Liberal arts degree: Asset or albatross?

Liberal arts degree: Asset or albatross?

Question

In your experience, is a broad liberal arts background an asset or an albatross? (I know, I know, I’m grossly glossing over differences in markets, technologies, regional employment issues, etc.) For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that our guinea pig has a liberal arts degree from a solid institution. Is the pig gonna succeed in business?

Nick’s Reply

liberal artsAbout 3 out of 4 employers say they want job candidates with strong writing skills. Far too many people in America, especially in the worlds of business and technology, can’t write to save their lives. And that’s because they spent most of their time in school studying one subject so they could become very smart specialists. But a liberal arts education almost always teaches people how to think critically, communicate effectively and how to write well.

And guess what? There’s no such thing any more as a single career. You need to be able to grasp all sorts of knowledge and thinking styles to tackle the rapidly changing kinds of work that need to be done. That’s why the traditional job is dying. And that’s why a liberal arts degree can be a very valuable asset today.

Liberal arts and business jobs

It’s not my intent to start a “jobs war” between liberal arts folks and other professionals like scientists, engineers, lawyers or anyone else. My intent is to help people with liberal arts backgrounds see they have options.

I think liberal arts types are among the most valuable workers in business. They tend to have well-honed critical skills and a flexible perspective that can accommodate just about any business discipline. They need time to master a new domain, and that can require a serious investment! But people with technical, finance or specialist degrees face a complementary challenge if they lack the breadth of knowledge one typically acquires in the liberal arts.

Liberal arts grads often often allow their degree to turn into an albatross. If they can stop torpedoing themselves, their broad skills can make them successful almost anywhere. Lots of liberal arts-ers (L.A.’s) seem to disdain the business world. I’ve never been able to figure that out. It’s a hurdle to overcome. Everything is a business, even non-profit organizations that nuke whales, save oil and grow eco-friendly pomegranates. L.A.’s need to realize — even while they’re in college — that having a job will likely mean working in business.

The disdain often manifests itself as defensiveness. You know the attitude: “I don’t really want to be in business. It’s beneath me. Business is for making money, not for satisfying my need to do something important. I come from the ivory tower of academe. And you guys in business scare the pants off me because… how do you do all that stuff you do?”

That attitude hurts a lot of talented people who need a foot in the door.

Liberal arts: Ability to change

But if L.A.’s suffer from naïve career preconceptions, they can be great learners — heck, I’m living proof. I spent my time in college taking courses in everything from Astronomy to Comparative Literature, Biology to Creative Writing, Art History to Economics, and from Psychology to Approaches to The Renaissance (Man, that was one killer double-credit course). I’m not so smart about anything in particular, but my L.A. background has made me fearless. It’s made me a fool for learning new stuff.

I didn’t study programming or coding, but I spent a couple of years designing and writing business software. I have no project management education, but I spent another year salvaging an inventory management project that went off the rails because programmers and sales people (at a major corporation) couldn’t understand one another.

Learning quickly on the job again and again gave me the confidence to believe I can learn to do anything well, because as an L.A. type in college, I jumped from subject to subject. That became a skill in itself. And I believe that skill makes any liberal arts-er a potentially fine business person. I got religion when I realized business is just the work someone does. It’s all business.

Liberal arts can be your asset

I believe that almost any L.A.-er who’s serious about it can land a good job — or change careers — by applying the ability to write and communicate effectively. That’s the sign of a trained and disciplined mind. That’s one of the first things I look for when I evaluate a business person. Having said that, I also expect a clear demonstration that the job candidate has applied their liberal arts training to learn about my business and the job I’m trying to fill!

There are lots of specialists out there that an L.A.-er could run circles around — just because L.A.-ers can speak and write well. The challenge to the L.A.-er is to study the business you want to work in, gain enough of a grasp to hold your own, and to show how you will apply your skills to it. In some fields, of course, you may need some serious additional education to compete with the specialists, but I think you will find the skills you already possess will often make you a uniquely qualified candidate for some surprising jobs.

