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A Guide to Liberal Arts & Humanities Degree Programs

What will you study in a Liberal Arts & Humanities degree program?

A liberal arts degree used to be thought of as the last resort for the undecided college student, a major that didn't prepare you to actually do anything after graduation. However, in today's fast-paced and challenging job market, studying the liberal arts and humanities prepares you for a wide variety of career paths. While liberal arts and humanities majors may still have to suffer through the question, "Okay, but what do you plan to do with that degree?", the answer today is that you can do almost anything.

A liberal arts and humanities degree teaches you how to think critically about the world around you. Instead of focusing narrowly on specific technical or occupational skills, you work on building your general knowledge and overall intellectual abilities. A good liberal arts school helps you cultivate your ability to communicate effectively, to articulate informed opinions, to evaluate information around you, and to explore the richness of various languages and cultures.

The term "liberal arts" encompasses several different subjects, so in this degree program you should expect to take classes in:

  • Arts
  • Foreign languages
  • Literature
  • Mathematics
  • Natural and physical sciences (biology, geology, physics)
  • Social sciences (anthropology, communication, political science, psychology, sociology)
  • Humanities (classics, history, philosophy, public speaking, linguistics, religion)

Many students, depending on their school, also have the opportunity to design their own classes or take a one-on-one independent study with a professor. If you choose to pursue an online liberal arts degree, then make sure your school still offers personal contact with faculty members so you don't miss out on important opportunities for debate and feedback from mentors. On the other hand, an online degree program can foster independence and discipline, two extremely useful abilities for liberal arts students.

Which characteristics do Liberal Arts & Humanities majors typically possess?

Liberal arts and humanities majors tend to be artistic, creative, curious individuals. In school, the left-brain subjects deal with logic, analysis, and accuracy, while right-brained subjects cover aesthetics, feelings, and creativity. A liberal arts education involves both, meaning you have the opportunity to become a "whole-brained" individual like many of the great artists and inventors throughout history.

Because many liberal arts programs offer a lot of flexibility in choosing courses and designing majors, successful students are comfortable taking charge of their own education. A degree in the liberal arts and humanities may also mean you have to do more work to develop your career path once you graduate. If you value independence and flexibility and aren't scared when there is no defined path in front of you, the liberal arts may be a good choice for you.

Liberal arts and humanities majors are generally curious about the world around them and eager to learn more about it. If you love to ask questions and search for answers, a degree program in the liberal arts and humanities can offer you the opportunity to explore as you refine your intellectual abilities.

Which specific careers can Liberal Arts & Humanities majors pursue?

Liberal arts graduates can be found in government, businesses, academics, and nearly every other occupation across the globe. In fact, the 21st century has seen an increase in employers seeking out graduates of liberal arts schools. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that employers favor job candidates with skills in areas such as problem-solving, communication, and teamwork. Often college graduates who possess the right skills, such as critical thinking, have an edge over those with the right major. While employers can teach you new job-specific skills or offer instruction on how to perform a certain task, they can't teach you how to think or learn.

In particular, employers tend to hire job seekers with analytical ability, initiative, a strong work ethic, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. A degree in the liberal arts and humanities gives you a solid foundation in all of those.

Furthermore, each major within the liberal arts and humanities can lead naturally into a certain career path. The social sciences each have their own career field (anthropologist, archaeologist, economist, political scientist). Additionally, an anthropology major could become a museum curator. A history major might work as a history professor or find work as an archivist. A degree in a foreign language or linguistics could lead to a job as a foreign service officer or interpreter. Many professors, writers, market researchers, and executives start with a liberal arts degree.

Which well-known people in the industry have completed Liberal Arts & Humanities degree programs before becoming successful?

You may be surprised by how many famous people graduated from a liberal arts degree program. Their careers are as diverse as their college majors. Both John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, and Christopher Meloni, a leading actor on Law & Order: SVU have a degree in history. English majors include Sally Ride, the first woman in space; Carol Browner, the former director of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate in medicine and the president and CEO of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Other famous people with a liberal arts degree include:

  • Brian Lamb, CEO of C-Span: Speech and Communication
  • Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard: Medieval History and Philosophy
  • Ellen Bravo, co-director of the National Association of Working Women: Greek and Latin Literature
  • Willie Brown, major of San Francisco: Liberal Studies

How much do Liberal Arts & Humanities majors typically earn in the various fields they can pursue?

