A Guide to the Many Liberal Arts Career Paths Available Today

Okay, let’s get this out of the way up front: we have heard all the jabs people take at liberal arts majors, too. Liberal arts jobs can sometimes take it on the chin too.

“I’m sure it’s fun, but the average college graduate with a degree in something like English is going to end up working in a shoe store,” said venture capitalist and Netscape founder Marc Andreesen. Even the typically optimistic President Barack Obama said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Barack Obama was a poli-sci and English lit major who managed to become president of the most powerful nation in the world, so maybe paychecks aren’t everything.

It’s sort of become a worn-out cliche. Science, technology, engineering, and math (the so-called STEM fields) are the only fields offering the kind of hard skills required to make it these days. But the countless successful liberal studies grads who continue to revolutionize industry, arts, politics and academia are proving things aren’t so black and white.

As the costs of college have risen in recent decades, there’s even more pressure to pick a degree that promises a high salary soon after graduation. The average student will have a lot of loans hanging over their head right after they are handed their diploma. There’s a strong sense of futility in staring down decades of payments as that witty barista with the philosophy degree.

The True Values of Liberal Arts Are in High Demand in the Job Market

The life of a student

It’s somewhat ironic that these misconceptions about the education you need in the modern job market are rooted in a pretty outdated idea of what a degree in liberal studies is all about. What you’re getting with a liberal arts and sciences degree isn’t just the ability to come up with Wittgenstein quotes for any occasion. Instead, you are learning exactly the kind of talents that employers actually say they are looking for.

Ask any employer exactly what kind of people they are looking to hire and they will all say:

We want talented people who are self-motivated, with strong written and verbal communication skills, who can think critically and come up with creative solutions to real problems.

Guess what kind of skills a liberal arts degree gives you?

The reality is that most job-specific knowledge and skills are things that you pick up on the job anyway. Ask any economics major how well their degree actually prepped them for that trading desk job at Goldman. Turns out the theory was all the easy part, and all the real-world training only happens after you get hired and get some experience. The real skills you need to build in college are the skills it takes to quickly absorb and master what those jobs throw at you.

With a liberal arts degree, you already have the training to quickly pick up what your mentors and peers are throwing down. You’ve spent your entire time in school thinking about how to think, learning about how to learn. Those are talents that every employer is going to value above almost anything else.

The reality is that a liberal arts degree can give you exactly the skills that employers want. What you do with those skills will be up to you.

What Can I Do With a Liberal Arts Degree?

The only correct answer to this question is “anything you want.”

That’s the power of a liberal arts education. You get the tools and skillset to take on any subject, to reason your way through all kinds of problems, to absorb, learn, and categorize additional knowledge in any area.

People get confused about what to do with a liberal arts degree because there is no one standing there telling you what to do. You get a degree in medicine, you’re going to be a doctor. Get a degree in engineering, you’ll probably wind up as an engineer. It’s right in the title!

endless career possibilities

Liberal arts degrees are different. They don’t hand you job titles. They hand you the tools to get jobs done.

When you wrap your head around it, a liberal arts career can make a lot more sense in terms of personal satisfaction and professional potential than the alternatives. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2019 the average 6-year graduation rate for undergraduate students in the United States was only 63 percent. That means that almost four in every ten students who start on a baccalaureate degree don’t finish it within the first six years.

There are many reasons that happens, but one big one is that after starting down the path of a specific career field, many find that it isn’t as great as it sounded in the beginning.

But a liberal arts program offers a kind of freedom and flexibility in pursuing careers even very late in the educational process. Since the primary skills you are learning are general enough to give you a boost in any field, you can switch career paths on a dime. That’s a good value in a college education—and a great benefit to your potential employers.

Liberal Arts Career Options Can Take You From Wall Street to Silicon Valley

excited studentsTed Turner, founder of CNN, was a classics major at Brown. Carly Fiorina, one-time CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the most hardcore computer science corporation of its time, studied medieval history and philosophy at Stanford. Jamie Dimon, CEO of Wall Street heavyweight J.P. Morgan, studied psychology and economics at Tufts. Bill Belichick, the most winning coach in NFL playoff and Super Bowl history, majored in economics at Wesleyan. 

These are just a few of the enormously successful people who have launched their careers with liberal arts degrees.

And these aren’t just random exceptions in a sea of unemployed arts and sciences graduates. No less a visionary than Steve Jobs, founder and leader of Apple (and a liberal studies major who dropped out before completing his degree), directly and publicly connected the company’s success with the fact that their approach to engineering and design incorporated liberal arts:

"It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."

~ Steve Jobs

And you don’t need years of reflection in philosophy to understand that this isn’t just a chance discovery or random coincidence. The humanities offer us the context in which all other human invention and aspiration fit.

So any company that is betting heavily on The Next Big Thing needs some sense of what makes things big, and what human beings are looking for next. Those are exactly the type of things that liberal studies majors excel at identifying.

