Liberal arts grads fare better in job market than most think


March 5, 2014

It’s a myth that if you major in the liberal arts in college, you are destined for a lifetime of low-wage jobs and limited mobility, according to a recent report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Liberal arts majors may start off slower than others in their careers, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time, says the report, titled “How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment.” It analyzed 2010 and 2011 data on college attainment and annual earnings from the U.S. Census Bureau. woman speaking to law firm representatives at career fair Download Full Image

Students who major in humanities and social science won’t earn as much over their lifetimes as those who major in engineering, science and math. But by their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with a bachelor’s or advanced degree are on average making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates, according to the report.

Liberal arts majors don’t fare quite as well when they have just an undergraduate degree, but many are finding that internships, an academic minor or a certificate will give them a leg up that helps them access the entry rungs of the career ladder. Others get a boost by coupling their education with field-specific skills, such as marketing, sales, social media, graphic design and data analysis and management.

Many Arizona State University students in liberal arts have the advantage of taking a cross-disciplinary approach to their studies, rather than focusing on a narrow major, according to Patrick Kenney, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).

Internships and interdisciplinary study at ASU

Almost all majors in CLAS also offer internships and hands-on community work, and a number of programs are now offering professional, career-oriented master’s degrees.

“A liberal arts education is focused broadly on introducing students to a wide range of relevant topics, including politics, history, sociology and communication,” says Kenney. “Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and strong communication skills are at the core of liberal arts education, and critical to success in today’s world.

“The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has taken seriously the need to forge interdisciplinary links and create programs that extend across fields. We have freed up a number of credit hours so students have options to do this. Students must learn how to work collaboratively, to assess and analyze problems and reach solutions.”

The report emphasizes that there’s one area in which humanities and social science majors excel: meeting employers’ desires and expectations. Employers want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and who can work together to solve problems, communicate and think critically, and adapt to a changing workplace.

Graduate schools also find a liberal arts background appealing because it demonstrates an ability to learn across a diverse field of studies.

Liberal arts – good preparation for career

Ryan Gliha, a 1998 ASU graduate with a bachelor’s in religious studies who is now a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department, says his degree prepared him well for the challenges of his career.

“My religious studies background taught me how to better understand others’ worldviews in a way that makes me a more effective representative of the American people abroad,” he says. “My liberal arts degree (also) taught me how to communicate effectively, with nuance and precision.”

Gelie Akhenbilt, who earned a bachelor’s in communication in 2003, likes the fact that her degree gave her options. She started out in marketing, moving into employee internal communication before launching her own tech startup. Now she makes presentations on television and on stage for her company, utilizing the skills she learned in college.

Bachelor’s degrees in history prepared Sandra Bensley, a 2003 graduate, and Peg Perl, who graduated in 1997, for law school and successful careers as attorneys. Both say that they learned critical thinking, written analysis and effective communication of ideas, all of which are key to success in the legal profession.

“My transition into law school was likely more seamless because I had already learned how to reason and apply different viewpoints,” says Bensley. “As a practicing attorney, liberal arts courses gave me a background in critical thinking that I use every day.”

Real-world experience, career skills help

Ninety percent of ASU undergraduates participate in individual study projects, internships or research, often giving them real-world experience that can help them with career decisions or make them more employable.

An internship program in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics places undergraduates in family and human development in more than 100 local agencies, including Head Start centers, domestic violence shelters and a children’s hospital. Students may shadow child life specialists, visit patients and provide parent education, meeting regularly with ASU faculty who supervise them.

ASU just held its first-ever Humanities Career Fair, presented by the Department of English; the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies (SHPRS); and the School of International Letters and Cultures. More than 30 employers attended, along with at least 130 ASU students.

“We wanted to create an environment for our graduates to shine in front of potential employers,” says Beatriz Kravetz, manager of marketing and communications for SHPRS. “In a STEM-driven society, it may be a challenge for a philosophy major to outshine a math major before an employer such as Northstar/Honeywell, despite the fact that philosophy majors many times end up in high level positions at companies like this. We can even out the playing field.”

