Liberal arts vs. business degree
Most readers who wrote in say a broad-based humanities education is better for your career, but mixing in some business experience won't hurt.
Few topics we've addressed here recently have inspired as much reader comment as the column a couple of weeks ago, in answer to a newly minted English major who wondered if her degree would turn out to be useless in the job market.
The mail ran overwhelmingly - three-to-one - in favor of a broad-based education in the humanities - either because readers took that route successfully or wish they had.
Writes Peter McCard, who owns three prospering online companies: "Without my liberal-arts education at St. John's College, I really don't think I'd be as successful or as happy as I am."
"Too many times people with very narrow planes of study find themselves fitting in only in particular areas," agrees John Ramirez. A liberal-arts degree, he says, gives graduates "a broad field in which employment can be found."
Still, a sizable number of you suggest mixing courses in the humanities with some business schooling and experience - internships, for instance - just to be on the safe side.
Ben M. in Naples, Fla., studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst but, he says, "it wasn't too long after I graduated that I began to recognize the opportunity I had lost in not receiving a real (liberal arts) education. My children will study history, language, and literature at college, and in the summer they'll intern at for-profit firms."
Or consider Rudy, who graduated from the University of Southern California with an English major, minoring in drama. "After five years working as an actor and part-time supermarket employee," he writes, he got a job at an aerospace company, took some MBA courses, and is now a program manager. So was his English degree a waste of time? He says not. "My bosses are impressed with my communications skills."
Of course, not everybody agrees. A reader named Todd says that, in his circle of fellow humanities grads, "I know no one with a liberal-arts degree who got a job that required a college education. It took most of us years of working at minimum-wage jobs before landing something decent. Even now, years later, none of us makes a salary that equals what our more specialized friends were earning within their first few months (or even days) after graduation."
Others warn that a liberal-arts degree may mark a job applicant as "overqualified." Jo-Ann, for example, writes that she has a degree in English and - despite eight years' experience in computers, a few years in management, and solid references, "when I was laid off all I heard was, 'You're overeducated and overqualified, we can't hire you.' I was out of work for a year and had to work retail for another two and a half years for wages that were a whisper over the poverty line. My credit rating is in the sewer and it will take me years to put my life back together."
So what is it, you may wonder, that separates the successful liberal arts grads from the struggling ones? It's a bit mysterious, since by their own accounts both groups have done their best to be both diligent and flexible. (Jo-Ann, for instance, lives near a major metropolitan area with lots of opportunities, had her resume redone professionally, and at one point "applied all over the country offering to relocate at my own expense - anything to get a job with a living wage.")
Could it be that launching a career after college - like so much else in life -depends in large part on an element of luck? No question about it, there's nothing quite like getting a foot in the door at the right company at the right time, regardless of what kind of degree one has.
But let's give the last word here to the folks who wrote to point out that the U.S. is headed for a serious shortage of engineers and scientists - which doesn't bode well for our ability to compete in a global economy.
"Liberal arts or business? Neither!" writes a reader named Dan Lindsey. "We should be graduating scientists and engineers, and encouraging our children in those directions. The world is going to demand more and more technical expertise. They are tougher disciplines but more necessary, if an individual, a country, and a society are going to survive." No argument here.
A bit of housekeeping: After last week's column about how to get noticed by headhunters, wherein veteran recruiter Dale Winston suggested Googling oneself as a test of how visible one is, hundreds of you wrote to ask how to do that. It's easy. Just go to www.google.com, enter your name in the search field, and click on "Search Google". Happy hunting!