Monday, November 7, 2011

A Liberal Arts education is messing up my job prospects! (by anon)

There are many problems today with a so-called “liberal arts” education. The number of students enrolled in humanities and social science coursework has grown exponentially. A concomitant, precipitous decline in the number of students enrolled in mathematics and the sciences has also occurred. There are good reasons for these phenomena. The societal consequences of this transition will be unhappy at best.

Those students who have abandoned mathematics and the sciences is understandable. These areas of study are rigorous and stressful. Moreover, those who entertain them tend to achieve grade point averages lower than do other students. To the rational, self-interested student, these facts can do no other than militate against the selection of “hard” majors in the sciences.

More attractive to most students are the philosophical and psychological sciences. These majors promote critical thinking, of course, and are of interest. However, in the present market, applicants trained in these disciplines face fierce competition for positions. Far too many have been graduated with degrees in these fields. As such, the marketplace for jobs has become saturated with them. What applicants need is to be different.

The modern world values specialization and technical proficiency. These aforementioned majors tend to provide little of either. As such, the student who devotes his undergraduate career to them will not thereby be empowered to land a well-paid position. This fact was not communicated to me with any force by the academic advisors I have had. Instead, it was encouraged that I, upon completion of my degree, attend graduate or professional school.

This recommendation reveals quite a lot. Indeed, it is an admission that, when studied at the undergraduate level, the aforementioned majors do not prepare one for gainful employment. They seem in fact quite inadequate to that task. Further education and study, then, is required if one is to acquire or secure quality employment.

However, the possession of advanced degrees no longer guarantees one quality, secured employment. That the (academic) marketplace currently suffers an overabundance of doctorates -- especially in the humanities and social sciences – is well-known. Consequently, those who earn such degrees face stiff competition for placement as faculty. By no means is the attainment of a tenure-track position assured (if it is even possible).

Those who major in mathematics or physics, then, are in demand. Their studies have equipped them with the knowledge and skills employers need and want. However, the number of students who have declared said majors has declined. As such, there exists a “mismatch” in the marketplace between the demand and supply of technically adept employees. Is it any wonder, then, that our country has witnessed high unemployment rates? One suspects that things will only get worse and the market will become even more frustrated as a result thereof.

In the interest of disclosure: I have chosen psychology as my major; my minors are mathematics and philosophy. I did not choose a minor in mathematics because I am an unusually gifted mathematician. Rather, I selected that minor because I think advanced numeracy is mandatory in today’s job market. Academic advisors outside the sciences, however, do not impress this fact upon their advisees. Career counselors are even more pathetic and useless and say nothing that I myself do not already know.

It seems, therefore, that a liberal arts education is being “sold” as worthwhile per se. I would suggest otherwise. How, for example, is the student of psychology and sociology to find employment immediately upon graduation? She cannot, at least not readily. When I researched prospective jobs, I found that most required mathematical, scientific or technical acumen. To be conversant in philosophy, while impressive and noble, is not the same. It will not impress employers who demand some familiarity with, say, differential equations.

I am truly upset that no adviser ever confronted me with these facts. If one had, I probably would have selected a “harder” major or minor sooner rather than later. I first declared a minor in mathematics my junior year, and did so only after I researched jobs. As a result, I am required to complete four mathematics courses this year, which will impose a lot of stress and hard work.

My experience shows that, at least at present moment, no dearth of jobs exists for those trained in mathematics and the sciences. I surmise, therefore, that a principal cause of unemployment today is a fundamental and pervasive mismatch: a mismatch between applicants’ and employers’ abilities, expectations and needs. This mismatch has been fostered and perpetuated -- in no small measure, I would say -- by and within the academy.


  1. Well, I am completely fucked then eh? I am a Liberal Studies major and I suffer from Dyscalculia. I am graduating in May!

    I really hope that I can land some job out there that can make use of a person with strong communication, leadership, and critical thinking skills. Maybe someone who also has a sense of ethics?

    If everything out there requires math I am doomed.

    Prof. Chaos

  2. Your first mistake is thinking that the primary reason for college is to get a job. While I understand that most think that way, that is wrong if it is considered the only value of an education. The primary value of getting a college education is precisely that it is a liberal arts and sciences education. It is supposed to increase your awareness about many aspects of life (yourself, your culture, your environment) and train you to think better. It's what we like to call "life skills" and "life-long learning skills." This kind of education will stay with you the rest of your lives, and hopefully you'll have the tools to continue this kind of education well after you leave college.

    Your second mistake is that many employers do actually value a liberal arts education. You say you have a philosophy minor, then check out this article:

    Employers like employees who aren't dolts. So there is some good instrumental value in getting a liberal arts education.

