Bureau of Labor Statistics

Putting your liberal arts degree to work

| August 2017

A college degree lets employers know that you’ve learned skills in a specific field. And with a degree in liberal arts, the skills you’ve honed include those that employers want in their workers.

According to studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers often rank skills such as critical thinking and communication—hallmarks of liberal arts training—above technical aptitude as essential for career readiness. “Liberal arts study helps students develop strong foundational competencies,” says Paul Timmins, director of career services for the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “It gives them tools to succeed beyond their first job.”

College student studying.

 

Robert Vega, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees. “Regardless of the industry, we need people who can solve problems, write well, speak well, bring multiple perspectives to decision-making; we need people who are good managers, who are cross-culturally competent,” he says. “All of that is liberal arts.”

Keep reading to learn more about liberal arts fields and how majoring in these subjects can help you in the job market. We also highlight data from the U.S. Census Bureau to show employment and wages of workers with bachelor’s degrees in some liberal arts fields.

What are the “liberal arts”?

Definitions of liberal arts vary. Some limit the designation to literature and the arts. But others, including liberal arts colleges, expand the definition to encompass the social and natural sciences as well.

In the broadest sense, a liberal arts education is an approach to learning that involves diverse coursework so students develop a range of knowledge. Generally speaking, it’s designed to prepare students for a variety of career options, rather than for a specific occupation.

College student studying.

 

Subject areas. Liberal arts majors are often organized by subject, such as social sciences.

Within the subjects, students may focus on a particular discipline, such as geography. But some schools offer a major in liberal arts or liberal studies, which provides an overview of many subjects instead of a single one.

Whether majors are identified as liberal arts may vary by academic institution. For example, some universities house the mathematics department in the college of liberal arts and sciences; others may offer math through the college of engineering.

Interest to career. Your personal interests may relate to career options in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. If you enjoy self-expression, for example, majoring in theater studies could help you develop the speaking ability and creativity that are important in public relations.

Other interests relate more directly to occupations. If you like researching topics and writing papers, for example, you might decide to major in English with a goal of working as a writer.

Employment and wages by degree field

Where do liberal arts graduates work? The charts in this section show American Community Survey (ACS) data for liberal arts graduates under age 35, by selected fields of bachelor’s degree with full-time employment of more than 100,000 in 2015. Each chart shows the top-employing occupations for that degree field, along with wages.

Descriptions of each field are adapted from National Center for Education Statistics Classification of Instructional Programs information. Compare the wage data with $40,210, the ACS median annual wage for all college graduates under age 35 employed full time in 2015.  

Younger workers often earn less than older workers, whose wages may increase as they gain experience and become established in careers. An interactive tool from an advisory group called the Hamilton Project shows how occupations and earnings in your major differ by sex and age.

Commercial art and graphic design. Students with this major learn how to apply artistic and computer techniques to communicate ideas through illustrations and other forms of media. There were 186,503 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in this field in 2015, with a median annual wage of about $40,940 for full-time workers under age 35. (See chart 1.)

View Chart Data

Chart 1. Commercial art and graphic design degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Commercial art and graphic design degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Social workers

10,698 $35,331 9% 121,244 91%

Elementary and middle school teachers

5,290 $40,277 1% 521,288 99%

Secretaries and administrative assistants

5,112 $31,680 3% 165,849 97%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

4,671 $50,761 1% 348,568 99%

Counselors

4,562 $32,028 6% 75,337 94%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Communications. In this field, students focus on the comprehensive study of speech and rhetoric, including its social and political applications. There were 373,736 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in communications in 2015, and full-time workers under age 35 had a median annual wage of about $41,600. (See chart 2.)

View Chart Data

Chart 2. Communications degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Communications degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Marketing and sales managers

17,606 $53,585 11% 158,144 89%

Customer service representatives

15,755 $39,488 8% 206,493 92%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

15,116 $51,351 4% 348,568 96%

Human resources workers

14,344 $52,049 11% 134,442 89%

Secretaries and administrative assistants

11,516 $36,148 7% 165,849 93%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Economics. Students majoring in economics analyze the production, conservation, and allocation of resources. In 2015, there were 219,289 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in economics, and full-time workers under age 35 had a median annual wage of about $52,450. (See chart 3.)

