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How to find a job with a liberal arts degree


Q: I'm a liberal arts major, and it feels like there's no clear line of work for me to pursue. How can I use my degree to get a job when I graduate?

A: The older I get, the more fiercely I defend unduly maligned liberal arts majors. I'm the proud recipient of an English degree. Some people thought that studying literature was an endearing quirk, not a career path, but it led me to a fulfilling career in journalism.

Now that I'm out in the real world, I've seen how desperate companies are for good writers, communicators and researchers. According to a National Association of Colleges and Employers spring 2016 survey , employers rated critical thinking, professionalism and teamwork as the most important career-readiness traits of college graduates -- all achievable through liberal arts studies.

It's true that PayScale's list of bachelor degrees with high income potential is dominated by science and engineering. But a humanities background can give you the foundation to solve problems, lead and collaborate with others, which can help you rise through the ranks in any industry. You never know where your liberal arts background may take you. Late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien majored in history and literature. Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Starbucks, majored in communications.

Follow these steps to gain confidence in your formidable knowledge, relay it to employers and land a job you love.

Test your interests

Liberal arts students often feel overwhelmed by all the career directions they can go, says Karyn McCoy, assistant vice president of DePaul University's Career Center in Chicago. If you're a political science major, for instance, you could pursue law, journalism, business, international relations, academia -- the list goes on.

Before you graduate, hone in on what excites you by volunteering, working part time, joining extracurricular clubs and taking on internships. You'll build additional skills that can make you more marketable with employers. My experiences as an intern at nonprofit legal organizations helped me get my first job as a paralegal.

"In many cases in job interviews, it's those other applied experiences that students have had that help them stand out," says Paul Timmins, director of career services for the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Use tools such as the O(asterisk)NET Interest Profiler, sponsored by the Department of Labor, to explore potential occupations based on the types of tasks and job-related activities that most interest you. You also can ask your college's alumni relations director to put you in touch with alumni with your degree. Set up a phone call or brief coffee meeting to discuss how they translated their liberal arts background into a successful career.

Own your skills

It takes practice to assess exactly how your major has prepared you for the workplace.

"Students don't necessarily know how to identify the skills that they're gaining or to talk about them in a way that sells them to an employer," McCoy says.

Brainstorm with your college's career services department, a trusted professor or an internship supervisor about the transferable skills you can bring to the workplace. McCoy also recommends scrutinizing a few job descriptions that interest you, then writing down an experience showing how you meet each qualification.

If the employer wants someone who can take initiative, for instance, you'd share in a cover letter or during an interview your experience at forming an anthropology study group. It would be even better if you could report a measureable positive result, such as a classwide increase in test scores. Is the company looking for a strong collaborator? Your work on a team that curated the new on-campus museum exhibit would be relevant.

Remember, too, that your first job is a single rung on your career ladder, McCoy says. You can prepare incessantly and still find you'd rather work in a different company or industry that better fits your passions or lifestyle.

"Each step is going to give you something, whether it's a specific skill or an insight that says, 'OK, this definitely isn't it.'"

"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

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