Considerations for Arts Graduates

These days, saying you want to do a traditional Arts degree is likely to get you looked at strangely.

The news is full of the essential nature of studying something in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) space. There’s still no shortage of folks plumping for an MBA on top of your maths-and-facts-based degree.

So how should the person who just finished up studies in Philosophy, or English Literature, or History, to take but three, think about selling themselves to an employer?

Well, let’s face it, there’s a real dearth of job ads that say “Literary Theorist wanted” or “expertise in Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosophers an essential”. If you’re looking to play the matching game, you’re probably out of luck.

So you need to ensure that, both while you’re in school, and as you’re leaving it, you’re building a portfolio of accomplishments to go with your degree. That is, unless you like drawing foam leaves on the top of lattés or asking “do you want fries with that?” to the next person queued at your fast food register.

What an Arts degree ought to have done for you is make it possible for you to absorb masses of information, critically assess the relative importance of various parts of it, and be able to synthesize an explanation that others can follow without having to dig through all the sources themselves.

That lends itself nicely to white paper composition (for a vendor of a conceptual level product like software), case studies (for any supplier wanting to influence prospects), the building of marketing materials, and the like.

It leads you toward being able to represent a not-for-profit organization’s interests, writing grant applications, or op-ed pieces to influence public opinion, or speaking on the issues it looks at in public.

It allows you to take market research and interpret it. It helps you figure out what the core message of a booth at a trade show or exposition ought to be. It helps you build scenarios that profile potential market segments and demographics so that the organization you work for can figure out how best to approach them (and which to ignore).

Financially-trained people might build all the tables in the annual report, but someone who can put the whole business into words and match just the right photos to it actually builds this very public document.

If the STEM-types are busy answering “what” and “how”, you’re busy answering “why” and “what for”. It makes you someone who can direct a risk assessment, or manage people, or organize work, setting the priorities. It makes you the superb partner to the technological founder of a startup, the one who can make it into a business, not just an idea.

Steve Jobs, you may remember, didn’t finish school — but his background was Arts. No, he couldn’t build the original Apple I, the Apple II, or even the Mac, but he could figure out who’d find them useful, express that to them, give them design flair, and build a company out of Steve Wozniak’s engineering.

Don’t think, just because you were in Arts and not Computer Science or Engineering, that you’ve got no role to play. Kitchener-Waterloo has a vibrant economy because the local business world knows that startups are built out of engineers and techno-geeks from the University of Waterloo coupled to arts types and business types from Wilfrid Laurier University, and manufacturing smarts from Conestoga College. Miss out on any of these parts, and the company’s not as strong, not as worth putting money into.

That, in turn, is why people studying the humanities at Wilfrid Laurier do so with a cooperative work program available to them. Existing companies want people studying literature, or languages, or ethics, or the French Revolution aiding them for four months at a stretch.

Yes, you might have to volunteer your time, in unpaid internships or with a not-for-profit, in order to build that portfolio of “things I’ve done” and “people as references”. Your degree alone might not carry the day.

But it is a background that, once you’ve shown you can work, allows employers to judge you on your merits, not simply dismiss you as “one of those”.

If there is a problem with the Arts and Humanities (and as someone with philosophy degrees who’s spent his entire working life in the business world, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my education!) it is that far too many of the students on that track don’t look ahead to answer the question “how do I get (or make) a job?”

They go through their degree program thinking that it’ll appear when the time is right — or with dreams of falling into teaching if all else fails. But what they’re not doing is thinking about how to put what they’re learning into a framework where others find value in it.

Show them you can write … by blogging and creating a growing body of readers.

Show them you can explain … by writing pieces about issues and getting them into local magazines, local papers, and local flyers.

Show them you can, in other words, add value to what they’re doing, because you’ve delivered it already elsewhere.

One last thought. Have a good explanation as to why you take a Master’s degree in the Humanities. One good answer is “a Master’s degree is one of the requirements for a NAFTA-class visa, making me more useful to employers”. It doesn’t matter if you really did your Master’s because, at the time, you had ambitions to go all the way to the Ph.D. and become a professor. You need to be able to tell a potential employer why you did something in their terms.

This is just one example of how you have to answer questions about your choices. But surely, after studying the arts, you ought to be able to form a narrative about yourself?

1 thought on “Considerations for Arts Graduates

  1. Paul Barter (@barterpaul)

    Good article Bruce. Even the biggest stories in tech these days are more about social science than people understand. Facebook is basically in the business of monetizing who you like or who your friends are. The business models that enable that without alienating customers are not likely to come from a developer. STEM roles help to execute the strategy once developed but are by no means the key to strategy development. The perfect team mix includes folks from arts or social science in that mix.


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