What To Do With Your Arts Degree

Posted May 15, 2012, by Aziza Green

There’s a common misperception that arts degrees (also known as ’humanities’ or ’liberal arts’ degrees) do not make for strong career prospects. This is because unlike vocational degrees, which have specific career outcomes, arts degrees are focused on increasing a student’s knowledge and critical thinking skills in a variety of areas – literature, history, fine art, philosophy – but not ones that lead directly and obviously to a job.

Arts or humanities students study ideas, movements and theories in culture, society, history, language, reasoning and more. Extensive reading and research helps arts students to form a broad understanding about the world around them and the ways in which humans connect and interact. This kind of knowledge is vital to develop a broad-based understanding of society, as well as critical communication and analytical skills.

Though arts degrees are appealing to many students, the lack of career direction and explicit training makes the graduate career path for arts students unclear and, at times, uncertain. In 2011, only 66 per cent of humanities graduates who were available for full-time work were actually able to secure full-time employment. The median salary for humanities graduates was $46 000. When compared to bachelor graduates from ‘all fields’, where 76.2 per cent of those available for full-time work found full-time employment and the median salary was $50 000, the prospects for arts graduates don’t look so rosy.

However, that’s no reason to shelve your Hemingway, Levi-Strauss or Foucault and resign yourself to the commerce degree that your parents want you to do! With the right tools and the right attitude, you can take your arts degree wherever you want and secure a career that’s both interesting and financially rewarding.

Understand your career options

The flexibility and versatility of an arts degree means that graduates have the lion’s share of choices when it comes to which industry they can enter. In 2011 bachelor’s graduates from the humanities most frequently found employment in business, human resources, marketing, arts and media, as well as the legal, social and welfare professions. Arts graduates were similar, typically finding work in business administration, sales, management, media, hospitality and government agencies. In other words, the possibilities are endless and it’s really up to you where you choose to take your degree and apply your skills.

Consider all your options – media, business, publishing, marketing, the public sector, arts or community services. If you are interested in a particular industry, take the time to research that industry to better understand the requirements for entry-level roles. You may find roles and organisations that you didn’t even know existed. Research companies in the industry of your choice to understand organisational structures and business models. There are a multitude of resources available for this kind of research including careers counsellors, job search websites, industry associations, company websites and more. Get yourself out there, meet with industry professionals and network as much as you can.

Armed with your arts degree, you may have to be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up. But with your well-developed writing and analytical skills, there’s nothing to stop you from excelling, progressing and working your way to the top.

Know your skill set – and how to sell it

By understanding which highly transferable skills you’ve developed during your studies, you will be able to communicate and demonstrate these to potential employers. Many employees look for a few key competencies, preferring to recruit graduates who they can train in industry-specific skills on the job. Some of the most important skills that an arts degree will give you include:

Communication skills

One of the most highly sought after skills in the job market is the ability to communicate effectively – and this is an area where arts students excel. Essay writing, oral presentations and group work develop advanced communications skills and require a person to absorb, understand and transmit information. Arts degree graduates are therefore able to synthesise complex information and communicate it concisely both orally and in written form.

Critical reading and thinking skills

Arts students cover a vast amount of reading for their subjects and are asked to approach the texts that they encounter critically. This means more than just understanding the points and arguments presented – it means questioning what you’re reading, its premise and validity, and looking at what is omitted as much as what is presented to the reader or audience. This is a sophisticated skill which allows students to understand issues in context and see the limitations of an argument. Curiosity, self-reflection and intellectual autonomy are fostered in arts courses and the ability to demonstrate these traits to employers can make you an attractive and competitive recruitment candidate.

Analytical skills

Arts students develop strong analytical skills – the ability to break ideas and issues down into their component parts and drill down to the root of problems while considering possible solutions. When looking at a problem, someone with analytical skills tries to understand why the problem occurred, rather than simply looking at what the problem is. Analytical skills encompass the ability to interpret information, weigh up different sides of an argument, identify problems and offer reasonable, well considered solutions. Pure logic has its limitations, however, and as an added bonus, arts graduates offer the ability to think creatively and laterally. This ability is essential in helping businesses to come up with creative and innovative ideas and solutions.

Research skills

Arts grads know how to find information, and have the discernment to distinguish between good, authoritative information and poor quality, unreliable information. As part of their studies, arts students are required to find and research a large number of primary and secondary resources, and distil and analyse the most relevant points to create a clear argument. Many arts students are also media- and Internet-savvy, knowing how to skilfully navigate the tangled web of information to be found online and in traditional sources.

Consider postgraduate study options

Many students choose a Bachelor of Arts in order to pursue a particular subject that they are passionate about, such as philosophy or literature or anthropology. For the most part, however, students who choose an arts degree are looking to broaden their knowledge and experience in order to find a satisfying career path.

Many arts graduates go on to specialise through postgraduate study. Popular postgraduate courses for arts graduates include education, psychology, journalism, marketing and social work. Many arts graduates also choose careers in research or academia.

With the in-depth knowledge and skills gained by doing a graduate certificate, graduate diploma or master’s degree, you’ll have the advanced knowledge to launch your career and be an expert in your field.

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Aziza Green

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