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Why Humanities Majors Make the Best Employees

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Malavika Jagannathan

Malavika is a Seattle-based reporter who likes words and coffee in equal measure. Over the last decade she’s worn a lot of professional hats, from newspaper reporter to retail copywriter.


iStock_000045247510_Small-2.jpgLook at any study that compares degrees to postgraduation earnings — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find English literature or history listed among the top 10 majors.

For example, there’s PayScale’s 2014 college salary report, in which mathematics, various engineering degrees, physics, and computer sciences easily top the list. In comparison, most of the humanities majors rank fairly low, with elementary education and social work among the lowest-paid majors.

Are Humanities Majors Truly Unemployable?

collaborative study from The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management offers a few insights into the skills that employers say they’re looking for.

A majority of employer respondents in that survey said reading comprehension and English language skills were “very important” for job success for new employees, regardless of education level.

When it came to what employers considered applied skills — or skills that enable employees to put their learned knowledge into practice in the workplace — professionalism, communications, teamwork, and critical thinking ranked highest.

Real-World Skills Learned in Humanities Courses

These are all skills that students learn in the course of studying English, history, philosophy, foreign languages, and other humanities subjects. Here are the best real-world skills you receive in a humanities degree, which are also highly sought after by employers:

1. Communication

Think about this every time you receive a badly written email, sit through a poorly constructed presentation, or have an awkward conversation with a colleague. Communication is a vital skill in the modern workplace — and humanities majors have an edge on the STEM majors in this department.

These graduates develop essential writing and oral communication skills, thanks to required participation in seminar discussions and response papers. A 2013 survey from the Association of American Colleges and University found that 93% of the employers surveyed said that they valued the ability of an employee to communicate clearly over the major itself. Tweet: 93% of the employers valued the ability of an employee to communicate clearly http://bit.ly/1KGk1T8 via @TINYpulse

2. Critical Thinking

That same study from the Association of American Colleges and University also found that most employers want employees with critical thinking skills. That’s the essence of the humanities degree, which teaches students not only to become experts in their own field but also how to consider multiple points of view before coming to a conclusion, including perspectives they might not agree with. The ability to conceptualize an issue, analyze other relevant sources, and come to a well-reasoned conclusion is applicable to any number of fields, from law to advertising to medicine.

3. Well-Rounded Interests

There’s a reason you’ll find graduates with humanities degrees in every sector of the economy, including at the upper echelon of Fortune 500 companies like American Express and Campbell Soup Company (the CEOs of both those companies hold degrees in history and psychology, respectively, according to Fortune Magazine).

These degrees are structured to cultivate interests across disciplines and require students to take a broad swath of courses. Employees who are taught to understand the world from a variety of different perspectives help forge a workplace environment where creativity and innovation rule alongside technical know-how.

4. Intercultural Skills

In today’s globalized workplace, foreign language skills, and intercultural communication are an integral part of doing business. That’s where students of the humanities easily shine. Studying another country’s history, language, and culture has real-life implications. For example, when people attend meetings in Japan, they don’t just sit in any available chair like you might in the United States but instead adhere to a more formal seating etiquette, according to Marketplace. This is the type of cultural insight that someone who has studied Japanese language and culture brings to the table.

There’s growing consensus among employers that a humanities or liberal arts degree isn’t worthless. Four out of five employers agree that all students should get a grounding in both the liberal arts and sciences, according to a 2014 report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Tweet: 4 out of 5 employers agree that all students should get a grounding in both liberal arts & sciences http://bit.ly/1KGk1T8 via @TINYpulse

How Humanities Millennials Can Land Jobs

Still, a majority of employers in the above survey said they want to see students with both broad knowledge-based skills and specialty skills. What this means is that humanities graduates may have to exercise some of their well-earned creative muscles on their resume. Here’s some advice for what recent graduates may want to do:

1. Internships

Whether you want to translate your English degree into a career in marketing, or an interest in art history into a museum curator position, internships are a testing ground to utilize critical thinking and communication skills. They’re also a great way to sharpen interests you’ve cultivated in a broad-based humanities major.

2. Writing portfolios

A well-written cover letter is one step to landing a job interview, but a killer writing portfolio further highlights those sharp communication skills. Academic papers don’t make the best clips, but book reviews, blog posts, and published columns do. Get creative and transform that response paper for your political philosophy class into a one-page memo written to the President of the United States. You’ll be showing off your innovation and your writing skills in one swoop!

3. Volunteer work

Find an organization or cause that’s relevant to the career path you’re looking to break into. Use your foreign language skills as a translator, or put those those history courses to good use at the local historical society. You’ll not only be gaining relevant experience but also putting your major into action.

Humanities majors might be used to hearing this skeptical question by now: “what are you going to do with that degree?” The answer is deceptively simple given that the skill set desired by most employers syncs up to the skills you can get by studying the humanities.



Malavika Jagannathan

Malavika is a Seattle-based reporter who likes words and coffee in equal measure. Over the last decade she’s worn a lot of professional hats, from newspaper reporter to retail copywriter.

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