    Yes, there is a bigger market in the technical fields. Having a great background in math or computer science will go a long way. That's been the case for quite a while. But would being in those fields make you happy?

    Is your measure of happiness based on your annual income or what you are doing?

    Might the mismatch you speak of really be between your idea of a quality education and what the institution thinks?

  3. Hey thanks 1:57. That actually makes me feel better about my options out there.

    Prof. Chaos

  4. Money may not buy happiness but no money will cause unhappiness. If you can't get food or a place to live you will be unhappy. Go ahead and tell a starving man that happiness is not in material things. If you love studying prehistoric culture and want to major in anthropology. You do that but if you start a family and get laid off down the road. Try to explain to your spose that you cant buy baby food because you picked a major and job you loved and that money doesn't buy happiness.
    If you value family and that is what is going to give you happiness, then you might want to make sure you can provide for them. If your a lone wolf and want wander the country enjoying the people, sights, and sounds. Go nuts I hope you have fun. Main point being know what you value and know the best way to protect and fight for it.

  5. I'll put it this way. Do you want your education to make you into a mindless drone or do you want your education to make you into a person who can solve problems for yourself and others? Let me tell you, the wealthy want you to pick the former, work for them, and stay obedient to the current system.

  6. You forgot to say that republicans want you to pick the former too!

  7. I just found this on HuffPost: the 11 most unemployable majors. I'm afraid psych gets it up the ass...

    In decreasing order of unemployment rate:

    Clinical Psychology (19.5% unemployment rate; everything else is less)
    Misc Fine Arts
    US History
    Library Science
    Educational Psychology
    Military Technology
    Industrial and Organizational Psychology
    Misc Psychology
    Linguistics and Comparative Literature
    Computer Administration Management and Security

  8. As a long-time advocate for liberal education, I am intrigued by the anti-liberal education posting. I have sympathy for anyone facing the job market right now, but I think that blaming a liberal education is a bit reductionistic.

    Here is why:
    First, the author poses a false dichotomy: one is either getting a liberal education (majors such as philosophy or psychology) or one is getting a practical education with a prospect for a job (i.e. math). The problem with this perspective is that I know of absolutely no one who speaks or writes about liberal education who would exclude a math major from a liberal education. In my own experience (I teach English) I have found that some of the best, most liberally educated people are in our math department. (I am also thinking of my son-in-law, who has a PhD in Math from Cornell. I would put him on a short-list of people I know who have superior liberal educations. He knows a number of languages, is well read, and works for a Yahoo think tank with a group of sociologists.) So, a false dichotomy.

    Second point: in this economy even math majors may struggle to find a job. Unless they have a teaching certificate, I am guessing that many of them will be forced to go to graduate school, but the same could be said of psychology majors.

    Third point. I will grant that some majors offer more job opportunities than others. If you really want a job, major in Speech Pathology or Accounting. The problem is that these employable majors are not for everyone. If they are not a student's passion, then a lifetime of employment could seem like a life sentence. (By the way, even accountants--maybe ESPECIALLY accountants--should have a liberal education!)

    Fourth point. As someone who majored in English, which has become the punch line for jokes about impractical educations (I can still hear my mother: "You can't eat English"), I have survived, not because of raw talent but because of passion for my subject. I think the same holds true today. If you are really passionate about your major and are determined to succeed, there will be a job for you, maybe not immediately but eventually.

    Finally, I can tell that the person who posted the response is a very good writer. I am also assuming he/she is good at math and psychology. This person is already well-grounded in liberal education. The benefits of this may not be apparent now, but they will be. I wish we could re-post in ten years. (There are studies showing that people with a liberal education may have lower entry-level jobs, but that they are promoted more rapidly.)

    With all of this understandable attention to jobs, I should say in closing that liberal education has two other advantages besides employment: it can be tremendously self-fulfilling; it is absolutely necessary in a democracy to have a liberally educated citizenry.

  9. ^thank you

    From Daniel Becker

  10. So, I'm a Chemistry Major witha minor in philosophy. You know why? It's because I thought I should struggle a bit for my education. I thought "Hey, I should learn about something unfamiliar if I'm going to spend all this money and time on school." Going into a field that is not challenging seems like a waste of effort to me. Yes, I will likely have a lower grade point average than if I took a less challenging route (duh), but when I have finished this degree I will have learned some practical skills in a challenging field. I do have a personal interest in modern science, don't get me wrong. I minor in philosophy because I find that the critical thinking is essential for interpretation of more analytical work like chemistry. It's all connected. So, the liberal arts education is necessary, but I feel like I could figure most of that stuff out without getting a bachelors. Admittedly I have an associates in Liberal arts, so I am competitive with those who have a focus there. The main point I guess I want to make here is that you should challenge yourself, risk failure, only those who risk failure also risk success.