Liberal Arts Grads -- Laughing All the
Way to the Bank
By Tamar Snyder
"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
Dad wants to brag about "Dr.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.