Matthew Garcia, the director of SHPRS, is heading up an initiative to incorporate more career skills into courses, as well. The idea is to require more public speaking, presentations in video and social media formats, and other projects that translate students’ writing skills into new modes of communication.

ASU adds professional master’s programs

Enhancing career opportunities for ASU liberal arts graduates are a number of professional master’s degree programs, including a newly-launched degree in geographic information systems. The one-year program includes advanced study in management and the use of GIS technology in public and corporate environments.

Other professional master’s programs include global health, urban and environmental planning, marriage and family therapy, and communication disorders. These are designed as preparation for the workforce, rather than a bridge to a doctoral program or an academic career.

ASU liberal arts grads find success, offer advice


March 5, 2014

ASU asked several graduates with liberal arts degrees to describe their career experiences and the choices they have made. Would they do anything differently in preparing for a career? Many of them said they would.

Peg Perl, BA in Russian and history from ASU in 1997, law degree in 2000 from Georgetown University Law Center headshot of Peg Perl Download Full Image

Q: Why did you choose to major in Russian and history?

A: I had taken Russian as a foreign language in high school and really liked it. I wanted to learn more about the people and culture. This was the early 90s, right as the Soviet Union was breaking up, so it was an exciting time to learn about the history and see the formations of new states and government structure. (I studied abroad in Moscow in 1995.) This connected to my history degree, as my classes focused on American history, government and constitutional structure, as well as Russian/Eastern European history. My honors thesis really brought these all together as a study in American foreign policy/diplomatic history during the initial years after the Russian Revolution between WWI and WWII.

Knowing that I wanted to go to law school, the important thing was to read a lot, develop critical thinking skills, and develop a great background knowledge of our country's government and history, and the world. My majors definitely did all of that and more.

Q: What has your career path been?

A: My career started in private practice in the Washington, D.C., office of Bryan Cave LLP (an international law firm also in Phoenix). After a few years, I transitioned into public service and spent my remaining years in D.C. working for the federal government. I was at the Federal Election Commission for four years, where I wrote advisory opinions interpreting the Federal Election Campaign Act, drafted regulations and explanations, reviewed public comments and advised commissioners and general counsel for public hearings. Then I was advice and education counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee for two years.

Q: What is your current position?

A: I moved back west to Colorado in 2010 and have been working at Colorado Ethics Watch since 2012. I am the in-house lawyer for this nonprofit association, and I'm responsible for both policy work and litigation at the state and local level in Colorado. Our focus is on good government issues: open records, public transparency, government ethics, campaign finance, fair elections, etc.

Q: Has a liberal arts degree prepared you for the challenges you've faced, or given you opportunities?

A: I think my liberal arts degree has prepared me for everything in my career. I kept an interdisciplinary study perspective while in law school – law and politics, law and society, etc. Critical thinking, written analysis, effective communication of ideas and arguments have all been very important to my career in government and nonprofit advocacy, and these skills were all learned through my liberal arts courses and completion of my honors thesis and defense. Working with people in the two different departments where I received a B.A. has helped me keep my ability to present, train and persuade non-lawyers, even when talking about legal topics.

Q: What would you do differently, if anything, in preparing for a career?

A: I probably would have tried to make better use of my summers during college for internships or career-focused opportunities. I mostly spent my summers working jobs just to get a paycheck, but starting with my summer between ASU and law school, I did more internships in government and so forth that provided me with insight into possible directions for my career. I wish I had started doing that sooner during my years at ASU.

On a personal note, I met my husband, Craig Perl, at ASU when we were both living in McClintock Hall during freshman year. We got married a week after we both graduated from ASU in May 1997 (he has a B.S. in Civil Engineering), and we are still together, 17 years and two kids later.

Ryan Gliha, BA in religious studies 1998 from ASU, also M.A. in religious studies from the University of Pennsylvania

Q: Why did you choose to major in religious studies?

A. I chose religious studies because I had always been interested in how other peoples and cultures saw the world differently than me. Religious studies opened a window through which I could try understand how others' world views shaped the way in which they lived.

Q: What has your career path been?

A: I left graduate school to join the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer in 2002. I have served as a public diplomacy officer since then.

