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Liberal Arts Is Slang
For Job Skills

By Michele Menegay Marion

New college grads with liberal arts degrees all have similar epiphanies when they hit the job market: a B.A. in French is not a "hot" credential. Many of these job hunters get discouraged, but they shoot themselves in the foot by continuing to seek jobs where French (or Comp Lit, or Art History, or fill-in-the-blank) is the main pre-requisite in the job description. Though your school probably never told you this, you can still earn a living and have a wonderful life, even if your first job isn't writing bi-lingual menus for bistros. You just need to think (and work) past your academic straitjacket.

Making Change in French
I'm one of those anachronistic individuals who still believes in a Renaissance-style (i.e., broad-based, liberal arts) undergraduate education. Some of my most successful friends have bachelor's degrees in fields like psychology and English. I was a French major. Unless they feel a very strong calling to law, medicine or one of the professions at a young age, I think America's newly-graduated youth should work a few years before deciding what they truly want to specialize in, then go to graduate school at a later time to pursue a specialty. That is, if they don't find satisfying ways to use their "college knowledge" first.

Not long after earning my degree at Georgetown University, I came to France. This is a country where it is expected that children will know what they want to do career-wise at the ripe old age of 14; a country that is run by narrow-minded, young idiots savants (witness the economic state of things over here) who specialized way too early and are so locked into their fields of specialization that they can't see the forest for the trees. There is no practical sense of people growing and changing in France. If you opted for computer training when you were 14, then a computer person you will be, for the rest of your working life. Worse, because your training had to do with digital doughnut cutting, you won't be allowed to apply those skills to anything else, such as bagpipe design. Ca ne se fait pas (it just isn't done), as they say here. And to think, I still have a hankering to be an anthropologist...

Making Real Skills Pay
Fresh out of Georgetown, I wanted a job where I could use my French. I waitressed for an extended period of time (to pay the bills) until I found something appropriate. It proved to be in the aerospace field (but hey -- hang on, Michele -- you didn't hold a B.S. in engineering or business...). My responsibilities, which actually had very little to do with the fact that I spoke French, were vast and varied. They had more to do with skills and qualities such as researching, organization and self-motivation that I learned through through the broad-based, multi-disciplinary (as opposed to profession-oriented) four years I spent in college. I was willing to start out at a junior level and wound up in a senior position in the space of 6 months (where I made mucho bucks). Other "French major" friends of mine are currently earning decent money in business or academic posts in all sorts of fields around the world. Their knowledge of French may have helped them get where they are, perhaps, but I suspect that their liberal arts education played a more decisive role as they climbed the career ladder.

Your New Job Is To Figure It Out
It seems that many Americans, fresh out of college, naturally expect that the degree they just paid thousands of dollars for will have immediate and obvious value in the job market. Wake up, folks. It isn't the specific degree, or even the discipline you studied that will pay off during the development of your career: it's all the underlying skills you acquired. And with a liberal arts degree, those skills are considerable. The real challenge isn't just finding a job; it's deciding how to apply these very fundamental skills to the line of work you choose for yourself. But take note: employers aren't going to figure it out for you. You have to figure it out for yourself.

I'm afraid I'd have to disagree with the premise that one is "owed" a job based on his or her major. The loans you took on to get that French degree won't get paid by virtue of the fact that you now speak French. They'll get paid because you acquired a much broader base of knowledge and skills -- if you accept the fact that you must assemble the pieces in ways that are valuable to the world.

That said, as the mom of someone who'll soon be going to college I think it's preposterous to devalue liberal arts degrees because new grads can't immediately leverage their education into a job. Many of my friends and I have done rather well by our degrees. In some cases it took a while, but the challenge was an investment that has paid off.

LibertÚ, EgalitÚ et Icing Franšais
A liberal arts degree has enormous value -- and it offers a level of career freedom unlike any other course of study. To an employer, it provides an underlying set of skills that can be molded and shaped to deliver value even when the nature of a job (or the work itself) changes. An intelligent, progressive employer knows there's much more behind a B.A. in French than proficiency in a language. A less intelligent, reactionary employer looks strictly for a finance major, by way of example, to fill a junior economic research post (my first job!). And this from someone without an M.B.A. (!)

There are jobs out there for new grads with new degrees in French or any of a number of liberal arts disciplines -- but such grads should approach the market with a "French is just the icing on the cake" attitude. If you look hard enough, and you're flexible, motivated, conscientious and willing to learn (as anyone just out of school should be, no matter what their major), the land of the free and home of the brave will provide. Unlike France.

See also Making the Liberal Arts Degree Pay Off and
Breaking Ranks & Rules: How academics can avoid 5 fatal mistakes in the job hunt

Recommended book: Keys to Liberal Arts Success

Michele Menegay Marion is an American who lives and works in Paris. When she realized just how broad were the skills and knowledge she acquired along with her liberal arts degree, she applied them to start her own business. Michele is a freelance translator, copywriter and consultant dealing mostly with the French luxury goods industries. She does both creative and strategic work for companies including Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermes; and for the Paris Museum of Modern Art. She also works with international fashion, design, art and architecture publications including Vogue, Men's Vogue International, Intramuros International Design Magazine and American Harper's Bazaar. Although Michele has never lifted a finger to advertise her business, new clients don't seem to have any trouble finding her. Michele can be contacted through The Headhunter, who will forward email.


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