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How I Made the Most of My Liberal Arts Degree While Job Hunting

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A diploma, a pile of books and a graduation cap.

It’s graduation season! Over the next few weeks we’re sharing tips and resources for recent college grads. Check out our other articles for college grads here.

Like me, you might have realized once you got to college, choosing a major was scary. Like me, you might have felt panicked, because it can seem like a major determines not only what you’ll be studying, but also what your career track will be, and what direction your adult life will take (and that’s hardly a decision that should be left to an eighteen year old, you think). And, like me, you might have opted to major in the liberal arts, enjoyed what you were studying, and assumed you’d figure out you were doing with your life later on.

I found that this plan panned out wonderfully…until right before graduation. It was then that I worried that people wouldn’t take me seriously because I was going to have a degree in visual art. Luckily, as it turns out, if you know how to talk about what you studied and make connections between what you did in college and what you can do at work, you can still find a great opportunity. All it takes is learning how to own your education.

I’m not saying it’s always easy: it took me three months after I graduated in 2012 to secure a corps member position with City Year. Since it was an AmeriCorps program, I was only involved for a year, so when it ended, it took another two months to end up at the nonprofit where I currently work. That being said, here are few tips that I think helped me find my job:

I identified transferable skills I gained in the classroom

In college I spent countless hours in one studio or another, often with paint/clay/charcoal on my face. This, though kind of gross, doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a lot, nor does it mean that I don’t have skills that are applicable outside of the art world.

Art didn’t just require me to refine technical and fine motor skills; I also built up skills in creative thinking, problem solving, and time management. Portfolio presentations meant public speaking skills, and crafting artist statements meant working on writing.

I found that though my studies suggested I pursue a job in the arts sector, the skills that I developed would also apply well to the needs of a nonprofit organization, which I had become very interested in. I used my list of skills to influence the type of jobs I looked for.

What you can do: An important aspect of making a liberal arts degree work for you is thinking about and presenting the skills that you’ve built. List out the transferable skills you built in various classes. You might be surprised by what you realize!

Get started: 6 transferable skills that hiring managers value

I reflected on what I did outside of the classroom

When I was in college, I wanted to immerse myself in the whole culture of it. I had a few different work-study positions, I volunteered, and I even took on two minors.

These experiences helped round me out: While art allowed me to thrive as the introvert I love to be, my job in my college’s resource center required me to have positive phone demeanor, give people guidance in finding materials, and become customer service oriented. As a student adviser, I took on event planning and organizing for my advisees and myself. Leading a volunteer trip helped me become a planner, gave me patience and challenged me to make decisions.

What you can do: Take a look back at your experiences and figure out what they’ve done for you, or take on a volunteer experience to see what you can get from it! Take my word for it: adding variety to what you do keeps your mind moving and introduces you to new opportunities. I’ve added my other experiences to my resume, and they are great examples of how I’ve been able to develop skills and manage my time.

Get started: 4 tips for finding a career-enhancing volunteer opportunity and How can you present your volunteer experience in a competitive job market?

I embraced my background

This is arguably the most important aspect of making your liberal arts background beneficial to your job search. When interviewing for a position, I often found that interviewers were curious about my choice in major. They would ask why I chose it, and what I learned, and this always gave me the opportunity to talk a little about my love for art, how art helped me see multiple solutions to a problem, and why watercolors are my favorite medium. As a topic of conversation, my major has always given me a way to show interviewers what makes me different, and why my uniqueness is a positive.

At my current organization, it was openly appreciated that I had this background, because it was something that added to the dynamic of the existing staff. By talking about why you chose a particular field of study, what you gained from it, and how it’s contributed to your uniqueness, you’re giving the interviewer a glimpse of who you are while also acting as a champion of your own choices.

What you can do: Practice talking with a friend, roommate, or even your mirror about what you chose to study in college. Get comfortable with telling people why your choice to study a liberal arts topic was a good one.

Get started: Download this Google doc to help you prepare stories for a job interview

I made a game plan

Because a major in liberal arts gives you the opportunity to explore many different avenues, it’s very important to narrow down your options and make a plan around what jobs you’ll apply to.

I was able to define a path for myself by looking back at my experiences and finding a common thread. For me, my most enjoyable work/volunteer/life experiences involved bettering the lives of kids, so it made sense to apply to nonprofits based in education and education reform. I also care deeply about issues of equality, and hope to work with an organization that focuses on minority issues at some point. These are the types of jobs that I focused on applying to, and it ended up working out.

What you can do: Look back on your experiences and identify your common thread. Review your resume, or list out all of your experiences. Take note of any patterns you see (like my pattern of working with kids). Use this to figure out the common thread in your experiences. From there, figure out what you want out of a job and what you can offer.

Get started: Here’s how to find a common thread in your career and how to craft an attention-grabbing cover letter and resume.

Find your niche and apply to jobs that fit with it, and use these tips to become the best liberal arts student-turned-professional the working world has ever seen.


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About the Author | Ashley Lee is a graduate of Wheelock College. She majored in Visual Art and minored in Psychology and Women’s Studies, and now works for a Boston area nonprofit. She is an avid crafter, reader, and hopes to be a change agent in the city of Boston for some time to come. Connect with her on Twitter.

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