So yes, our guinea pig can succeed. If you have a liberal arts degree and want to work in business, technology, finance or any other field, you’ve got to do more homework. Lucky you, that’s what you’re good at. Then choose your target and go tackle the world.

Is a liberal arts education useful in your line of work? Why or why not? If you work in a specialized field, have you encountered (or hired) people with liberal arts degrees? Are liberal arts credentials an asset or an albatross?

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What education does the employer want?

What education does the employer want?

A reader isn’t sure a new college degree or other education is going to guarantee a career or a job, in the October 6, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

educationI’m thinking of making a significant shift that would lead to better pay and an overall more satisfying career in a different kind of job. To make the change I might be able to get away with some certification programs and continuing education. However, I’m also considering getting a master’s degree because that seems to be an important credential for “getting in.” Any approach I take will cost money and time, in some cases a lot of both! How do I decide which way to go?

Nick’s Reply

I’m going to tell you something that should be very obvious, but I don’t expect you’ve already considered it because our employment and education systems have brainwashed you. First, let’s get some basics out of the way.

Selling education by the pound

The education industry (make no mistake, it is an industry) goes to great lengths to market its product. The marketing strongly implies that the degree leads to the job. Students have learned to shop for degrees by the pound: a certification, a bachelor’s, a master’s. How much “great job and salary” do you want? People with specific jobs and careers in mind easily swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker.

A new college degree can be a very risky bet unless you’re aspiring to one of the “professions” which require rigorous training and credentials. I’m referring to the law, medicine, accounting, engineering and the like – although you could theoretically pass a Professional Engineer exam or pass the bar exam without going to school. (I didn’t say it would be easy!)

But you probably know new law school or engineering grads that can’t find work. Did they not buy enough education?

Who’s really paying for the education?

When you have a specific career goal in mind, the product you’re buying is not education or a degree. The real product is the job you want. This means one thing matters more than any other: What education does the employer want?

In other words, you should remember that who’s really paying for that degree (or certification) is the employer that hires and pays you for it.

Although in general a college degree means higher income, degrees may not be required for good incomes in every career — or even in the job you want. A good education is valuable for many reasons, and it can enhance a career (and your income) dramatically. But, don’t expect that getting a degree is going to guarantee you a better income or a better career.

Don’t expect an employer to buy the career promises a school sold you.

What to do

How a degree-less job seeker gets the job:
No College Degree, No Problem
Before you assume, for example, that you need an MBA in finance to get a job in investment banking, or a computer science degree to design software, consider who’s “paying” for that degree. Pick the industry, company and job you want. Then go talk to the relevant employers and people who do the work you want to do.

Ask them what sort of education is necessary, sufficient and useful. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars could hang on the answers.

I don’t mean you should read the academic “requirements” on the job description. Go talk with the hiring managers and people who already do the work you want to do. Discover the nuances. Get insight. Get insider advice.

You might even ask what kind of education pays off best when you apply for the job you want. Then pursue that education.

There’s still no guarantee of a job, but at least you’re partnering with the “other customer” that’s indirectly paying for your education.

Get past the marketing of education

Popular business magazines regularly run rankings that list the college degree programs (e.g., MBA) and schools that deliver the most bang for the buck. They list salaries and job titles obtained by graduates. Big deal. What they fail to discuss is all the other ways talented people can be successful. Many schools don’t prove that they really know what employers want.

If degrees were directly tied to jobs, schools would guarantee you job opportunities. Instead, they market the often nebulous relationship between a degree and a job.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t knock education. I believe a college education for its own sake can make most people smarter and better overall, if only for the broad exposure to knowledge, ideas, critical thinking and problem-solving tools it provides. We’ve all seen the surveys which show that, generally speaking, people with college degrees earn more than those without them. But, I really get bugged when schools and the media market “the relationship” between degrees, jobs and income.

