It’s Hard Out There for an English Major: Job Hunting with a Liberal Arts Degree

There’s an old joke:

The scientist asks “why does it work”, the engineer asks “how does it work”, and the English major asks “would you like fries with that”. It’s a good joke, one every English major has invariably heard a few too many times from relatives, television, and other students. And for the recent graduate holding that degree, that prophecy can get pretty unnerving. No one wants to under-utilize a college degree, but even more so when it involves a stereotype.

With your six-month grace period officially putting you on the clock, the question is, what do I do now? We won’t sugarcoat it for you. All those jokes you heard in college weren’t far from the truth. It’s hard out there for an English major, and for a quite a few liberal arts degrees as well. Philosophy, Literature, History, Gender Studies: it happens to more graduates than it should. The world doesn’t exactly know what to do with you, and people are going to come up with very creative ways to not pay you. Depending on how far out of school you are, things might look pretty ugly.

The good news is that we’ve been there, and things do get better. You just have to be resilient, tenacious, and smart. Almost every editor of the Resume to Interviews team has a liberal arts degree and went through the exact same struggles you’re experiencing right now. You don’t have to resign yourself to fourteen hour days waiting tables, because the skills of a liberal arts degree are entirely viable in the professional world. The ability to think critically, reflect, analyze, and write well are all skills that employers are desperately in search of; you just need to know how to market them. Here are our top seven ways to market these unique skillsets to employers in the professional job market.

1. Emphasize your versatility. One of the deficiencies commonly associated with a liberal arts degree is the broad scope of different subjects that students study, giving a vague sense of their expertise. This weakness is actually one of its largest strengths. Employers covet workers who can perceive situations from various angles and a liberal arts degree empowers students to cultivate a broad, well rounded understanding of the world around them by studying various academic disciplines and cultural perspectives. This cultural awareness gives you the ability to relate to numerous different types of people in a diverse job market and gives you a significant edge when selling yourself during the interview process.

2. Identify your underlying strengths and market them. Whatever your background, the ability to emphasize your talents is what separates your resume from the rest of the stack on file. One way this can be achieved is to sell your potential by giving your top skills the proper emphasis on the resume and asserting their value during the interview process. If you studied Russian literature, the truth is that very few employers will want to hear about Dostoyevsky. The good news is that through studying these subjects you unwittingly developed competencies in foreign languages, critical analysis, and most importantly, composition. These skills are rarer than you think, and the real meat of what you’ve picked up from your degree. Identify what you learned in between the subject matter, and market it.

3. Allow a third party to critique and edit your resume. One of the common flaws of many resumes is personal bias. It’s difficult to be objective when writing and marketing our own achievements because we’re too personally invest in them. This runs the risk of placing emphasis on the wrong merits rather than our most marketable skills. Allowing a third party to professionally edit, revise, and construct your resume is critical because they can approach your skills and portfolio objectively, marketing your most desirable traits while making the hard but necessary cuts for achievements that you might be attached to.

4. Don’t stop exercising your craft. The reality is that while your skills and passions are marketable in the professional world, you may find yourself employed at a job that is unrelated to your field of study. If you were an English or Journalism major, do yourself a favor and don’t stop writing. If you went to school for political or cultural, continue to remain involved in those communities. Don’t allow your crafts or interests to falter while you work an interim job. With patience and perseverance, you can eventually land a position where you’ll be using the talents you cultivated as an undergraduate to make a good living, but not if you allow these skills and passions to weaken through lack of use. “Writing for the experience” is something you’re going to hear a lot early on, and as annoying as that may be, it can actually be a solid way of developing a portfolio and credible experience in content creation.

5. Freelancing: While the job market can be a rough place for a liberal arts major, the world of freelancing is actually one perfectly suited to your talents and can be a fantastic way to continue exercising your crafts. With the right mix of industriousness and ability to market yourself, someone with a background in composition, research, and creative development can either supplement an existing income or build one from scratch. It comes with the benefit of flexible hours and self-management. The standard office job is increasingly outdated and freelancing is a great way to work on a project to project basis. And while the freelancing world is largely the Wild West in terms of opportunities, freelancers have formed extensive networks and communities to share work, identify pitfalls, and weed out unsavory employers. Elance, Guru, Fiverr are all strong networking opportunities if you’re entering the freelance industry for the first time. Freelancing is also a fantastic way to keep relevant experience on your resume while demonstrating independence, creativity, and a strong business mentality.

6. Learn the art of networking. The saying: “It’s not what you know but who you know,” has all the weight everyone tells you it does, especially in the job market, which is why learning to network effectively is critical for landing a lucrative position that is a good fit for you and your employer. The difference between working an interim position unrelated to your field of study and landing a job that encapsulates your interest may hinge on a single contact. Social media tools such as LinkedIn are invaluable for connecting with like-minded professionals and employers which is why crafting a strong profile is absolutely crucial to efficient networking

7. Don’t rush back to grad school. It’s a simple fact that many liberal arts majors are going to be heading back to grad school sooner or later. It’s an unfortunate reality of the devalued bachelor’s degree; however, without the proper consideration and analysis, the higher degree can be little more than a way to embed yourself deeper into debt. Don’t rush back to academia as a way of treading water. Rather, fellowships and volunteerism are wonderful ways to maintain a sense of forward momentum while you sort things out. Save graduate school for when you have a plan; don’t use it as a way to get one.

8. Keep your chin up and fight for the job you want. No one is going to hand you the job you want on a silver platter, especially when you have a liberal arts degree, so to get it you’re going to have to fight hard for it. Don’t stay trapped in a position you’re unhappy with just because you’re stable. Roll with the punches and don’t bow out just because things are looking bleak. At the beginning your job search is always going to look bleak, and it’s only going to look bleaker before it gets better, but if you pour all of your energy and passion into doing something you love, chances are eventually you’ll get there. As difficult as things are for an English major in the current job climate, perseverance in the face of adversity is the only way to overcome these challenges and realize the full potential of all the fascinating things you studied in academia. “Do you want fries with that” only becomes your career if you let it.

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