College of LAS « Illinois

Business Careers for Liberal Arts Majors

  1. The Business Major Myth
  2. Communication and Creativity—The LAS Major
  3. The Business Environment
  4. Planning Your Major
  5. Marketing Your LAS Degree
  6. Suggested Business Courses to Supplement Your LAS Degree
  7. Conclusion

1. The Business Major Myth

Most college students believe that to secure a career in business they must leave the university equipped with a "business major." They believe that for each specific business career field out there a corresponding major must exist at the undergraduate level. This may be true, if that career is in something like accountancy, but most careers do not require a specific academic background. Indeed, what most business recruiters are looking for is the ability to communicate and to think critically—two basic components of any Liberal Arts degree.

The skills we are looking for in graduates are not specific to a machine or industry: We want young workers who can read, write, compute, pick up new skills quickly and eagerly, and interact cooperatively with others. These are the skills of a liberal education, not the specific skills of a vocational education.

— Corporate CEO

The problems that result from trying to link a major to a specific career affect LAS students to a greater degree than those students in other, more vocational colleges. However, not having a vocational degree can be beneficial in the job market. In a recent survey of 3,000 University of Virginia LAS graduates it was found that 70 percent found careers that had little or no connection with their academic discipline. Most of this 70 percent had secured careers within the business world. Yet, many LAS majors still say they feel unprepared and ill equipped for a business career, or they feel that all their major does is prepare them for a teaching job. Those of you who have asked yourself, "What can I do with an LAS major?", however, will probably be surprised to learn that an LAS degree is considered to be on the cutting edge for a career in business.

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2. Communication and Creativity - The LAS Major

So why would businesses hire LAS grads when there are so many graduates from the College of Business out there? Former General Motors CEO Roger B. Smith explains why. He argues that the same mental processes that are acquired and sharpened in the study of liberal arts can be utilized by Corporate America to organize operations, manage people, and to add new insight and vision into the way businesses operate. Recently, 113 corporations were asked what skills were needed by recent grads to forge a successful career in business. They stated that the most important skill to have was good verbal communication, followed by the ability to identify and formulate problems, being able to assume responsibility, to be able to reason, and to possess the ability to function independently. These skills are best gained from the broad knowledge of human interaction, of society, of culture, and of the arts. LAS majors are exposed to a wide variety of people, places and historical periods: they have studied the greatest achievements of the human race, they have come to know the dignity and worth of mankind. It is the communicative and creative skills acquired by such a course of study that Smith believes separates LAS from business graduates, obviously to the advantage of the LAS graduates.

The one skill managers need above all others is to recognize human traits and abilities. If you can't communicate, then you can't effectively manage, buy, sell, or trade. If you are insensitive to people, then you will not be able to harmonize individual work styles and abilities with the common goal of the business. You could be a brilliant accountant, but if you can't communicate with people, or can't treat them with dignity and respect, then you will be a terrible manager.

There are a lot of brilliant people in business who cannot communicate with others. When they attempt to become managers, we have to replace them with the kind of people who can communicate.

— CEO of a California corporation

Two studies have shown those LAS graduates in the humanities and social sciences can fashion effective careers for themselves in Corporate America. An AT&T study found that, because of their interpersonal skills humanities and social science grads were superior in management skills to business majors, math majors, and science/engineering majors.

AT&Ts research also found that LAS graduates moved into middle management faster than the math and science/engineering majors, and that they were reaching top level management in equal proportions to those who had a business degree. But what is perhaps more important, is that the LAS graduate had a higher rate of job satisfaction than the non-LAS graduates!

The results of another study undertaken by Stanford University are equally encouraging. Over a 20 year period of study Stanford professor Thomas Harrell found that the greatest business skill anyone could possess was the ability to communicate and he found that the best communicators were people with a strong LAS background.

The most sought after skill from CEO on down is the ability to communicate with people. The person who can do that in business will always be in demand.

— New York based executive recruiter, John Callen

It is something of an irony then, but one that favors LAS students, that business programs emphasize analytical over interpersonal and communicative skills. The graph below illustrates essentially what the AT&T study found—that the managerial performance by those who had been LAS undergraduate majors was superior to the performances of undergraduate other majors. (Source: "College Experiences and Managerial Performance," by Ann Howard, Journal of Applied Psychology, 1986, Vol. 71, No.3.)

Managerial Performance

Managerial Performance by Undergraduate Majors
(Scores based on a 10 point scale)
Score Math. & Science Business Engineering Liberal Arts
6.2 . . . .
6.1 . . . X
6.0 . . . .
5.9 . . . .
5.8 . X . .
5.7 . . . .
5.6 . . . .
5.5 . . . .
5.4 . . . .
5.3 . . X .
5.2 X . . .