Q: What is your current position?

A: I'm now stationed at the U.S. Embassy in London, where I serve as an Arabic language spokesperson for the Department of State and director of the London Regional Media Hub. Essentially, my office is an extension of the State Department's press offices in Washington, whereby I work to engage foreign media on behalf of the U.S. government. I primarily focus on Arab, Iranian and South Asian media markets, participating in interviews and other media outreach to explain and support U.S. foreign policy.

Q: Has a liberal arts degree from ASU prepared you for the challenges you've faced, or given you opportunities?

A: My liberal arts degree taught me how to communicate effectively, with nuance and precision, both verbally and in writing. My religious studies background taught me how to better understand others' worldviews in a way that makes me a more effective representative of the American people abroad.

Q: What would you do differently, if anything, in preparing for a career?

A: My religious studies degree gives me a unique and powerful toolset for diplomatic service abroad, for interpreting and engaging foreign cultures. But I would have taken more coursework in the social sciences, and taken greater advantage of foreign language study opportunities as an undergraduate.

Gelie Akhenbilt, BA in communication from ASU in 2003

Q: Why did you choose communication as a major?

A: It encompassed what I was interested in (communicating within other cultures) and it fit my personality. I wasn’t sure what my passions were at that age, so I wanted to leave my options open and to explore. I liked that it was up to me to make my future.

Q: What has your career path been?

A: My first job was in public relations for an agency, which hired me to do marketing. Then I went to J.P. Morgan Chase to work in employee internal communication. In 2008 I launched my own tech startup, networkingphoenix.com, an online platform for local professionals, business owners and entrepreneurs who are looking for networking events, for finding jobs or clients. It’s a calendar of all the networking events in the metro Phoenix area. Paid members can attend any of the paid events for free. We now have more than 27,000 members, and we just launched in Chicago in January. My husband is a software engineer, so we started it together, though it was my baby.

Q: Has your liberal arts degree prepared you for the challenges you've faced, or given you opportunities?

A: Does anything prepare you to be an entrepreneur? I’m jealous that ASU students now have so many entrepreneurial resources available to them. But my degree gave me an education in what I wanted to do. I’m on TV and on stage a lot, and it prepared me for that. I wanted to have space to follow my passions, and it gave me that.

Q: What would you do differently, if anything, in preparing for a career?

A: I wouldn’t do anything differently. I had an amazing college experience, and I enjoyed almost every single class I took at ASU. My advice to students is to remember that you have no idea what you’re going to do in life, and that’s OK. Just focus on your interests and your passions, and set yourself on a path that will let you explore those.

Ben Blevins, BA in women’s studies from ASU in 2004, MS in terrorism and international relations from the University of Wales in 2009

Q: Why did you major in women's studies? 

A: I think everyone should major, or at least minor, in women and gender studies. So many of us don't see tertiary education as the opportunity to break the mold of our provincial intellectual understandings, and instead see it as a more prestigious trade school or a place to network for salaried postings. For me, I knew that I wanted my education to be inspiring and transformative in a way that would challenge everything, or most of what, I took for granted, and women and gender studies did just that. From a career perspective, it also offered a niche understanding that would nuance many of my decisions in the workplace, as well as in what career choices to pursue.  

Q: Did you have a scholarship for graduate school abroad? How did that come about? 

A: I took federal loans to support my postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom, where I pursued a master's in international relations. For some highly specialized technology and science fields, scholarships are available for masters degree students, but for the rest of us, we have to pay out of pocket. For that reason, the UK was an attractive destination, as most master's programs are 12 months in duration, as opposed to two years in the U.S., and are more heavily focused on research and writing than seminars and coursework. This combination of factors allowed me to achieve my educational goals more quickly, thereby permitting an earlier career start. 

Q: What has been your career path?

A: I was in the Peace Corps in Checa, Ecuador, from 2006 to 2008. Peace Corps is a tremendous place to learn about yourself and another part of the world while also gaining experience in developing countries. At the time I joined, I knew I loved to travel, and I was very interested in trans-national issues and organizations that dealt with these topics (like the United Nations or the Red Cross), but there were few jobs available to someone lacking the international experience. Peace Corps was unique in that there are not many programs that will give you two years to explore international cooperation, development and foreign languages while providing the health and security support.

