Monday, January 31st, 2011

Making your Arts Degree Work For You

Arts Degrees

The sky is the limit for students who know how to make their arts education work for them.

These days, there’s a lot of talk amongst university students about getting the most out of post-secondary education. With tuition fees increasing and stable jobs growing scarce, it appears as though the days of students using generic university credentials to land jobs are drawing to a close.

In this competitive hiring environment, many students flock to fields like engineering and computer science in order to increase their value to potential employers.

Universities in Canada are full of Arts Students with Unclear Paths

For arts students, on the other hand, the situation appears tough. Unlike their peers in technical programs, arts students are not courted by campus interviewers and career exhibitors. For many arts students, it seems like the only answer is to sign up for a second degree ASAP. The whole situation can leave some newly minted BAs feeling as though the main benefit they got from their degree, was an ability to master their LSAT or GMAT reading comprehension questions.

But what about arts students whose hearts are not set on becoming professionals? How can they leverage their education to build a career?

Admissions handbooks will tell you that arts degrees teach you communication, critical thinking, and writing skills, all of which are valued by employers in just about every profession under the sun. This may be true, but how do you turn these skills into income?

In order to get your Arts degree working for you, you need to do some of the work yourself. To start a career straight out of an arts undergrad requires that you take some initiative and use some imagination to get your foot in the door. This means taking the necessary steps during your school years to find a niche.

Networking, extracurricular involvement, and independent research, are all valuable activities for undergraduate students hoping to get a foot in the door toward a career. And, an arts education provides excellent opportunities to get involved in these activities, not only because it can expose students to outlets for participation, but also because it allows the flexibility to explore paths outside of required course material.

Leverage Networking and Contacts to Start a Freelance Career

For arts students, networking opportunities are endless. Good arts departments tend to hold many forum discussions and debates where prominent members of the community are invited to speak with students and professors on pressing issues. The Dalhousie Philosophy Department, for example, hosts a long standing public lecture series that has included writers, doctors, and lawyers among its distinguished guest speakers. Conferences like these give students the opportunity to speak with leaders in many fields, and by speaking with these individuals, students can gain valuable career advice as well as professional contacts.

You can also get involved in student media. Of course, the school newspaper and campus radio station are open to students from all departments, but arts majors are consistently overrepresented on student editorial boards across the country. A stint with the student newspaper can open up a world of opportunities in freelance writing, political activism, and non-profit work. Many media outlets offer contributors the ability to work from home on a project-by-project basis, making freelance journalism an excellent opportunity for students with an independent streak. Exposing students to these kinds of opportunities is something arts faculties often excel at.

More-so than most other fields, liberal arts encourage lively debate and open discussion in classes. For many professors, verbal participation by students is a course requirement! The ability to thoroughly discuss ideas and strategies is a necessary skill in any field that involves teamwork and high level organization. By encouraging classroom debate and discussion, arts courses prepare students to engage in teamwork and collaboration on a level that more structured fields often do not. In this way, arts courses indirectly prepare students for the process of selling themselves to employers.

No Set Path Means More Roads to Choose From

However, the most serious advantage lies in what the arts don’t offer. Unlike career oriented programs, arts students aren’t set up with a step-by-step path toward a job placement. By not emphasizing a single career or range of careers, arts departments apply less pressure on students to follow a predetermined path. This results in a substantial amount of freedom to explore alternative career possibilities and pursue opportunities as they present themselves.

While the average arts student isn’t a shoe-in for any particular career, they are not discouraged from pursuing any range of careers either. There is less of a sense among arts students that “I need to put extracurriculars second to my studies, because my cooking classes won’t help me come recruiting time.” This is perhaps why some successful entrepreneurs, such as Andrew Mason of Groupon, were arts students who pursued extracurricular interests that ended up growing into businesses.

Of course, none of these advantages are automatic. To reap these benefits, you must think outside the box and explore opportunities not set out in the curriculum guidelines. But the sky is truly the limit for students who know how to make their arts education work for them.

Andrew Button
Author: Andrew Button
Andrew Button is a student and freelance writer living in Newfoundland, Canada. His interests include politics, economics, and self development.
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  1. Tim Burkhart Says:

    Excellent article Andrew, as an arts graduate, I had to learn how to leverage my skills developed both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities to give me an edge in interviews. Many employers are looking for students with an arts background who know how to use it. Thanks!

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