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Open Your Mind to Career Possibilities with a Liberal Arts Education

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

There are many college-bound students who already have an answer to this age-old question. But don't worry if you aren't one of them. For many people, a specific career is just a cloudy vision in their minds as they are applying to college. Perhaps they have too many interests to narrow down to one clear career path -- or else they aren't exactly sure of the subjects that will motivate them towards an eventual livelihood. And that's exactly why the aptly named liberal arts are such a haven for undecided students. The liberal arts (sometimes called general studies) offers a wealth of subject matter that can prepare students to excel in a wide variety of fields, as opposed to other career-focused education that prepare students for highly specific career paths.

The liberal arts are comprised of a wide range of subjects. You'd need a liberal amount of time, in fact, to list all of them, but here are a few of the more popular disciplines: English, business, sociology, psychology, art history, foreign language, political science, biology, social sciences, geography, and anthropology. Nope, we didn't throw in biology just to fool you. Though biology is indeed a science, a biology degree alone is not enough to allow you to become a doctor. Even with a 4.0 GPA, you won't be allowed near patients until you complete your studies and training in medical school!

To give a clearer picture of what the liberal arts are -- and what they are not -- consider this: The liberal arts comprise any subject matter that doesn't immediately qualify you for a specific career. You can't go graduate with a business degree and expect to be given your own business to run, though you can complete a program in medical assisting and get a job as a medical assistant. See the difference?

The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

You might be thinking, "But isn't college expensive? Won't it be a waste of money if I don't know what I want to do after I graduate?" Not at all -- and there's stats from the U.S. Department of Labor to back us up. The USDL reports that the average American will have 10 different jobs before they turn 40, pursuing at least three new career paths along the way. There's nothing wrong with playing leapfrog in your career, but you will have to have strong critical thinking skills in order to help you morph into whatever role you decide to take on -- and a degree in liberal arts will help you do just that.

As mentioned earlier, trade and career education is not part of the liberal arts, as schools in that sector train you for a particular profession. Additionally, conservatories and some academies are outside the realm of liberal arts education, as the focus of those degree programs are on a specific discipline, such as dance, art, or music. While these schools can offer some type of core curriculum with classes in general studies, make no mistake: Students go to a dance academy to study dance, not French.

So What Can You Do, Liberal Arts Grads?

The better question is, what CAN'T they do! Check out this short list of liberal arts majors and some of the many career options they have after graduation:

Anthropology: archaeology, museum curator

Biology: researcher, naturalist, pharmaceutical representative/salesperson

Communications: reporter, advertising executive, public relations director

English: writer, editor, ANYTHING (those writing and critical thinking skills come in handy for just about any career!)

History: archivist, documentary maker, researcher/writer

Foreign languageforeign service officer, interpreter, international business liaison

Political sciencelawyer, lobbyist, campaign manager, analyst

Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities

U.S. News & World Report publishes annual rankings of top schools in various categories. In 2012, the publication announced these schools as the top 5 in liberal arts:

  1. Williams College
  2. Amherst College
  3. Swarthmore College
  4. Pomona College
  5. Middlebury College

Don't let the "college" tag fool you; these top schools all have the world-class faculty and resources of any large university!

Famous People with Liberal Arts Degrees

If ever you need proof that college can pay off big time, just look to the celebrities. Donald Trump went to business school. Oprah Winfrey studied speech and drama. Steven Spielberg majored in film. But not all famous liberal arts grads declared majors that matched up with their successful careers. Check out some of these celebrities and their surprising courses of study at college:

  • Mick Jagger got those moves as an anthropology major.
  • Cha ching! Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn got his start as an English major.
  • Wonder why Lance Armstrong won so many Tours de France? He majored in French.
  • It's a good thing to be a history majorlike Martha Stewart
  • Hugh Hefner was a psychology major. Paging Dr. Freud
  • Condeleeza Rice was a piano major before switching to international politics. Good move!

Before You Declare

When you consider all of the amazing opportunities a liberal arts education can offer you, it's not too surprising that colleges allow students to put off officially declaring a major until the end of their sophomore year. That gives full-time students two years to plow through their general education curriculum, which is required for a reason: It allows students to dabble in various subjects with the idea that something (or several things) will interest them and evolve into an academic major.

Not exactly sure what you're looking for in a major? Attend a liberal arts college or university that allows you to move easily within majors and departments. It's not uncommon for students to declare several different majors before finding one that fits. Consider the liberal arts a one-size-fits-most education -- there's something there to match many different interests and goals.