Did You Know the World’s Most Powerful Intelligence Apparatus Actively Recruits Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors?

important man in suitWhen you mention liberal arts jobs, people immediately start thinking of academics or other soft skill positions that involve a lot of talking and not much action. But it turns out the U.S. government is a big fan of liberal arts graduates when it comes to a much more hard-nosed career field: the cloak and dagger jobs of intelligence operatives and analysts.

Job ads for intelligence analysts at agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency openly prefer applicants who have degrees in liberal arts fields over those with professional or hard science degrees.

Although the recruiting process for field operatives is more shadowy, ask yourself what kind of graduate would be more successful in a deep-cover overseas assignment: a computer science nerd who has spent four years with their nose up against a screen, or a liberal arts grad with language training, psychological profiling skills, and the kind of cultural awareness to blend in to a diverse and exotic environment?

Liberal Arts Jobs Can Pay Big Salaries But The Career Potential is Where You Strike True Gold

If you were paying attention at all, you probably already guessed that owning your own cable news channel or working as CEO for a tech company or one of the biggest trading firms in the world are all jobs that come with pretty beefy salaries. And indeed, if you look at Jamie Dimon’s $31.5 million salary for 2020 and the net worth of nearly $2 billion he amassed along the way, that psychology degree sure seems to have paid off. 

Of course, we’re not suggesting that every liberal arts degree will take you right to the boardroom. You may not even want that kind of career. But the point is that a liberal arts degree doesn’t really come with any upper limit on salary potential. In line with the very philosophy and method behind liberal studies, your education and your career will be what you make of it.

You can go wherever your ambition takes you—the hallmark of a liberal arts education is that it makes you capable of stepping in and picking up exactly the skills you need in any field.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62 percent of liberal arts graduate’s work in one of five fields:

  • Educational instruction and library occupations
  • Management occupations
  • Sales and related occupations
  • Office and administrative support occupations
  • Business and financial operations occupations

Those fields span a wide range of potential salaries and opportunities. In part, where you land will depend on the level of degree that you earn. A master’s graduate will no doubt land a far better paying job than someone with only an associate’s degree, for example. But at any level, they will be applying similar concepts from their liberal studies education.

 

Liberal arts degrees at every level offer you some real advantages in today’s job market.

Bachelor’s Degrees in the Liberal Arts

According to job analysis firm Burning Glass, jobs postings that require a bachelor’s degree as the minimum qualification jumped anywhere from 35 percent to 175 percent, depending on the industry, for positions that previously required only a high school diploma. Degree inflation is real, but, surprisingly, the industries that are being hit the hardest are those where technical skill requirements are increasing. More and more employers are realizing that a four-year education in liberal studies offers rock-solid proof of a job candidate’s ambition, literacy, and adaptability. It’s not your specialization that makes a liberal arts bachelor’s special: it’s your ability to specialize in anything.

Master’s/Doctoral Degrees in the Liberal Arts

Master’s grads in liberal arts don’t need someone to tell them what they can do. They are in a position to make their own opportunities. Master’s or doctoral grads are often already accomplished professionals. They use the independence of a liberal arts master’s to shake loose their creativity and inspiration, either branching out into a new field or returning to their old one with the vision and creativity it takes to achieve new heights.

What’s Up With Doctoral Jobs in the Liberal Arts?

You’ll notice that we are lumping together master’s and doctoral level qualifications in our examples of jobs you can get with liberal arts degrees. “Wait a minute,” you are saying. “A doctorate is, like, five extra years of expensive education—doesn’t that earn me a little extra bread on the back end?”

There’s no question that additional years of study, and the depth that comes with independent research and writing a dissertation will make you a more capable innovator, communicator, and leader. But doctoral studies in liberal arts aren’t a conventional path to traditional careers.

Instead, a doctor of liberal studies (DLS) program is more often an intensive exercise you undertake for your own purposes, not a paycheck. If learning more and thinking harder builds your insights into business such that you invent the next iPhone, you’re gonna be a billionaire. But if learning more and thinking harder just offers intense personal satisfaction and never earns you an extra dime, that’s great too.

Liberal studies come with and from the belief that knowledge is its own reward. Doctors of Liberal Arts may get rich, or they may spend their days maintaining motorcycle engines. A DLA graduate has the insight to know which holds the greater value.

You will find different opportunities at each of these degree levels in the various concentrations available in liberal arts studies.

Arts and Humanities Build Your Capacity for Empathy and Creativity in Your Career

An arts and humanities focus is the most classic sort of liberal arts education, taking you through classical studies designed to enhance your appreciation of the arts and your understanding of individuals. That’s perfect preparation for customer service and managerial careers in almost any field as well as sales and marketing positions.