View Chart Data

Chart 3. Economic degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Economics degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Accountants and auditors

11,290 $55,359 4% 307,847 96%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

10,762 $70,817 3% 348,568 97%

Financial managers

9,218 $81,680 7% 125,870 93%

Financial analysts

8,666 $81,792 14% 63,678 86%

Management analysts

7,361 $61,017 7% 103,134 93%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

English language and literature. Students with this major focus on the structure and use of the English language, including dialects, literatures, and cultures of English-speaking peoples. There were 226,034 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in this field in 2015, and full-time workers under age 35 earned a median annual wage of about $38,710. (See chart 4.)

View Chart Data

Chart 4. English language and literature degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation English language and literature degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Elementary and middle school teachers

16,304 $41,425 3% 521,288 97%

Secretaries and administrative assistants

9,567 $32,042 6% 165,849 94%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

8,784 $57,056 3% 348,568 97%

Secondary school teachers

7,051 $44,732 6% 123,606 94%

Marketing and sales managers

6,787 $51,759 4% 158,144 96%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Fine arts. To prepare students to function as creative visual artists, this field includes instruction in the theory and techniques of traditional and modern media. In 2015, there were 122,841 bachelor’s degree recipients in fine arts; full-time workers under age 35 had a median annual wage of about $36,000. (See chart 5.)

View Chart Data

Chart 5. Fine arts degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Fine arts degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Designers

14,289 $45,679 9% 157,496 91%

Artists and related workers

7,121 $39,514 23% 30,775 77%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

6,156 $40,018 2% 348,568 98%

Elementary and middle school teachers

4,559 $36,845 1% 521,288 99%

First-line supervisors of retail sales workers

4,510 $32,238 2% 198,336 98%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

History. History majors study and interpret past events, institutions, issues, and cultures. There were 189,532 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in history in 2015, and full-time workers under age 35 earned a median wage of about $39,520 annually. (See chart 6.)

View Chart Data

Chart 6. History degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation History degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Elementary and middle school teachers

10,892 $40,833 2% 521,288 98%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

8,463 $53,042 2% 348,568 98%

Secondary school teachers

5,394 $38,998 4% 123,606 96%

First-line supervisors of retail sales workers

5,253 $38,506 3% 198,336 97%

Paralegals and legal assistants

4,044 $38,585 8% 52,540 92%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Journalism. Students in journalism focus on the theory and practice of gathering, processing, and delivering news. In 2015, there were 122,434 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in journalism, with full-time workers under age 35 earning a median annual wage of about $41,330. (See chart 7.)

View Chart Data

Chart 7. Journalism degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Journalism degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

News analysts, reporters and correspondents

8,150 $33,248 43% 18,791 57%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

5,643 $50,609 2% 348,568 98%

Producers and directors

5,541 $47,680 17% 31,668 83%

Marketing and sales managers

5,529 $52,736 3% 158,144 97%

Editors

5,008 $37,371 16% 32,169 84%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Political science and government. This field involves study of the institutions and behaviors of groups that make decisions for a country, state, or other authority. There were 222,762 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in this field in 2015; full-time workers under age 35 earned a median annual wage of about $43,730. (See chart 8.)

View Chart Data

Chart 8. Political science and government degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Political science and government degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

15,582 $61,654 4% 348,568 96%

Paralegals and legal assistants

5,517 $36,249 11% 52,540 89%

Marketing and sales managers

5,460 $61,516 3% 158,144 97%

Human resources workers

5,276 $46,999 4% 134,442 96%

Management analysts

4,850 $51,892 5% 103,134 95%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Psychology. Psychology majors study the behavior of individuals and the physical and environmental bases of mental, emotional, and neurological activity. In 2015, there were 448,864 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and full-time workers under age 35 had a median annual wage of about $35,750. (See chart 9.)

View Chart Data

Chart 9. Psychology degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Psychology degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Social workers

26,282 $32,225 22% 121,244 78%

Elementary and middle school teachers

15,869 $40,087 3% 521,288 97%

Counselors

15,306 $31,704 20% 75,337 80%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

14,576 $47,384 4% 348,568 96%

Registered nurses

13,321 $50,266 3% 426,196 97%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Sociology. In this field, students learn about human social institutions and social relationships. There were 163,025 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2015, with full-time workers under age 35 earning a median wage of about $37,860 annually. (See chart 10.) 

