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ExPRessions :: Gen Y :: Does a liberal arts education make a difference for a young professional?

Recently, @JohnKHartman made a suggestion to me via DM: “You want to be good in PR? Take upper level liberal arts classes that will make you a better, more broadly educated person, not claptrap.”

I’ve taken some liberal arts classes. But what has served me the most in my career so far has been my internships and PR classes. I hardly think that makes me a “claptrap.” Each young professional has their own set of experiences giving them an education. I’ve learned a lot through my various experiences (from carriage driver to advertising sales and writing contracts for a company to building Web sites). My experiences have taught me a lot.

So do liberal arts matter?

A Patriot-News op-ed said, “The most straightforward answer is liberal arts colleges, at their best, provide an exceptionally effective learning environment for developing the kind of intellectual power and propensity for action that the world needs to tackle the daunting challenges we face…many CEOs are looking for employees with the attributes that a liberal arts education instills: critical thinking, clear communication, collaboration, an appreciation for diverse points of view, the ability to approach a problem from multiple perspectives, ethical judgment and lifelong learning skills.”

So should a young professional take liberal arts courses?

If you have the money and time to pursue liberal arts classes, by all means do it. But, I’d honestly rather read and learn on my own time. I’ve read books on various random subjects including criminology, archaeology, art and more.

But, remember to spend time developing yourself into a marketable candidate. Focus on skills you need in the workplace (check out “5 Must-Have Transferable Skills for Entry-Level Job Seekers” by Heather Huhman).

“When I was at Burson-Marsteller, almost none of our interns and entry-level professionals had a liberal arts education. As a hiring manager, experience vastly outweighs your specific degree,” said Huhman, who is an experienced hiring manager and founder of ComeRecommended.com.

While I’m not discounting the value of the liberal arts classes, I think “intellectual power” and other great skills can be developed in other ways. I also feel that the attributes CEO’s are looking for can be developed in other ways. In fact, many of these attributes had already began to be developed from the way I was raised as a child. Additional skills have been developed when I’ve worked a variety of jobs (I’ve worked at large stables, been a carriage driver, and worked in sales, PR and advertising).

What do you think? Has a liberal arts education helped you? Or, have you been successful without? Additionally, what do you do as a professional to develop the attributes CEO’s are looking for?


  1. While I don’t think it’s essential to being successful I would recommend it to any PR student. Some students need extra help to learn and grow outside of their major. While you obviously a very motivated student I think some undergrads don’t have the same drive to learn on their own time. Or perhaps weren’t given those opportunities growing up. Taking those extra classes helps force them think in new ways and hopefully view the world differently.

    I feel very fortunate that I chose a college where I could take classes outside my major. While some have been more relevant than others I’ve been surprised by what I’ve learned over the years. This quarter I’m taking an English course called “Digital Essay.” While I’m the only communications major in the class, I’m seeing many connections and ways this benefit me as a PR pro.

  2. I’m most likely a little bias since I graduated from a liberal arts college, but I definitely think that my liberal arts education has made me a more rounded individual and professional. Yes, the internships that I have held have helped me tremendously within my field, but the liberal arts education that I received guided me through different aspects of those internships and other experiences.

    I think that the experience that you have going into a job is definitely an important aspect, but the more “intellectual power” you can carry with your degree, the better. Yes, reading books on various subjects can attribute to this, but in my opinion, learning these things in a classroom with intellectual discussion carries more weight.

    You make interesting points, as I’ve never heard the other side of the spectrum. :)

  3. Like Hannah said, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, but I do know that my liberal arts background has definitely helped me in my career. The point of LA is to expose students to an array of diverse ideas, areas of study, etc.

    That being said, a young pro can expose themselves to different ideas & practices through hands-on experiences and internships that will essentially do the same thing as a liberal arts education.

    I, along with many others, learn by doing- not from a textbook.

    Interesting topic Rachel!

  4. Rachel,
    Good topic for discussion.

    I went to a college that had a lot of “core” classes as part of being an Arts major. I had to take 2 humanities, 2 theology classes, 2 English classes, ethics, 2 history classes, 2 math, etc. If anything, it kept me on my toes. Different classes gave me a broad understanding of the world and allowed me to think in different ways. I also had to read or write something new every day, which is never a bad thing given that it’s exactly what you have to do in PR in many instances.

    I can’t say that it will make or break my professional career, but I DO know that companies want people who can think. A liberal arts education is just one way to grow intellectually.



  5. I went to a Liberal Arts College and I think it definitely challenged me and opened my eyes to new opportunities and new ways of looking at the world. Perhaps they weren’t all classes that will benefit me in my career, but they were classes that most definitely benefited me as a member of society. I know there’s more out than just PR and a liberal arts education gave me an increased understanding of that simple fact that many people realize.

  6. I’m currently attending a liberal arts college, and am obviously forced to take many classes outside of my majors. This was part of the appeal for me in choosing a liberal arts school. My classes have presented me with the opportunity to think about things I normally wouldn’t have, and approach issues I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to. My education has given me the chance to explore different schools of thought across many areas of study.

    That being said, a liberal arts education alone can’t provide everything neccessary to succeed after graduation. Yes, I’m thankful for what a liberal arts has taught me (and continues to teach me), and that I’ve learned to look at situations with more than one approach, but I can’t solely rely on that. There is something to be said about moving beyond theories and gaining practical, hands-on experience; experimenting with what works and doesn’t work in the real world.

  7. […] as many skills and as much knowledge as possible –  This goes along the lines of the debate of being liberally educated and having multiple jobs.  Develop a broad knowledge base of many different topics and learn from […]

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Rachel M. Esterline works in public relations and marketing communications. Her blog, ExPRessions, contains her musings about PR, marketing, career and professional development, Gen Y issues, personal branding and more. Rachel also does freelance consulting and writing. She is originally from Genesee, Mich., and will graduate from Central Michigan University in May 2010.