Following graduate school, I served as a national shelter monitoring officer for the Red Cross, a policy assistant for the Rise Foundation and an intern for the United Nations Development Programme, working on an inter-agency project on human trafficking. I went to work for American NGO, called Africa Development Corps, in 2011.

Q: What is your current position?

A: I'm currently the Country Director for Africa Development Corps, an NGO based in Liberia, West Africa. Our scope of work is to support larger international agencies, such as UNICEF, the World Food Programme and government aid arms, such as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, to implement their mandates. Simply stated, they make the policy decisions, and we do the work on the ground. Our sectors of specialization are education and food security, from which we support community interventions, including early childhood development centers and lowland rice production, as examples. 

Getting to this career position took time and a fair amount of personal resolve, as low pay and high employment qualifications can discourage young professionals. The sector is known for placing a heavy preference on years of experience over academic qualifications, which can lead to a catch-22 if you are just starting out. The way around this is to volunteer in programs like the Peace Corps, but also for international NGOs and the UN, all of which I did before getting my current post. The silver lining is in the amazing countries and people that you meet along the way, giving the world a smaller, more friendly ambiance than ever imagined. 

Q: Has a liberal arts degree prepared you for the challenges you've faced, or given you opportunities? What would you do differently, if anything, in preparing for a career?

A: Most of us will have many careers throughout our working life, so save yourself the mental anguish of trying to “figure out what you're going to do with your life” by simplifying your choice in a bachelor level degree. If you find the studies stimulating and enjoyable, then it's probably a good fit. Any B.A. or B.S. will open doors and allow for new job opportunities. Allow yourself the possibility to go back to school if need be. I waited four years before going for a master's, and I will probably aim for a PhD some time next year (five years after my master's) if the opportunity is right. 

As members of the Information Age, where data and goods are ever cheaper and technology aggregates what previously seemed disparate, our ability to think outside the box by adding value in the analysis becomes a more and more valuable asset, especially toward the economy of tomorrow. As an example, Liberia, which during my time at ASU was still embroiled in what was to be a 14-year civil war, has not been an easy place to work. But the ability to think across sectors, collaborate with people from all walks of life and focus on the macro-level objectives has made all the difference. 

Sandra Bensley, BA in history and political science from ASU in 2003, law degree from ASU in 2006

Q: Why did you major in history and political science?

A: I chose my majors for the simple reason that I had always been interested in those subjects and wanted to pursue a course of study that I was passionate about. I wanted to be an attorney, so I knew I would be attending law school.  

Q: What has your career path been?

A: I always knew I wanted to be an attorney. My first job after law school was as an assistant city prosecutor for the City of Glendale. I was fortunate to be able to spend almost all my time in the courtroom prosecuting a wide variety of cases, and it was a wonderful experience to start my career. My career plan always included wanting to handle felony cases, so following a move to Tucson to be closer to family, I started a position as an assistant public defender for Pima County. In the more than four years I was a public defender, I represented indigent persons charged with all classes of felonies, including drug cases, property crimes, sex crimes and homicides.  I specifically represented mainly defendants that spoke Spanish as their primary language. 

I am so proud of the quality of representation and dedication to their work that the public defenders I worked with exhibited. In 2013, I was offered a position with one of the largest and most respected full-service law firms in Tucson. So in January 2013, I started as an associate with Waterfall Economidis Caldwell Hanshaw and Villamana, P.C. I now use my extensive trial experience to primarily assist clients with estate and trust issues.

Q: Has a liberal arts degree prepared you for the challenges you've faced, or given you opportunities?

A: Having a liberal arts education did prepare me for my eventual career as an attorney. Initially, the well-rounded exposure I had to many subjects undoubtedly prepared me well for entrance and completion of law school. Similar to a liberal arts education, law school also seeks to teach students "how to think," and then to apply that process to a multitude of different subjects. My transition into law school was likely more seamless because I had already learned how to reason and apply different viewpoints.   

