Microsoft. Nike. American Airlines. Coors. MTV. Magnet companies attracting tens of thousands of resumes. But your degree is in liberal arts – would a magnet company hire you?

Steven Neff
Whitney Dibo

This is the question posed in an article titled “Road to Career Success for Liberal Arts Majors” by Robin Ryan of jobweb.com – a website of job-search information for college students and recent graduates. The article details the many obstacles facing most liberal arts majors as they enter today’s competitive job market by chronicling the plights of specific-yet-generic college students identified only by a first name. Take Heather, the philosophy major, who was lucky enough to eventually land a career selling insurance. Or Sam, the ambivalent psychology major who picked liberal arts because “it was easier than his business courses.” Don’t fret over Sam’s future, though – the website assured us he’d be OK because he previously did “excel at his job as a pizza delivery man.”

Well I have a confession. My name is Whitney Dibo (last name provided for potential employers), and I too am a liberal arts major.

Back when I was an underclassman, I remember feeling pretty scholarly sitting in the shade of the Diag, poring over “Invisible Man” and highlighting game strategies in my political science textbook. But now I’m a senior, and my liberal arts path has suddenly become my albatross – one that I find myself hiding behind phrases like “I might go to law school.”

It’s clearly a punt, and I usually end up feeling like a fraud afterward. I don’t want to take the LSAT – at least not right now.

So, in my quest to jumpstart my job search, I did what any dutiful senior does – I called the Career Center. After the obligatory greetings, the conversation went something like this:

“So what is your major?”

“English and Political Science.”

“So you want a law adviser?”

“No.”

“So, general advising.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“I do have a law appointment open for tomorrow if you want it.”

It is hard to be a liberal arts major these days, to stand proudly amid the chemical engineers and B-School chosen and declare, “I am an art history major” without receiving knowing smiles that read: “You’re not going to have health insurance.”

In the name of keeping my options open, I attended last week’s Job Fair 2006. The Michigan Union was packed to the brim with button-down shirts, newly minted resumes and firm, look-you-in-the-eye handshakes. As I perused corporate America, I spotted a sign that read, “We accept resumes from liberal arts majors!” I suppose I should have appreciated it. But no – we liberal arts majors are not charity cases. The sign should have read: We covet liberal arts majors! We need liberal arts majors!

But I kept my poetry-loving mouth shut. Most companies weren’t nearly that open-minded. Throughout the fair I repeatedly was told by recruiters that their company was looking for more – how shall I put it – focused, analytical applicants.

Well, I’m going to let these recruiters in on a secret: Liberal arts majors have the skills. The University has taught us to write, to think critically, to speak our minds eloquently and to discuss abstract concepts that most chemical engineers can’t wrap their highly sought-after brains around.

What I have realized is that the job fair is not representative of the job market. It can seem that way once you’ve scoured the Union looking for just one company that remotely sparks your interest. The truth is, though, that the magazines, publishing houses, TV stations, production companies, galleries and think tanks of the world don’t attend events like Job Fair 2006. Just because they aren’t recruiting in the Union with a neatly designed three-panel poster from behind booths does not mean they don’t exist.

After my set of disheartening experiences, I called up Kerin Borland, the senior associate director at the Career Center. She offered some calming words of wisdom (and numbers) for liberal arts majors who are starting to feel their blood pressure rise as graduation nears: “It will take a bit longer . but if you hang in there, 85 percent of liberal arts graduates reported back to us that, within six months of graduation, they were in a job with career potential.” CNN reported a 6.1-percent salary increase for liberal arts majors from 2005 to 2006. So tune out the naysayers and skeptics – apparently, there is life after liberal arts.

I’ve always believed in Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Advance confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” I believed it 3rd grade, I believed it freshman year, and I’m not ready to trade it for a 401(k). And I heard Thoreau didn’t even have health insurance during that long, cold winter on Walden Pond.

Dibo can be reached at wdibo@umich.edu.

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