View Chart Data

Chart 10. Sociology degree holders, top 5 occupations
Occupation Sociology degree held Other degree held
Employment, 2015 Median annual wage, 2015 Percentage of the occupation Employment, 2015 Percentage of the occupation

Social workers

10,698 $35,331 9% 121,244 91%

Elementary and middle school teachers

5,290 $40,277 1% 521,288 99%

Secretaries and administrative assistants

5,112 $31,680 3% 165,849 97%

Miscellaneous managers, including funeral service managers and postmasters and mail superintendents

4,671 $50,761 1% 348,568 99%

Counselors

4,562 $32,028 6% 75,337 94%

Note: Data are for liberal arts graduates under 35 employed full time in 2015. Those with multiple liberal arts degrees were counted just once.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.

 

Preparing for a career

As the data show, liberal arts graduates enter a range of career fields. And that’s because, some experts say, the skills they develop are applicable to nearly any job. But students who major in liberal arts may increase their career options by getting additional education—and by taking steps while still in school to prepare for the labor force.  

Core skills. As a liberal arts student, you’ll typically take courses that involve research, analysis, and writing and that span several subject areas. In these courses, you develop both core skills and a range of knowledge that can serve you throughout your work life. “The basis of liberal arts education is a broad, multidisciplinary foundation,” says Vega. “Liberal arts majors are able to look at questions from many different perspectives and create unique approaches to answering them. We’re graduating thinkers who will solve problems of the future that we don’t even know are problems today.”

Brainstorming.

 

Liberal arts courses that integrate technical instruction may help you gain technical competence. “The liberal arts curriculum is changing, and students in these disciplines are learning to use new technologies,” says Mark Peltz, a dean of career development at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. “Liberal arts students really are forward thinking, innovative, and creative in these fields.”

And with its focus on wide applicability, a liberal arts degree can prepare you to use your skills in myriad ways. Such flexibility may bode well for an evolving job market. “The breadth and depth of a liberal arts education allows people to transfer their skills into new contexts,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. “Where rapidly changing technology means rapid obsolescence, that adaptability is more important than ever.”

More education. To expand your career options, you might want to consider taking business or technical courses to supplement your degree. Doing so may qualify you to enter occupations that have specific requirements, such as those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

A bachelor’s degree typically isn’t enough for entry-level jobs in some liberal arts occupations, such as sociologists and historians. When deciding whether to get a master’s degree, however, it may be helpful to look at data for master’s degree by field that show which workers enjoy a wage premium for continuing their education.

Majoring in liberal arts also provides a foundation for study toward a professional degree, such as law. Many types of graduate programs—including those as specialized as business and medicine—are open to qualified applicants from any field of study, including liberal arts.

Beyond the major. Liberal arts graduates may have jobseeking challenges that those in specialized fields, such as registered nurses, do not. But positioning yourself for employment is important no matter what your major. “If you’re an accounting major and all you’ve done is go to class, you’re in trouble. If you’re a philosophy major and all you’ve done is go to class, you’re in trouble,” says Peltz. “You need to complement your academic work with multiple experiences outside the classroom.”

A good way to gain workplace skills is through experiential learning. Some colleges and universities offer programs or encourage internships to help students get a glimpse of careers, gauge work preferences, and boost confidence. “You have to get out there and build those skills that may lead to a career,” says Timmins. “Sometimes, you may realize from an experience that it’s not what you want to do, and that’s fine. You’ve learned something really important.”

With the right attitude and preparation, say experts, your liberal arts degree can take you in as many directions as your career goals allow. “When people ask, ‘What are you going to do with that liberal arts degree?’ the answer is: ‘Whatever I want,’” says Pasquerella. “It’s your capacity to see how the skills you acquired can be transferred that’s important.”

Motivated worker.

 

For more information

The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) has additional information about occupations that relate to liberal arts. This resource describes hundreds of occupations, including their job duties, typical education and training requirements, pay, and job prospects.

In addition, to help you look for jobs with occupational titles that are relevant to your major, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the National Center for Education Statistics link hundreds of instructional programs, including liberal arts majors, to standard occupational titles.

Other recent Career Outlook articles that may be of interest to liberal arts majors include:

About the Author

Domingo Angeles and Brian Roberts are economists in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS. Domingo can be reached at angeles.domingo@bls.gov .

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Domingo Angeles and Brian Roberts, "Putting your liberal arts degree to work," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2017.

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