What is Liberal Studies? Is it Marketable?

I write a lot of educational articles for various clients, and while doing so I have noticed a peculiar trend. Hundreds upon hundreds of students are earning liberal studies degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While the term “liberal studies” sounds impressive, what exactly is it? More importantly, how do you market a liberal studies degree?

Liberal Studies Defined

First of all, some colleges refer to liberal studies programs by other names, such as general studies and humanities or liberal arts and sciences. All the different names just go to show that the liberal studies field is an interdisciplinary program. In other words, instead of spending 2-4+ years becoming a specialist in one discipline, students in interdisciplinary-style programs gain knowledge and training in several disciplines.

According to information from multiple colleges across the nation, undergraduate liberal studies programs provide training in such disciplines as language, natural sciences, the arts and social sciences. Since students learn about so many different disciplines, they may also learn about how these disciplines are interconnected, especially in relation to the business world, politics, and the global economy.

No two liberal studies degree programs are identical, but there are some things students can expect regarding coursework: breadth and depth.

Most liberal studies degree programs are designed so that students gain a breadth of knowledge by completing a set of required core classes. In many cases, these core classes are introductory level courses within the major disciplines. Some of the required courses might actually be labeled as liberal studies classes, and these courses might provide students with training about how to get the most out of interdisciplinary programs.

Instead of specific courses, many liberal studies programs require students to complete X amount of units within 3-5 specific disciplines, thus guaranteeing that each student obtains a wide range of knowledge. For example, students may be required to complete 12 units of natural science coursework, 15 units of literature courses, 12 units of social science classes, 15 units of humanities, and 12 units of interdisciplinary courses.

While it’s important for liberal studies students to know the basics of many disciplines, if students want to find employment, they have to become experts in some fields, which is why so many liberal studies programs focus on depth as well as breadth.

The majority of liberal studies programs require students to choose a concentration area. Out of the pre-designed concentrations, some of the most common options for liberal studies majors include K-12 teaching, business, organizational leadership, or government. Notice that these are still fairly broad fields. Several schools may also allow students to become specialists in one of the required main discipline areas, such as literature, for instance. To become a specialist, most programs will usually require a student to complete extra courses within that field. Since liberal studies is an interdisciplinary major, some schools may allow students to design their own concentration areas, but to do so generally requires significant department approval.

Marketable or Not?

Most of us have been trained to believe that major “A” always equals job “A.” For instance, people who major in nursing become nurses, or people who major in physics become physicists. But what about majors like English, or history, or philosophy? These majors, among many others, don’t always lead to such obvious job titles. Furthermore, many careers are becoming more complex, which is causing employers to look for candidates with diverse educational backgrounds. Therefore, people who have interdisciplinary degrees might have a slight advantage in the job market . . . in theory, at least.

So, does a liberal studies background always guarantee better marketability? Of course not. While having a breadth of knowledge in many fields may impress a good deal of employers, interdisciplinary majors – be they liberal studies or not – still require depth in particular areas to improve marketability.

Why Get a Liberal Studies Degree At All?

The answer is a bit tricky. First of all, the idea of “depth” is rather ambiguous. Technically, liberal studies majors gain basic training within several fields. To some employers, that “basic” level of training is just the amount of expertise they’re looking for in potential job candidates. Simply put, they’re looking for people who know how to walk the walk and talk the talk, and many introductory level courses teach students these skills.

Additionally, liberal studies programs are designed to teach students the basics in several disciplines. Those disciplines can be connected to multiple job fields. Therefore, just by the numbers alone, interdisciplinary programs can give you more vocational options. You still have to sell yourself when applying to these positions, which includes explaining why your liberal studies background makes you more suitable for this position as compared to your competition, who may be specialists in the field.

There’s another aspect to the question about why people get a liberal studies degree, or any interdisciplinary-style degree, for that matter. As I stated above – careers are changing. The economy has been going downhill for a while, causing employers to downsize dramatically. They can’t hire new people, so they make their employees do multiple jobs. Even though the economy is slowly perking up in some ways, businesses have realized that it’s cheaper to have one person do the job of 2+ employees. So, instead of creating more specialist-specific jobs, employers are playing on the safe side by creating single job openings with multiple job duties.

Unfortunately, although the business world is changing their hiring practices and requiring candidates to have diverse backgrounds, many universities are not responding to this job market change. Most universities are still operating on the antiquated system that employers only want specialists. While specialists do get hired, people who have a wider range of skills are more likely to get hired in today’s economy.

Tips for Liberal Studies Majors

Whether you are a liberal studies major or not, the following information can help you become more marketable. Even if you are out of college, some of these tips can help you focus on ways to learn new skills and increase your chances of getting hired.

Tip #1: Research Before You Pick Classes and Concentration Areas

As soon as you know your career field of choice, research what skills and training employers want from job candidates. Don’t worry if you only have a vague career direction – it’s a place to start. For instance, if you want to be involved in the government, look at government jobs. Or, if you want to be in business, check out business-related jobs.

Sometimes it’s not always clear what a particular career is all about. Luckily there are several resources to help you identify job titles and learn about such factors as the basic job duties, educational requirements, and salary expectations. One of the best sources for this information is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook . Their A-Z index has practically every mainstream job title available.

After you know what employers want, choose courses and extracurricular activities that will provide you with the training you’ll need. Also, try to choose your concentration areas based on your research findings. Remember that as an undergraduate you can always minor in a field or double major to get more training and experience.

Tip #2: Diversify Your Training and Experience

If you are already in an interdisciplinary program, such as liberal studies, try to get the widest breadth of knowledge you can. Nevertheless, try to remain somewhat focused on your career goals. For instance, if you know you want to go into international business, try to choose courses in every main discipline field that relates to this vocation. Even if some classes seem loosely related, take whatever courses or electives you can. You never know what type of training a course will provide, and you never know what type of training a potential employer may prefer.

Tip #3: Internships Give You Experience and Connections

When it comes to getting a job, it really is a game of who you know. Internships allow students the opportunity to start building their professional networks. Don’t wait until the summer before you graduate college to do an internship. Do multiple internships throughout your entire college career. Not only are you building your network, but you are also improving your resume and gaining work experience. Remember to make the most of your internships, though. When appropriate, ask as many questions as possible. Internships give you the chance to experience a career field while finding out what employers in that field are looking for in potential candidates.

Tip #4: Extracurricular Activities Will Improve Marketability

Even if you’re a full-time student with a part-time job and an internship, try to make time for extracurricular activities. While volunteer work makes you look noble and selfless on a resume, even recreational activities can make you more marketable. For example, if you were in a club that did extreme outdoor activities, it shows potential employers that you enjoy doing new things, that you work well with others, and that you’re willing to push your limits. Whatever your extracurricular activities were or are now, look at them from an employer’s perspective. What does your participation in these activities mean to potential employers? How does it make you a better job candidate?

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