So, although the outlook for careers in business is good for LAS graduates, you still have to land that all important first job. You need to begin your planning now. What major you choose is only one of the many factors recruiters will evaluate. They will look at grades, electives, internship experiences, volunteer experience, part time jobs, and anything else that is illustrative of your personality traits. They will want to know what skills you have acquired through course work and your other experiences. They will examine the whole you, not simply a transcript.

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3. The Business Environment

When a student says "I want to go into business after I graduate" what exactly does he or she mean? Many students envision themselves working for a major company like IBM or Xerox, wearing business suits and helping make decisions that will earn money for their company. While this vision may be accurate for some, it is not what most students can expect to experience immediately after graduation.

If you believe that a business degree will guarantee you an immediate management position, job security, and a starting salary of more than $30,000 per year, you may be disappointed. The truth is that a bachelor's degree, whether it is in business or a more liberal area of study, usually only helps you obtain an entry level position. Your undergraduate degree does not promise a quick rise to the top of the corporate ladder. Success in the business world requires a great deal of hard work, experience, and in some cases, an advanced degree.

So, what do you have to look forward to once you leave the sheltered environment of the college campus with a LAS degree? Well, if you prepare properly, you will find that there are a number of opportunities available in business for you. Proper preparation involves researching many different types of careers and companies. Large corporate companies are not the only options open to those who wish to pursue a career in business. It is important to remember that smaller companies, hospitals, schools, fast food chains, etc. can also offer business opportunities. Also, career advancement usually occurs much faster in smaller organizations due to decreased competition.

While researching your career options, be sure to remain mindful of your personal needs, lifestyle, and abilities. You should try to determine what type of work environment is best for you and will allow for personal growth. Determining the type of office atmosphere you prefer is a positive step toward ensuring overall job satisfaction. Office environments can vary greatly, from casual and friendly to formal and inhospitable. For some individuals a stressful work environment may be welcomed, especially for those who work well under pressure. For others, a slower pace is preferred.

If you are concerned about whether you will enjoy your career, it is a good idea to attempt to secure a summer internship with the type of company or organization you think you may be interested in working for after college. In many instances, summer internships serve to help students determine if they really want to pursue a career in a particular area. Internships can also help you decide whether you want to continue to concentrate on your current course of study or switch your focus to something you consider to be more suitable for your personality and goals.

It is important that you make an informed decision about your career. Choosing to pursue a career in business is no different. Your LAS degree has equipped you with skills that are valued in the business world. You must take the time to research the different types of business opportunities and environments that exist. Having a clear meaning of what business is really like will help you choose the business career that is right for you and can accommodate your long term career goals.

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4. Planning Your Major

Before you plan your major program you need to evaluate your personal and academic skills in relation to the business career you want. You need to realistically match your abilities to a major and career. There is no point working towards an accountancy major if you dislike math and placed into Math 112. You may very well struggle academically, be unhappy, and possibly destroy any chance of securing a decent GPA. But, if you want a career in public relations for example, and are a good communicator, then an LAS degree such as speech communications may be the way to go. So, if you feel that your academic strengths lie in the liberal arts areas, plan a major that concentrates on your abilities and interests. It will be more impressive if you graduate with a good GPA in an LAS major then it would be to graduate with a poor GPA in business because you struggled academically.

Remember Business is not the only door that opens on to a business career. As a freshman, John wanted to be a Business major. However, he failed calculus and felt that his career plans were shattered. He was despondent and felt that, if he did not have a business major, he would not have a decent job. During an advising session, John was asked what experiences he had enjoyed in college, during his extracurricular activities, and part time jobs. He mentioned that he really liked his job as a grocery bagger. John obviously did not want to make bagging his career, but said what he enjoyed was the personal interaction; trying to figure out what type of personalities the customers had as they came through his check-out lane. He would then gear his interaction with the customers based on his perceptions of them. John came to realize that he was actually very good at dealing with people. He ended up majoring in industrial psychology, completed a Master's Degree from the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations and is now a personnel manager for a large company. John had based his major explorations on his abilities but was still able to specifically gear his major and his skills to a business career.

Jane was interested in writing computer related manuals for IBM or Apple. Not having the quantitative background to be able to work on a computer science or computer engineering degree she completed a rhetoric degree instead. While working on her rhetoric major she was able to pick up some computer science courses at U of I and data processing classes at a community college as well as working part time as a computer operator. By combining her abilities and interests, academics and experience, Jane was able to secure her career objective.