Bachelor’s Degree – The combination of arts training and communication skills are ideal for anyone entering a creative industry or managing or coordinating with artists or designers.

Master’s or Doctoral Degree – High level management positions benefit from master’s studies that offer communication and leadership skills ahead of the competition.

Math and Sciences Concentrations Set You Up For Calculation and Problem-Solving in Business or Government

The liberal arts are built not just on art, but on arts and sciences. A math and science concentration leans harder on the technical skills of that two-part education, while still upping your skills in outside-the-box thinking and interpersonal communications.

That’s a great combination when it comes to public-facing positions in science, technology, or government. Being able to explain complex issues in language that the average person can understand may be more important than having a solution to the complex issue in the first place. If you can’t convince people to do it, what is the value?

Math and science concentrations in the liberal arts hand you the best of both worlds: the ability to deal with highly technical issues, along with the wisdom to understand how to connect them to real-world events and consequences.

Bachelor’s Degree – A four-year degree gives you just the right mix of hard sciences and social skills to qualify you for project management, organizing research projects, or professions where soft skills combine with hard science or engineering talent.

Master’s or Doctoral Degree – Supervising scientists or engineers and acting as their interface with the outside world takes rare talent, but it’s the sort of job that a MALS program is the perfect qualification for.

A Liberal Arts Degree With a Social Science Concentration Prepares You For Public Service

One of the key advantages to your broad studies of human history, politics, and governance is a strong understanding of society as it exists today. All the ills and inequities result from forces beyond the control of most people. But with your knowledge, you are well-equipped to start making a difference for the disadvantaged.

Social sciences students in the liberal arts have an easy time finding work at the macro level, trying to change society through activism and persuasion, or the micro level, reaching down and helping disadvantaged individuals one by one. Students of history have the tools to help change it.

Bachelor’s Degree – Bachelor of liberal arts graduates have the kind of soft skills it takes to inspire and lead other groups of people, with the exposure to math, history, and science to give them the strategic vision to plan and execute big social services solutions.

Woman talking in meeting

Master’s or Doctoral Degree – Master of liberal studies degrees can prepare you for groundbreaking non-profit leadership roles, or work in local, state, or national government agencies aimed at facing down some of the biggest social and health problems of our time.

Education and Human Development Trains Students to Become Teachers and Caregivers

The original purpose of liberal arts degrees was to help establish standards for educators. Wandering scholars actually carted those sheepskins around Europe with them, the ornate lettering inviting potential employers to know their qualifications as teacher, tutor, or scholar as judged by a reputable university.

To All to whom these Letters may come, Greetings: The President and Trustees of the University on the recommendation and approval of the Faculty have conferred the Degree of Bachelor of Arts And all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining…

~ Traditional wording on a diploma of bachelor of arts

Teacher sitting on deskAlthough many educational degrees now come in much more specialized flavors, a liberal arts degree still serves as excellent qualification for anyone whose job is to reach out to and connect with others. Whether those are formal positions as school teachers or as trainers in human resources, this concentration helps you connect with your own students.

Bachelor’s Degree – The general kind of educational and human development knowledge earned in a four-year program can, with state-specific training courses, land you a job as a teacher in most schools in humanities or other liberal arts subjects.

Master’s or Doctoral Degree – Education may be one of the fields where a doctor of liberal arts degree holds the greatest level of respect, and serves as qualification for the most advanced positions.

The breadth of a liberal arts degree in any concentration leaves a lot of slack between these positions. Particularly for master’s and doctoral students, the unique nature of the liberal arts curriculum can allow you to tailor it to highly specific areas of study or career paths.

You never need to feel constrained in your career path by the particular concentration you adopted for your degree. A liberal arts program is all about flexibility, and you will have the tools to take it in any direction after graduation.

The Ability to Think On Your Feet and Solve Problems on the Job is the True Advantage of a Liberal Studies Education

The real advantage to having a liberal arts background isn’t just getting hired or earning a decent salary, though. The thing about the humanities is that they give you a broad skillset to step up when your company needs a go-to person. Companies famously love employees with potential. When you have the skills to deal with unexpected problems and get work done outside your job description, it says one big thing to the bosses: this one has got management potential.

So what a liberal arts degree buys your career really comes down to one word: potential. You can climb the ladder faster and higher than someone with a more specialized, narrow education. You have the people skills and the insights into society and business that make you a shoo-in for some of the top jobs in nearly any industry.

Of course, the level this will take you will depend at least a little on the level of your degree. How extensive your liberal arts education is will influence how you think and what your skills are in these areas. A general studies AA might get you to management level at McDonald’s. A master’s in liberal studies can put you in the corporate C-suite.

The beauty of the liberal arts path is that the choices are all yours. You decide what career to pursue; you decide what classes offer you the best preparation. And when everything lines up, the sky is the limit in liberal arts jobs.

 

2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for Liberal arts occupations reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed October 2021.