By Russ Pottle, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Misericordia University
"You're outnumbered." The woman blinked and looked around the room. Five of us were designing the information hierarchy for a college's new Web site. She was a very sharp thinker, with a professional degree from a very good school. And she had just been informed that everyone else in the room had been English majors.
Do not count out the liberal arts.
From an economic perspective, it seems easy to discount liberal arts majors today. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that students in undergraduate liberal arts majors may see lower starting salaries and higher unemployment rates shortly after graduating. Research like this can make you wonder whether the liberal arts are worth the return on investment.
But that short time is not the whole story. In the liberal arts, it is not the first job, or even the second, that is the point or the ultimate goal. Liberal arts majors prepare graduates for flexible thinking, problem solving, and complex analysis – for being able to learn quickly and see possibilities that others might not, and to do that over a lifetime of changes. Even the Georgetown study indicates that, as time passes, salaries in liberal arts fields begin to catch up and unemployment rates among most career fields tend to flatten out.
So in the liberal arts, it is more likely the third or fourth job that makes the difference. By then, if money is important, you have been able to see a career path that will deliver what you feel you need. If your passion is more important, you have been able to build a life that will put you in touch with it. The results can go in surprising directions.
Harper Reed, the chief technology officer for Barak Obama's 2012 presidential campaign, was a philosophy major. He now runs a mobile commerce company. Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate in medicine and director of the National Cancer Institute, was an English major. Robert Iger, CEO of Disney, was a communications major who began as a TV weatherman. Glenn Lowry, director of New York's MoMA, majored in visual arts. Ted Turner, who started CNN and TBS and became an influential philanthropist, began as a Classics major. Ken Chenault, who runs American Express, majored in history.
Here at Misericordia University, a communications student will graduate this spring and jump from an internship into a full-time job with a Web marketing firm. Her main account will be eBay. An English alumna is pursuing a graduate degree at Queen's University in Ireland. A history graduate who worked at Misericordia as a research assistant is studying at George Washington University Law School. A philosophy alumnus is at Temple University Beasley School of Law. These students face exciting possibilities in the near future. But I will bet that, when they look back on their career paths in a few years, they have gone in directions and achieved things that nobody – including themselves – could have predicted.
This freedom and unpredictability can be exhilarating, but frightening, too. Liberal arts students (and their parents) need to take the long view and keep some things in mind:
Make your own opportunities. People do not often have careers handed to them. Be active, and get your name out there.
Realize that opportunities might not appear in your hometown. Bob Iger does not live in the same place he did when he was a local weatherman.
Consider graduate school. Glenn Lowry has graduate degrees in art history and is a respected and well paid non-profit executive. People with advanced degrees can earn 30 percent more income over a lifetime than those with only bachelor's degrees, according to several recent studies. It is just a further investment in life.
Do not be afraid. Ted Turner's father wrote that he "almost puked" (a direct quote, unfortunately) when Ted declared himself a Classics major. Stand your ground.
Life does not peak six months or a year after college graduation, whatever initial job placement statistics might say. Think about the future, and think about the liberal arts. Time is on their side.
Russ Pottle, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., the first four-year college in Luzerne County.