’ve done paid internships are three times more likely to have job offers at graduation than those doing unpaid ones.
While your college email account still works, take advantage of being in school to ask to meet people. Kate Havard graduated in 2012 from St. John’s College, a liberal arts school in Annapolis, Maryland, that offers a classics education. During a summer program, she heard a talk about journalism from Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol. She asked the program coordinator for his email and sent him "a really embarrassing letter" asking for an internship. He forwarded it to the intern coordinator, and she got in. She did a good job, and wound up doing a year-long stint there after graduation.
Chalk one up to chutzpah. "There’s no harm in asking," she says. "But you have to take the initiative. Try to take people out to lunch. Try to take people out to coffee." She asked a Washington Post reporter out for coffee at one point during her Weekly Standard tenure to learn about Maryland politics, and wound up covering the Maryland state house for the paper later on. "People have always reacted very favorably," she says. "They will do things for students and interns that they won’t for more grown-up types."
Smart job seekers know that classwork doesn’t show what you can do in the real world. If you don’t have a huge network or experience, then you need to come up with a different way to show what you’re capable of. The good news—particularly for those in creative fields—is that college presents opportunities to build a portfolio you won’t get later.
You can encourage your fellow dance class students to perform your choreography, or your drama class students to stage your play. You can stage an exhibition of your artwork and cajole local publications to come cover it. You can do deep investigative reporting pieces for the student newspaper that professional publications won’t trust you to do. Now that you’ve got a track record of your accomplishments, you can ask people to judge you on results.
Havard says she was in the right place at the right time when she scored a gig covering Maryland politics for the Washington Post. While lots of aspiring reporters want to cover Congress, the Maryland state legislature desk was short-staffed. Havard ran with it. "I loved local politics," she says. "I got a lot more access than you would to a congressman. I’d be texting delegates while they were in their committee meetings—what did you think about what that guy just said?" She says she wrote many great stories in the process.
Jason Schober, who has a degree in architecture, art history, and design from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, graduated right around the beginning of the Great Recession. While researching opportunities, he realized that even when the economy was lousy, sales jobs were always available and could be lucrative. "People shy from them, because they can be tough," he says, but he tried the field out. "I encourage any new graduate to consider a sales role," he says. "I learned a lot about myself and it helped me become more confident in presenting and public speaking."
In many fields, there’s nothing stopping you from hanging a shingle and calling yourself a member of that field. Schober now runs his own digital marketing consulting company Sprightly Insight, in addition to a contract position with a Fortune 500 company during the day. He reports that many other young liberal arts grads do something similar.
"Take jobs with employers to maintain your corporate office skills and process knowledge up to date," he says. "Then work on your own business after hours." Combining the two gives you lots of options, Schober says. "You might use your business to gain experience for the type of role you want, or you might decide that you like the entrepreneurial life so much that you keep going with it." Either way, you’ll be on your way to career success.