Five Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads

Your path to the perfect career might not be obvious. Consider filling your competence gap and defining your "hook"

I met my first "helicopter parent" in September, 1995. This hovering father called demanding specialized career services for his son. The father was upset that some fellow students had convinced his son to study philosophy instead of computer science. Implicit in the very way he pronounced the word "philosophy" was what was really on his mind: "What on earth can you do with a liberal arts degree?"

When it comes to liberal arts and careers, there's a black hole of ignorance that is often filled with myths and assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions is that you can't possibly find employment unless you supplement your liberal arts degree in religion or art history or English with a more practical second major like economics. But look around. How many cultural anthropology grads do you see driving cabs? And how many support groups exist for unemployed history majors? Not many of those either.

Having confidence that everything will turn out well in the end is, of course, not the same as having a crystal ball at graduation. I had my own career reality check when I immigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago. The temporary agency I approached took one look at my newly minted degree in Russian and Persian and advised that they might be able to find me a minimum-wage job—if I learned to type. Today's grads won't be asked about typing, but they'll likely receive a similar message.

Plotting a Course

Luckily, as experience proves, where you start off bears little relation to where you can end up. The question—for helicopter parents and liberal arts grads alike—is: How do you get from studying a subject you enjoy intellectually to work that you love?

Recently, I co-authored a book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, that tracks the real career paths of 23 liberal arts graduates from 19 different schools. Their examples serve as powerful inspiration to anyone who wants to discover a path to career success.

Through the stories of the graduates we interviewed, we discovered five "smartest moves" that were key to everyone's success:

• 1: Figure out who you are and where you want to go

• 2: Get experience

• 3: Build social and networking relationships

• 4: Identify and fill your competence gap

• 5: Find your "hook"

Here's a look at how some of the people we interviewed made their smartest moves:

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

Granted, that's easier said than done. From our Smart Moves group, only Ally identified her passion at an early age. She chose a particularly difficult career—actress and director. But the strength of her passion helped her overcome the bumps in her path to success.

You can certainly find direction from assessment instruments such as the Strong Interest Inventory or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. But if you don't identify an ideal career position through your assessments—and you probably won't—don't despair. You're more likely to find the work you love by starting with Smartest Move No. 2.

Get experience

Liberal arts grads can follow just about any career they want. Unfortunately, the multitude of options can be overwhelming. The solution? Trial runs. It can save time later on if you experience different types of work while you're still in college. Cara laid the groundwork for her career in marketing by working at the school radio station. Sharon discovered her passion for fashion through internships.

Others try on careers by proxy—conducting informational interviews with alumni, parents, friends, or anyone else who will share both smart and dumb moves. Luckily there's no time limitation on getting experience. If you didn't explore different career options in college, build time into your schedule to do so now.

Build social and networking relationships

Conventional wisdom says that connections are the best way to find work.

But what happens when the career footsteps of family members or close friends lead you in an undesirable direction and you've exhausted your external fan base? Don't balk at talking with people outside your immediate social circle.

Sure, you're most likely to find good connections among colleagues in your professional association. But you can often find help in the most unlikely places. Ray ultimately found his way to a position as Indiana Jones' stunt double through his hair stylist. The stylist didn't personally know who was running auditions. But he was, in Malcolm Gladwell's vernacular, a "connector."

Identify your competence gaps

One of the best ways to get ahead in your career is to look not just one step ahead, but several. Find your ideal job and work backward. Assess what required skills, abilities, and aptitudes you already have, and identify the areas in which you need to develop.

After seeing a teenage friend die of leukemia, Brad knew he wanted to alleviate unnecessary suffering on a worldwide scale—a lofty goal, indeed. With a degree in biology, Brad had a good academic background, but he needed practical experience in a number of areas. Since graduation, he has systematically identified and eliminated his competence gaps by working in the pharmaceutical and financial industries and volunteering in a foundation that awards funds for health-related projects.

Find your hook

Once you've found your ideal position, how do you stand out from the crowd? Sometimes simple things will make the difference, like sending handwritten thank-you letters immediately after an interview, or researching your interviewer's background on the Web. Other times, your strategy needs to be a little more creative. Chris knew his chances of being selected for a highly competitive Foreign Service officer position were small unless he could find a hook. Rejected the first time around, Chris increased his chances when reapplying by learning Arabic through a Peace Corps assignment to Morocco.

All graduates, no matter what their educational background, can benefit from studying the career success of others. If you're a liberal arts grad, take some time to find out how people whose careers have meaning for you managed to get where they are. The more you know about the career paths of those you admire, the better able you will be to find your own direction.

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