Dear COMPASS is a student advice column. Submit questions in the comments below or email sweaver [at]

Dear COMPASS: I love college, I love my classes, and I even love being a Liberal Arts Major. But I’m kind of freaking out! Even though I’m doing really well in school, I’m worried about getting a job. I know all about history and literature and psychology, but how does that translate into . . . you know . . .  an actual career? What should I do in college to make sure that I’ll have a good job? Help!

A. Practical

Dear A. Practical,

Despite your name and what any college student, regardless of major, may feel like, you are learning some really valuable skills in college. And not only are they valuable in a general sense, they are also marketable in that very specific, steady-paycheck sense.

Don’t trust me, a nameless voice on the internet, on this? Good! As a Liberal Arts major, you’re been trained to think critically and to question information. So let me run down some of my sources:

You’ve probably heard by now that a Liberal Arts degree teaches you how to think. But what does that really mean? Well, in the broadest sense, it means that you know how to analyze new information, synthesize new info with what you already know, and question (always question!) what you think is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. (Don’t believe me? Drop in on any English department meeting anywhere to see for yourself!)

But what this actually means is that you are able to teach yourself, that you’re able to learn new things without needing to be formally trained. Let me give you an example.

In high school and college, I worked on newspapers, and I mean newspapers plural. I edited my high school paper while writing for my local paper. I was an editor at my college paper while filing stories at half-past midnight for the town daily. Sure, I went to classes and learned stuff, but I also learned how to report, write, and create a newspaper from scratch every three days. But most importantly, I learned how to teach myself new things.

While I was learning all about the Revolutions of South America, the History of Religion, Spanish (kinda), and Postmodern readings of American Literature, I was also learning how to talk to all kinds of people and solve problems that I didn’t know existed 20 minutes prior.

Even though I was an English major, I was learning all kinds of things at the newspaper.

Here’s a semi-quick example: One day during my first week working at my college paper—classes hadn’t even started yet—I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a graphic, which I immediately told the editor, completely expecting that he’d dispatch some dweeby graphic designer to create said graphic.

“Great idea!” the editor lied. “Go build it!”

With that, he sat me down at the graphic design computer, complete with a weird Adobe program I’d never heard of, let alone used, and told me to do it. I looked around. Was this how things worked? You just figured stuff out? The rest of the newsroom was awhirl with activity, editors murdering bad copy, reporters crying and/or making calls.

Because I’d spend my high school years designing newspaper pages, I knew the basics of the program, or so I thought. Fast forward three or four hours later—the newsroom had thinned out to the die-hards and I had a graphic that looked like a three-year-old’s attempt at Euclidean geometry via crayon. It was utterly unusable.  But that had never been the point, as the editor himself must have known when he sat me down to do it. The point was to teach myself how to do this new thing.  And I had done it.

I had no way of knowing that those hours of teaching myself to use Adobe Illustrator would help me learn how to build internet pages, help me land my first real job at a non-profit in Washington, D.C., and then help me leap to my next job as an editor, webmaster, and graphic designer. How could I have known? After all, I was just an English major.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying a few important things. First, as a liberal arts major, I’ve been able to do all kinds of different jobs thanks to my training as a communicator, critical thinker, and a problem solver. You won’t believe how valuable those skills are, no matter the instructor or field, just as you won’t believe how studying literature and history and social sciences will hone those skills.

But even more important is the practical experience that comes with doing stuff. That’s the secret to finding a good job. Do you like to write? Find a place that will publish you (like COMPASS!). Want to be a counselor? Find a place to intern. Really into gaming? Start building your own games. Fail (because you will, at least at first)! But fail with style and grace.

What should you do if you want to get a good job? Learn to think. Learn to question. Learn how to communicate effectively with loads of different people. Learn to solve problems. Build and create the things you’re interested in. Those are real 21st century job skills.


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