Necessary and sufficient qualifications

Depending on the person and the situation, it’s not always clear that a degree (or yet another degree) is necessary. I’ve known many people, including law and medical school grads and freshly minted MBAs, who are disappointed that the degree they worked so hard to earn hasn’t gotten them a job or higher incomes. (See MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course in Bloomberg Businessweek.)

While a degree may be necessary, it may not be sufficient. That is, you need something more. That may be experience, apprenticeship or just an employer willing to take a chance on you.

Or, a degree may not be necessary if you have other qualifications that are sufficient.

Only the employer really knows.

Ask the employer

So, before you invest loads of time and money to get a degree, talk to people who do the work you want to do, and to their managers. We’re probably talking about several companies. Ask which credentials really matter to them and why. Which credentials would most likely pay off if you applied there for a job?

If you’re going to school because you want to learn for learning’s sake, that’s wonderful. But, if you’re investing in a degree to get ahead in your job, the ultimate customer of the education industry isn’t you — it’s the employer you go to work for.

I promised to tell you something very obvious. Before you invest in education or a degree, find out what education the employer wants.

What’s your experience with education, degrees and jobs? Have you been let down after investing in a degree (or an extra degree) that seemed to promise a job? What jobs really require a degree? Do you know any schools that do an exceptional job of preparing their students to actually get jobs?

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Career Switchers: An interview with Wharton’s Dawn Graham

In the August 14, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader complains about the difficulties in changing careers — and about the costs. So we’re going to discuss career switchers in this special audio edition! Hope you enjoy it!

Question

career switchersI’ve been around the block a few times, that is, I’ve changed jobs. It was never easy, except for one job I got from a personal referral without even a job interview. But nothing prepared me for changing professions. I’ve all but concluded it’s impossible. Even if I could do it, now I question whether it’s worth it because of the haircut I’d have to take in pay.

I’m a successful IT executive. I always wanted to work in investment banking. Everyone told me I’d better get an MBA, so I did. Even the school — a big name — promoted its program as a “career changer.” After a huge tuition bill and three years working diligently at getting into the investment world, I realize career change is a game no one wants to play with you because they’re never going to see what you can do, only what you’ve done. Employers can’t get past the labels. I tried everything from job boards to headhunters to networking meetings to expensive career and life coaches. Can you tell me something I don’t know? Should I give up?

Nick’s Reply

I wouldn’t give up, and I hope you learn something you don’t know in this special audio edition of Ask The Headhunter.

I’m going to let my good buddy Dr. Dawn Graham, Director of Career Management for the MBA program for executives at The Wharton School, answer this one. A former headhunter, Dawn is also a clinical psychologist and she hosts a weekly radio show — “Career Talk” — where I’ve been a guest many times.

This is where the fun starts! In a recent program we turned the tables and I interviewed her about career switching — and we’re going to borrow some excerpts from that interview so we can do an audio edition of Ask The Headhunter this week. (Cool, eh?)

Career switchers

“If you’re like most Americans, you will spend around five years of your life engaged in some type of job search activity. You’ll hold about eleven different positions in the course of your career, and each job search might take you six months or longer. The new normal is not only to switch jobs but to change professions — which isn’t easy to accomplish.”

That’s from Graham’s new book, Switchers, which is a how-to guide for people like you who are pursuing career change. Graham notes that the average time a person spends in a job these days is 4.2 years, so job change of one type or another is quite common.

However, she offers the same caution you’ve heard from me here on Ask The Headhunter: Job change is not as easy as LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter and Indeed suggest it is.

switchers“In our one-click world of instant access, job seekers might expect the same ease in the job search process. Technology has become a seductress, luring candidates into endless hours of internet searches and countless online applications. These methods are barely effective for even the most qualified job applicants, and career changers who rely on them don’t stand a chance. Career Switchers tend to give up not because they lack the skills to excel in their desired profession, but because they don’t have the proper search strategies and knowledge.”

Audio Ask The Headhunter

Knowing I was going to tackle your question here, I waited until Dawn and I  discussed the topic on “Career Talk” so I could share some of the audio here with you. (This originally aired on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School.)

