Liberal Arts vs. Career Majors: What’s Right for You?

Take these three steps to help you decide if you should pursue a liberal arts major or a more career-oriented path.

By Sydney Nikols | February 17, 2017

If you already know which line of work you want to pursue, it’s probably a good idea to choose a career-oriented major in your field.

There’s a lot of controversy over which is fundamentally better: a liberal arts education or one more directly focused on a student’s career path. The debate is sparked by the fact that both offer different approaches to learning. Generally speaking, liberal arts educations are designed to give students the skills to think about a wide range of general subjects, whereas career-oriented educations are meant to give students the skills to work in a specific field.

Truthfully, it doesn’t matter which type of education is “better.” What matters is that you find the path that’s right for you. Take these three steps in order to decide whether you should pursue a liberal arts degree or a career-focused major.

In order to strike a balance you’re comfortable with, research programs which interest you.

Consider your career goals.

If you already know which line of work you want to pursue, it’s probably a good idea to choose a career-oriented major in your field. For instance, if you know you want to be a chemical engineer, you should major in chemical engineering rather than general science. By doing so, you’ll have the best shot at landing a job after you graduate. Schools like California Institute of Technology and SUNY Maritime College offer career-oriented majors in math, science and engineering that give students a great return on their investment (meaning that the money they earn after graduating greatly exceeds the amount they spent on their degree).

However, you don’t have to be a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) student for a career-oriented major to make sense for you. For instance, if you know you want to have a career in television writing, it may make sense to enroll in a unique program like Writing for Film and Television at Emerson College rather than become an English major at a liberal arts school. By choosing this narrower path, you’ll likely come out on top when it’s time to hunt for jobs; after all, employers in the television industry will trust that you have the specific skills needed to get the job done right.

However, if you’re not sure which career you want to pursue, a career-oriented major may narrow your horizons rather than broadening them. Choosing a career-oriented major will successfully launch you into a specific field, but if you decide you want to pursue another type of career, your career-oriented degree could pigeonhole you. For instance, if you know you like to write but aren’t set on a certain career path, it may make sense to pursue a liberal arts degree in English rather than a degree in something specific like journalism or writing for film and TV. This way, you’ll have a wide range of career options to choose from when you graduate.

Decide what you want out of your college experience.

If you want to spend your college years exploring different subjects and finding out what you’re truly passionate about, pursuing a liberal arts degree might make the most sense for you. This allows you to spend four years receiving a well-rounded education, and then to apply this education to whatever career you choose to pursue down the line.

However, if you’re less concerned with receiving a broad, well-rounded education and more concerned with landing a specific job after college, a career major probably makes sense for you. After all, career majors are great for students who view college as a means to an end (that end being landing a specific dream job they already have in mind).

If you want to spend your college years exploring different subjects and finding out what you’re truly passionate about, pursuing a liberal arts degree might make the most sense for you.
Photo: Thinkstock

Research specific programs at specific schools.

Keep all of these general rules in mind, but also know that nothing is black and white. Don’t assume that liberal arts degrees are only good for providing broad, theory-based education and that career-oriented degrees are only good for providing hands-on information about specific trades. Every program is different at every school, so keep an open mind as you research the specifics of each college’s major.

What you find might surprise you -- for instance, some liberal arts programs do a great job of preparing students for future careers. As president of Albion College Donna Randall told Forbes, “liberal arts colleges can – and already do – blend career preparedness with their core mission to provide a well-rounded education.” Many liberal arts colleges, like Claremont McKenna College and Barnard College, have been recognized for their excellent career services programs, allowing liberal arts majors to augment their education with practical career-oriented tools and advice.

On the other hand, many career-oriented programs provide students with the same life lessons and benefits that can be reaped from a liberal arts education. As a retired academic and correspondent for The Atlantic said, a career-oriented education can be “incredibly broadening,” “anything but narrow,” and can lead to “experiences unlike anything most liberal arts grads will ever get.” In order to strike a balance you’re comfortable with, research specific liberal arts and/or career programs in order to get a feel for their individual approaches to education.

People Who Read This Article Also Read:

How to Decide if You Should Change Your Major
How to Narrow Down Your Major Options
Is a Double Major Right for You?
5 Smart Double-Major Combos

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