Your Liberal Arts Major Does Matter

Headed into my last semester at Middlebury College, I’m an anthropology major with no interest in graduate school. I’ve applied to more internships and fellowships. I’ve thrown in resumes for consulting jobs. I’ve written clichéd letters to big banks.

It’s often reported that [[employers rank critical thinking, creativity and oral communication]] among the most hireable skills — hallmarks of a liberal arts education. My collection of rejection letters tells a different story.

In every application, I’ve had to justify my anthropology major, to spin my decision into something both relevant and profound. Still unemployed, I can’t help but think, what if – what if I knew how to code on computers? What if I crunched numbers in Stata? What if I had picked a more traditional major?

Most Middlebury students [[declare their major]] by the end of sophomore year. By the end of my sophomore year, I declared I was confused. Most days, I flip-flopped between anthropology and neuroscience. I liked the former; my parents loved the latter. When it flurried, I considered economics. When that turned to sleet, the idea of studying money depressed me.

I soon woke up to a ticking clock. Done with distribution requirements but nowhere close to finishing a major, extra classes meant student loans I knew I couldn’t afford. I ran to my de-facto advisor, an anthropology professor from my first-year seminar. I unloaded my anxieties, the pressure I felt from my parents, my hot-to-cold passion for most subjects. He smiled.

“Why so much worry? It’s a B.A., no matter what,” he said. He compared a liberal arts degree to an ice cream cone, with majors as different flavors. “You can debate over chocolate or vanilla, but at the end of the day, employers call it ice cream and it’s all tasty.” I declared anthropology that afternoon. I called home to share the news.

My parents panicked, begging me to pick anything (“Anything!”) besides that. They said I’d never get hired unless I went to grad school (“And who’s going to pay?”). Even then, they worried I’d end up broke in academia or worse, unemployed. I hung up. They called backup.

My godmother e-mailed me: “If you’re not quite sure what you want, but want to keep your options open, major in economics.” She warned that she, too, ignored her parents’ advice and majored in music management at New York University. Upon graduating, she found her applications to entry-level jobs outside the music industry— the ones that might pay for rent, food and utilities—often didn’t get a second glance. She ended up listing her SAT scores on her resume, just so recruiters wouldn’t assume she was “stupid.”

My sister sent me a [[“Planet Money” podcast that analyzed wages]] of recent college graduates. For a guaranteed paycheck, it told me to study petroleum engineering – a degree that Middlebury doesn’t even offer.

As the stubborn baby in my family, of course I ignored them all. I liked the intimacy of a small department and our heated class debates. I liked the books professors assigned and their passionate lectures about them. Whether we were studying cultural appropriation or segregated cities, everything seemed so applicable, more relevant to my life than say, how many bromide molecules it takes to make bromic acid (just one). Anthropology was far from my dream career, but it was a delicious flavor for a liberal arts degree. I stuck with it.

Fast forward two years, and I’m no longer so sure of my decision. Despite the well-rounded nature of a liberal arts degree, even graduates at colleges like Middlebury, it seems, land jobs tied to their majors; according to [[an interactive graphic]] analyzing the industries in which Williams College alumni end up, recent graduates in biology and chemistry went on the study medicine. Economics majors were best represented in banking and consulting. Of those who worked in government, a sizable chunk studied political science.

Anthropology majors were lumped under “Cultural Studies.” I clicked. Most worked in law or education, likely in an office with a framed piece of paper: J.D. or Ph.D. I guess my parents told me so.

I still remember what it felt like as a college sophomore, slumped in the seat across from my adviser, torn between disciplines with no interest in grad school. Looking back on his advice, I can only say this: though no major can determine my career path, it might have narrowed the road to my first job. Also, my tuition cost more than an ice cream cone.

I glance at the interactive chart, again. I spy a faint orange line from Cultural Studies to Writing/Communications. Though the road to journalism isn’t well-paved, at least it’s not completely blocked off.

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