Angela also wanted to write, but she wanted to write books for children. Angela's major was English but she combined it with creative writing and child development and child psych classes. On campus, Angela volunteered to work at the Child Development Lab, and while at home she worked as a baby sitter and camp counselor. By combining her class room experiences and her part time employment and volunteer work Angela was able to create an academic background conducive to her career plans. After graduation Angela was quickly hired by a major publisher of children's books.

What these LAS grads did was to effectively market themselves and their degrees. By concentrating on their abilities and skills, under the auspices of an LAS major, they were able to engineer a program of study and, subsequently, a resume that was ideally, and specifically designed to meet the requirements for a particular business career.

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5. Marketing Your LAS Degree

Marketing your LAS degree for a business career should begin early in your academic career with your course selections, choice of summer jobs, and extracurricular experiences. First, you need to recognize your abilities and plan a major based on a realistic expectation of your academic performance. Working towards a major for which you are unprepared will only result in unhappiness and possibly failure. Second, you should develop your own realistic focus on a career goal and then try to obtain some skills or technical expertise that will give you real life exposure and experience in a particular career field. This is very important because as a LAS major you will need to offer potential employers something more than your generalist degree. Although your degree should demonstrate to a potential employee your ability to communicate and to think analytically and critically, you can improve your marketability by gaining valuable skills and experiences.

The easiest way to develop a specific career skill is through your summer or part time work, intern/externships, volunteering, extracurricular activities, and through electives. It is only logical, if you want to be a loan officer in a bank you first need to get some experience of working in a bank. Possessing such experience based skills makes you and your degree more marketable. You can discuss your bank experiences on your resume or with an recruiter. Having held down a responsible job also demonstrates that you have developed the career skills and the social and interpersonal skills to be able to contribute to a work-place environment. The skills developed in one setting will be applicable to a variety of tasks and will be useful in several settings. In a 1992-95 study of what employers are looking for, over 60 percent of recruiters stated that work-related experience was the major factor in determining a candidate's job prospects. And remember, never underestimate your skills. If you were a shift manager at McDonald's during high school, put it on your resume. At the very least, it shows that you were able to perform well in the work-place to the point of being rewarded with a position of responsibility.

I find that too many students underestimate what they have to offer. Maybe it is ignorance about the real world or lack of confidence. Either way, it blocks their ability to show me why I should hire them.

— IBM Recruiter

By obtaining some extracurricular skills, you have created a link between your undergraduate experience and the world of work. You can add to theses all important links with a flexible and divergent course schedule. To do this, however, you will need to begin the exploratory process early in your academic career. You need to develop a broad based educational experience. For example, you could supplement your LAS major program of study with business-like courses, a second language, and courses that concentrate on improving your interpersonal and communicative skills. If your quantitative ability can stand it, then an accountancy class, an economics class, and a statistics class will serve as a good business adjunct to your non business major. There are many such classes that you, as an LAS major, could pick up to make your business credentials stronger without actually becoming a business major.

Please refer to the following section on those suggested Business courses.

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6. Suggested Business Courses to Supplement Your LAS Degree

View suggested business courses

7. Conclusion

With your arsenal of a diverse selection of courses and electives, and job and volunteer experiences, you will be able to match some of your skills to the specific job position. In your resumes, cover letters, and interviews, you should focus on those traits and skills which companies are seeking in recent graduates. It is up to you to show the interviewer or recruiter how your experiences relate to the particular job and company. Always be enthusiastic, motivated, and sincere and show them what a good communicator and people person you are. Utilize all the campus resources you can; the Career Center, its library, and its counseling services; on campus recruitment programs; and internships. Also, look into small to medium size companies as well as the larger corporations. And, have a realistic attitude about salary and advancement. Remember, over 95 percent of U of I students secure employment within 3 to 9 months of their job search.

There are no easy ways to secure that dream business job, unless your uncle is a CEO of a multi-national corporation, but with some foresight, preparation, and mature exploration you can make your LAS degree an attractive and marketable improvement on a Business degree.

Twelve out of the top 15 careers for LAS graduates are business careers: Accounting, Advertising, Banking, Bank Operations, Computers and Data Processing, Consulting, Insurance, Merchandising, Retailing, Sales, Telecommunications, Writing. Most are management positions.

Liberal Arts Jobs by Jay Barton

There is no need for LAS majors to lack confidence in their degrees, when approaching a business career for, as the AT&T study concluded, the humanities and social science majors continue to make strong showings in managerial skills and have experienced considerable success. We hope and expect this will continue.

So, good luck with your LAS explorations! We are sure that, with hard work and perseverance, your dreams of a business career will be realized.

—Provided by Julian Parrott, Division of General Studies

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