As a practicing attorney, liberal arts courses gave me a background in critical thinking that I use every day. Also, being intellectually curious is a hallmark of a liberal arts education, and that has guided my career by giving me the confidence and ability to transition into different areas of the practice of law for the overall benefit of my professional development. I think that successful attorneys never stop being curious about the law.   

Q: What would you do differently, if anything, in preparing for a career?

A: I wouldn't change anything in preparing for a career, except maybe even more of a focus on mastering a second, or even third, language. Even though I was fluent in Spanish before my time at ASU, I wish I had spent more time on really exploring the literature, and working toward more of a mastery of the language. Working for many years with Spanish speaking clients allowed me to even further improve my fluency of Spanish, but I could have gained that same level of mastery in explaining legal concepts and defenses in a second language even sooner with some additional coursework and, potentially, internships. 

If I really had more time to devote, I would have liked to learn another language, perhaps French, to assist better with international clients and personal and professional travel. I had several experiences at ASU that benefited me greatly, primarily internships and paid employment positions in my desired field. These experiences allowed me to more quickly transition into an attorney position immediately after receiving my admission to practice.    

Mark Appleton, BA in history from ASU in 2009

Q: Why did you choose to major in history?

A: I chose my history degree specifically because I wanted to make sure I was getting a well-rounded education. While at ASU, my studies included a pre-medical emphasis because I was planning to go to medical school (something I may still do when this current tangent is all over). Knowing I would be getting plenty of science education, I also wanted to make sure I was maintaining and building my reading, writing and critical thinking skills. I loved history, knew it would be a great way to build the skills I just mentioned and feel it is important to see the big picture and understand where people and nations come from in order to understand where they are going.

Q: What has your career path been?

A: After graduating in 2009, I spent a year living in India on a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship. I returned home to Arizona in the summer of 2010 and took an MCAT, intending to apply to medical school later that year. However, I also started working on Terry Goddard’s 2010 Arizona gubernatorial campaign that summer and was reminded of how much I enjoy public policy, something I had been involved with while a student at ASU. I decided to apply for a White House internship in the hopes that I could continue building larger-scale policy experience.

In the end, Terry Goddard ended up losing his bid for governor, but I did find out shortly thereafter that I had been accepted for a White House internship. After completing my internship in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, I became a Presidential Appointee, serving as a special assistant to then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

Q: What is your current position?

A: When Dr. Ernest Moniz became the new U.S. Secretary of Energy midway through last year, I was promoted to be a special advisor to him, and have served in that role since.

Q: Has a liberal arts degree prepared you for the challenges you've faced, or given you opportunities?

A: My liberal arts degree prepared me well for past challenges and the ones I face daily in my current role. As a history major, you must digest large amounts of information to understand the big picture of a given subject, form your personal interpretation of the facts you are reviewing and understand how others may come to view the subject differently. Then, you must distill this expanse of information down into a concise and defensible position, all while keeping an open mind, unprejudiced toward new facts or interpretations that may alter or contrast with your own.

This skill is invaluable wherever you go in life, and has opened doors to opportunities I could have never imagined, including serving as an appointee in the Obama Administration. Working on national policy issues at one of the country's largest federal agencies in a city where differing opinions are normal and encouraged means one must be able to learn new issues quickly, define and advocate for a position, and be open to alternative solutions and compromise. Luckily, my education provided a solid skill set for this type of work, and whether we are working on long-term, strategic policy issues or time-sensitive, emergency responses, I have always felt comfortable using this approach to address the matter at hand.

Q: What would you do differently, if anything, in preparing for a career?

A: In terms of subject matter, my current position is so different from anything I studied in college that I can't really say I would have done anything differently to prepare for it. However, what I will say is that it is important to remember that, regardless of what you study within the liberal arts, the underlying process of investigating a subject, forming a position and then defending that position while being open to new facts and different opinions is an approach to problem-solving and learning that will serve you well whatever you do. You do not simply become an expert on a specific era of history or the works of some ancient philosopher. You master an approach to learning and problem-solving that is truly applicable to any field you wish to pursue.