A radio talk show goes quickly, so it’s not possible to get into a topic in great depth — but I thought we could have a little fun with an audio edition of Ask The Headhunter and help the reader who asked this week’s question. I hope you enjoy this little experiment — and that you chime in with your own advice!

Excerpt 1

Let’s start by discussing the two main kinds of career “switch” a person might attempt: the industry switch and the functional switch. Or both! The important insight is that the traditional hiring process has not shifted to make switching easier.

      Switching careers in today's employment market

Excerpt 2

Does the hiring manager think you’re too risky a hire?

      Are some switches more difficult than others?

Excerpt 3

Headhunters and hiring managers are usually averse to risk, so they go for the easy candidates; the ones who are a clear fit with lots of relevant experience. But you may have visions of a radically new career — and none of this seems fair.

      Managers hire the safe candidate

Excerpt 4

Understanding the hiring manager’s mindset will help you deal with the natural biases of hiring managers — and with the inevitable role of emotions in hiring. What are some fundamental laws of psychology that you need to know?

      Emotions & Bias: The psychology of hiring

Excerpt 5

What you think the employer wants, and what they really want, may be two totally different things. Can a candidate figure out what a manager really wants?

      What the hiring manager wants

Excerpt 6

No one wants to take a salary haircut when they change jobs. How realistic is that when changing careers?

      The cost of switching

Excerpt 7

Do you really need more education to get the job you want? More important, does the employer think the education you’re buying is going to make you a more desirable hire?

      The myth of education in career change

Do these excerpts give you some ideas about how to change your approach to switching careers? I hope they at least encourage you to not lose heart and to not stop trying — but to modify your approach a bit.

Career Switching

On the “Career Talk” program we just touched on a few important ideas about switching careers. In her book, Dawn Graham gets into loads of detail, methods and techniques for making career switches. It’s the kind of advice she delivers every day to Executive MBA students at Wharton to help them with their career goals. You’ll have to look long and far to find a column where I’ve endorsed a book — this is one of those rare times. Switchers: How smart professionals change careers and seize success (AMACOM, 2018) is a great tutorial from an accomplished expert I respect.

My goal here, with you, is to riff on what we just heard on the audio excerpts, and to launch some discussion on how to make career change happen. Do you find the issues Graham raises helpful? Is there really a distinction between job change and career change, and is one more challenging than the other?

Have you ever tried to switch careers, either at the industry or functional level — or both? Did it work? Do you recognize any of the issues Dawn and I discussed? Do you have any suggestions on how to expand these ideas to help others change careers? If you were a guest on that edition of “Career Talk,” what questions would you have asked Dawn? (Did you enjoy the audio? Want more in the future?)

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How to launch a seemingly impossible career change

In the April 19, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to get in the door for a seemingly impossible job change.

Question

leavingI want to make a big career change into medical device sales, but it’s going to be tricky. My experience is in teaching, primarily English as a second language. I don’t expect to get a sales job to start, so I want to start out in sales support. I’ve done tons of research on the company I’ve chosen, its technology and products, and I’ve even talked to some of the company’s customers — doctors and medical centers. I know that their salespeople’s time is worth a little over $1,000 an hour, so good sales support is key to profitability.

Two contacts — an old friend and her friend — work in the company where I want a job, and I’m using LinkedIn to find more contacts. I have read both your How Can I Make a Career Change? (I thoroughly enjoyed my library vacation) and Fearless Job Hunting books, and I am following your advice. But my execution might be a bit rocky. How can I parlay these contacts into more connections that might help me get in front of the right manager to talk about a seemingly impossible job change?

Nick’s Reply

You’re right — that’s a huge, daunting leap. Medical sales is a tough field to get into. Your odds aren’t good, but I don’t believe in odds or in luck. I believe in hard work. If you really want to do this, do all the hard work and don’t let anything deter you until you either get the job or exhaust every avenue.

But you didn’t ask my permission. You asked how to get in the door.

