LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 25, 2019) — Everyone hears it at some point. Whether it is across the table from a relative at Thanksgiving dinner, on a quiet car ride home with a parent or while out for coffee with an old friend from high school. When a student majoring in the arts and sciences informs someone else of their field of study, they will be met with the same question, often accompanied by a slight lift of the eyebrows: “So what are you going to do with that?” This kind of skepticism is indicative of the widespread social perception that students of the liberal arts are less prepared for careers than their peers receiving educations more directly billed as pre-professional.
Professors in the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences are working hard to change this perception. Jeff Rice, chair of the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies (WRD), says that imparting students with academic knowledge for its own sake is not the sole goal of A&S professors: “We are here to help you get a job,” he said.
Rice and other A&S professors are backing up this statement in the classroom. Over the last few years, WRD has developed a capstone class that not only tests and solidifies the skills and concepts students have learned during their time studying the major, but directly intertwines their education with career training and experience by partnering them with internships as part of the course. WRD students who have taken this course have interned with companies such as OpenText, a multibillion dollar software company. This may seem an incongruous match to some, but Rice makes a convincing claim to the contrary.
“The requirements are not to have tech skills, but to be involved in project and team planning and think about audience perception, all of which we do in WRD,” he said. ”OpenText came to us looking for students to intern with them because their A&S education makes them a good fit. They don’t have to be coders.”
Liberal arts students’ skills make them great assets to companies that they work with in the capstone class, and their experiences with the companies help them gain job experience, new insights into the variety of ways that they can apply their skills, and valuable professional relationships, all of which will help them in their search for a career after graduation.
Rachel Dixon, a 2017 graduate, can testify to the usefulness of her liberal arts education. Receiving degrees in English and WRD with a minor in Spanish, Dixon is well acquainted with the A&S curriculum and believes it has prepared her for any number of careers.
“The Kettering Foundation, my first employer out of college, required me to summarize emerging literature across a variety of fields such as political science, philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience, human geography, etc. This was an easy task for me after spending four years at UK unpacking arguments across a variety of media,” she said.
Dixon believes her experience with WRD and the rest of the college translates to a wide range of careers. “I have found that strong writing ability, understanding of empathetic communication and command of persuasive argumentation are three skills that every employer covets,” she said. “Add onto that the breadth of knowledge that comes from studying a discipline at the intersection of so many other fields, and you’ve got a winning major.”
Dixon stresses that much of what the college did to prepare her for her future took place beyond the classroom, “UK's College of Arts and Sciences includes internship experiences, research opportunities, a wealth of elective classes and connections to thousands of successful alumni. Every year, they launch new initiatives to better prepare students for careers.”
Additional liberal arts departments are also working to help students bridge the gap between their studies and future careers. This year marks the fourth time Melanie Goan, associate professor of history, has taught her Careers in History course. The class seeks to expand the role of the history department.
“In the liberal arts, we often consider it a point of pride that we are dealing with big ideas and training people to think in broad ways. Vocational training has not traditionally been a priority; in fact, we have out and out rejected anything that smacks of vocational training, viewing it as antithetical to the essence of the liberal arts. The careers class challenges that mentality and demonstrates a new outlook — we still aim to develop thinkers, but in the end, we must prepare our students to be workers, too,” Goan said.
During the three-credit course, students receive guidance as they write resumes, cover letters and complete mock interviews. One of the most popular elements of the class is the series of more than a dozen guest speakers who talk to the class each semester. These speakers, all history majors as undergraduates, work in a variety of fields. While some followed career paths traditionally expected of a history major such as law, education and politics, some come from far-flung disciplines such as IT and health administration."
The key to the value of a history degree or a variety of other liberal arts degrees is versatility. “It may not be a direct path. Accounting majors typically become accountants, but history majors don’t have that same direct line from degree to career. What they do have, however, is a skill set that can apply to thousands of jobs,” Goan said. “We build communicators, we build problem solvers, we teach students to take complicated information and boil it down and package it in a way that is useful and accessible."
This approach to teaching the liberal arts is being adopted elsewhere as well. Director of Environmental and Sustainability Studies Betsy Beymer-Farris is designing her program’s curriculum with the intent to not only educate students in the study of the environment, but also in how to find employment within that sector. Under her instruction, the first questions students are asked in ENS 201, the introductory course for all new environmental and sustainability studies (ENS) majors, is “What do you want to do with this major?” In her experience, many new students in the major either don’t know or haven’t investigated the steps they need to take to find work in the vocation in which they are interested. Rather than leaving students to ponder this on their own time, Beymer-Farris requires them to research jobs and come back to the next class with a list of three possible careers and the skills they will need to develop to find an entry-level position in each.
“My students want to save the planet. Great! ENS students are the most inspiring group of students you’ll ever meet and they truly want to save the planet, but they don’t know how to make a living doing it,” Beymer-Farris said. “We not only want to give them the knowledge to help save the planet, but the skills to put that knowledge to use. That is why we take such a keen interest in training them for the job market.”
That training takes an intensive turn in the senior capstone class. While the first half of the class is dedicated to reviewing what students learned over their four years in the program, testing their knowledge and synthesizing wider perspectives based on their previous studies, the second segment is entirely dedicated to the job search. During this phase, students are required to create resumes that are scrutinized by professors.
The professional development aspect of this course does not restrict itself to making students look good on paper; they are also taught a variety of skills benefiting both their job search and eventual careers. Students are taught everything from proper interview etiquette, to how to send a follow-up email and how to conduct informational interviews with companies. One of the most important skills students in this class will learn, however, is networking. The ENS department organizes a career speaker series inviting professionals from across ENS industries, and students in the capstone class are required to attend a set number of the talks and come back with new professional contacts with whom they will attempt a correspondence.
“A lot of students tend to think, ‘I can’t just talk to somebody,’” Beymer-Farris said. "But this system requires them to, which shows them how to assert themselves in professional settings.”
The exact curriculum for the class, like the job market, will always change. This is why Beymer-Farris is committed to listening to what employers are looking for and planning accordingly. Students in the ENS program will always graduate with a deep, nuanced and valuable range of knowledge of environmental studies from both a social and natural sciences perspective, but the career training they receive will set them apart from students at other universities.
Following the professional development section of the course, the class teams up with a company to assist with environmental assessments and improvements. All of these skills, combined with their academic knowledge, make them perfect candidates for a wide range of careers.
While the misconception that degrees in the liberal arts may not be worth as much in today’s job market is still alive, professors like Rice, Goan and Beymer-Farris are proving it wrong while sending students into the real world with more than just a diploma. Graduates of the UK College of Arts and Sciences leave with a set of skills that will not only serve them in their future careers, but help them find the right career.