Since liberal arts and humanities majors can go into such a wide variety of careers, the amount they can earn varies just as considerably. Here are the median annual salaries for some liberal arts and humanities careers, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Anthropologist and archaeologist: $53,910
  • Archivist: $45,020
  • Chief executive: $158,560
  • Economist: $83,590
  • Interpreter: $38,850
  • Market research analysts: $61,070
  • Museum curator: $47,220
  • Political scientists: $104,130
  • Writers and authors: $53,070

In which part of the country or world do prominent Liberal Arts & Humanities communities flourish?

The United States has a long history of providing liberal arts education, dating back to the 19th century and The Yale Report of 1828. In the early 1800s, a debate arose over the appropriate curriculum for America's colleges and universities. Science and technology were advancing, and many felt universities should focus more narrowly on those subjects. Yet Yale President Jeremiah Day felt strongly that the liberal arts could not be discounted. In The Yale Report of 1828, Day wrote, "Our object is not to teach what is peculiar to any one of the professions, but to lay the foundation which is common to them all." He further argued that the best way for students to develop their minds was by studying a variety of subjects, including languages, mathematics, and natural and political science.

Slightly more than 15 percent of all America's colleges and universities are classified as liberal arts institutions. The typical liberal arts school is private and small, often with less than 2,000 students so that low student-to-teacher ratios can be maintained. These schools tend to have mission statements revealing their intention to educate for the sake of learning instead of simply to prepare for employment. The communities surrounding liberal arts schools can also be thriving places for liberal arts and humanities majors to live and work.

What type of "real world" experience could you combine with your Liberal Arts & Humanities Degree program to supplement what the program teaches you?

For any career after college, one of the best ways to impress employers is to undertake at least one internship during your undergraduate years. Many colleges and universities offer job placement services that can help you locate and apply for internships. Some online degree programs also offer internship opportunities as part of their curriculum, while others can help you to arrange an internship if you ask for one. You can also contact an employer directly to find out about internship opportunities at that company and then ask if your online or on-campus degree program offers credit for internships.

In certain fields, such as finance or consulting, employers want to see that graduates of liberal arts schools possess quantitative and analytical skills. Many may assume that someone who chose to major in the liberal arts hates math and numbers or isn't very good with them. You can overcome this prejudice with proof of jobs or outside coursework that require math, science, or technological skills.

Some liberal arts schools have also begun offering professional training programs that you can attend to supplement your coursework. For instance, an art history student might take a vocational course to learn how to appraise art, or a language student could take classes on how to become a translator.

What can a Liberal Arts & Humanities degree give you that on-the-job experience may not be able to?

Earning a liberal arts and humanities degree proves to employers that you have the ability to learn and think critically. The skills you develop at school last the rest of your life, giving you a pool of resources from which you can draw at any time. This degree also gives you room to explore a variety of subjects, helping you to discover what you truly love doing. And since you become an expert at learning, you can continue to develop new skills over the course of your career.

Moreover, it is more and more common for people today to change careers at least once in their life. To do so successfully requires ongoing learning, effective communication, and a talent for relating to new people and new environments.

We live in a fast-paced, changing world. A liberal arts and humanities degree enables you to successfully change along with it instead of being left behind.

What will you study in a Liberal Arts & Humanities degree program?

A liberal arts degree used to be thought of as the last resort for the undecided college student, a major that didn't prepare you to actually do anything after graduation. However, in today's fast-paced and challenging job market, studying the liberal arts and humanities prepares you for a wide variety of career paths. While liberal arts and humanities majors may still have to suffer through the question, "Okay, but what do you plan to do with that degree?", the answer today is that you can do almost anything.

A liberal arts and humanities degree teaches you how to think critically about the world around you.

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Fast Facts

  • Topics you may study: Art, Foreign languages, Literature, Mathematics, Natural and physical sciences (biology, geology, physics), Social sicneces (anthropology, communications, political science, psychology, sociology), and Humanities (classics, history, philosophy, public speaking, linguistics, religion).
  • Types of careers you may pursue and their mean annual wage in 2008 (according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics):
    • Anthropologist/Archaeologist ($53,910)
    • Archivist ($45,020)
    • Chief executive ($158,560)
    • Economist ($83,590)
    • Interpreter ($38,850)
    • Market research analyst ($61,070)
    • Museum curator ($47,220)
    • Political scientist ($104,130)
    • Writer/Author ($53,070)