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Liberal Arts Grads -- Laughing All the Way to the Bank (Image credit: Digital Vision/Getty Images)
Liberal Arts Grads -- Laughing All the Way to the Bank
"But what do you plan on doing with it?" That's the typical question asked of those opting for a college major in English, history or some other liberal arts field. "Why can't you study something more practical?" usually follows -- "practical" being the code word for money-making. Next up: "How about finance, medicine, accounting or nursing?"

Liberal arts grads everywhere have shrugged their shoulders and insisted that making the first million was secondary to following their dreams. However, these three professionals have proven that it is possible to strike career gold with the skills a liberal arts education develops.

Dad wants to brag about "Dr. Daughter"
The parental pressure on Nancy Shenker to become a professional -- which her parents defined as either a doctor or lawyer -- was extraordinarily high. Her father was a doctor, and he wanted nothing more than to brag about "my daughter, the doctor, who followed in her old man's footsteps." Yet Shenker's passion lay in reading and writing. So with the (begrudging) support of her parents, she majored in English and psychology at the University of Michigan. Her parents worried how she would support herself as an adult.

Their concerns were unfounded. Today, Shenker runs her own successful marketing and business development firm called the ONswitch. Over the course of her career, she's held senior executive positions at Fortune 500 companies such as MasterCard International and Citibank, despite a lack of formal business training.

If she had to attend college all over again, she would stick with her liberal arts double major, Shenker says. "My majors taught me some invaluable skills. I learned how to write in different voices and at different lengths. Whether I'm posting on a blog or writing a white paper, I never freak out about how to write."

She learned real-life skills by volunteering at a state mental hospital and a rural elementary school as part of her psychology degree requirements. "Studying how the human mind works and working with all types of people has helped me deal with a wide range of corporate executives, colleagues, clients and vendors," she says. "It has also enabled me to better cope with the stresses of business ownership."

And her psychology statistics course, which she hated, taught her how to use data and translate sets of numbers -- skills that came in handy during the years she worked in the financial field.

It's not uncommon for such diverse skill sets to boost career success. "Employers are starting to value some of the skills a liberal arts degree teaches, including clear writing and communication skills, intellectual curiosity and the ability to synthesize and draw patterns from confusing and ambiguous data," says Rita Gunther McGrath, an associate professor at Columbia Business School and author of "The Entrepreneurial Mindset" (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

Courage to follow your heart
When Thomas Ingrassia earned his master's degree in Latin American history from the University of Connecticut in 1975, history teachers were a dime a dozen. Instead of lecturing about history, Ingrassia settled into a 25-year career as a higher-education administrator, eventually becoming the assistant dean for academic affairs at Clark University's Graduate School of Management.

In 2001, however, Ingrassia chucked his established career to pursue his lifelong dream of working in the entertainment industry. Mary Wilson of the Supremes offered him a gig managing her merchandising company and business office. He began to accrue contacts and started his own artist management agency, which now boasts an eclectic roster of 14 artists.

It's not uncommon for professionals to deviate from the field they studied during college or started out in after graduation. In fact, people may be working in areas that didn't even exist when they were in school. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average American will switch jobs 10 times between the ages of 18 and 38, and change entire career paths three times.

Ingrassia credits the research, communication and negotiation skills he developed while studying liberal arts for helping him switch gears and run his current business, he says. These skills have also played a role in another endeavor -- a production company that offers motivational and pop culture lectures. One of the programs is titled, appropriately enough, "What Can You Do With a BA in History?" His answer? "Anything your heart desires."

Putting the ridicule to shame
Beth Zimmerman's bachelor's degree is in philosophy. "Just imagine the ridicule and worry that resulted," she quips -- especially since she had been pre-med. Yet Zimmerman is having the last laugh: She currently runs a successful strategic business consulting firm called Cerebellas.

Zimmerman is a big believer in the value of a liberal arts degree. "It enabled me to acquire a real education versus just preparation for a specific career path or vocation," she says. "As a result, I tend to have a more holistic view of business and of life."

Studying philosophy gives you the tools to think, analyze, synthesize information, write, persuade and communicate in ways that are superior to those learned during a more career-specific curriculum, she says.

Like Nancy Shenker and Thomas Ingrassia, Zimmerman has no regrets about studying liberal arts. "It's the best preparation for life," she says. If the liberal arts are your calling, take inspiration from the trio. They have all leveraged the nuts and bolts of a liberal arts education to help jump-start successful careers in their fields of choice.

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