It’s going to require more than one or two contacts, so you need to leverage your two friends to meet more people in the company. I’m both a fan and an antagonist when it comes to LinkedIn. It’s the best online phonebook ever developed. On the other hand, it’s become just another job board after squandering its future as a true networking tool.

Leverage LinkedIn

Here’s how to use LinkedIn to help you with this. Ask your friends for one or two names of people who work in or near the department at the company where you want to work. Then search both LinkedIn and Google to find them, and then more people who are connected to the company’s product areas where you want to work. (I suggest you re-read “A Good Network Is a Circle of Friends,” pp. 27-32 in How Can I Change Careers?)

Search Google for the company name plus the product names and related technologies. Let me caution you here: Google Search and Google News are different. You’ll turn up different results. I prefer News because the results will surface names of specific people and stories about them — and that’s what you want. The more relevant names you can dig up this way, the better. Then look up each person on LinkedIn — and ask your friends if they know them.

When you contact someone you found this way, you don’t have to rely on that tenuous LinkedIn “connection” to get their attention. (I hate it when someone reaches out to me and says, “I found you on LinkedIn!” So what? They might as well have found me in the phone book!) You should refer to the news article you read about them. Talk shop, and mention the two people you know at the company:

How to Say It:
“I was just talking to Mary Smith, who works in the Blah-Blah department at your company, and I also just read this article in the Wall Street Journal about your role in your company’s…”

Talk shop!

You’ve clearly done your homework — Good for you! — so you can actually ask them a couple of intelligent questions about their work. This tells them you’re not some LinkedIn opportunist who ran a keyword search to “find” them. You actually know something about what they do. This puts you on a very different footing from someone who’s calling around for job leads via LinkedIn.

Having started a work-related — if very simple — discussion, you can move on to your objective:

How to Say It:
“I wonder if I could ask you for some advice. My background is… and I’m considering a job in sales support. I don’t just want to send in a resume, because I’d like to learn more about the support function in sales of XYZ devices. I know that a sales person’s time at your company is worth about $1,000 an hour, so sales support is an important lever for profitability. Is there someone you can recommend that I talk with in sales or sales support so I can learn more about the role?”

Isn’t that more powerful than saying, “Hey, do you know of any job leads at your company?” You will leave your competitors in the dust. Here’s another way to break the ice with such a contact:

How to Say It:
“I noticed in the article I read that you work with the Hannenframmis device line. Another company, X, makes a related device they call a Thingamajig. What do you think of their product?”

A question like that tells the person you’ve studied the company, its products and its competition. What LinkedIn query goes into such detail? Your request is out of the ordinary. You’re not asking for a job lead — you’re talking shop. When you ask someone for their opinion or advice about something relating to their work, I find they usually want to share their thoughts.

Once again, having established a bit of credibility, it’s easy to switch to:

“Hey, I wonder if I could ask you for some advice…” and use the How to Say It suggestion above.

Critical Mass: Nobody said it was easy

If they don’t recommend anyone, just say, “Thanks — it was good to meet you. Thanks for your time,” and move on. But my guess is they will offer you some help. One new contact and referral thus leads to another. You learn something new every step of the way, and you will build a critical mass of contacts and insight. Some of them will know one another — and that builds your credibility further as you navigate the company to find the right manager in sales.

One of your new friends will refer you to a manager who will recognize a highly motivated person who wants to work in sales support. Without applying for a job, you’ll be an insider. When you get near that manager, re-read Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Share Experiences: The path to success,” pp. 12-14, and “Pest, or manager’s dream?” pp. 18-19.

I’ll caution you: This is not easy or quick, nor should it be. While your competition is sending keywords to HR managers, you’ll be talking to insiders — that requires dedication and focus. Managers tend to hire people they know, or people referred by trusted contacts. That’s what this approach gradually turns you into — an insider — if you invest the time to do the homework, to talk with people patiently, and to learn all you can about the company you want to work for so you can demonstrate why you’re the profitable hire.

How do you get in the door when the job you want is a big change from what you’ve been doing? Ever make a big career change? What would you suggest to this earnest reader?

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