“You Have a History Degree and a JOB?!”: Thoughts on Finding Gainful Employment with a Liberal Arts Background

My dad used to refer to it as useless. My history degree, that is. I don’t blame him. Statistically speaking if you don’t go for your teaching license, you are relatively screwed in the job marketplace. In college, I flirted with the idea of getting a teaching license as a backup, but ultimately decided it would be a waste of money. I didn’t want to be a teacher and if I had to struggle to make it on my own with my history degree, I would do just that. I was sure it couldn’t be that hard. I was wrong.

Let me clarify that. I wasn’t totally wrong. You see, I think I also have something working against me like many of my friends: age. I am going to be vulnerable here for a second. I am young, much younger than you may think- a millennial to be exact. I am still convinced the term millennial is something invented by a high-handed baby boomer committed to the idea that everyone in my generation is lacking the life experience necessary to be a successful adult.  This classification coupled with a liberal arts background makes for a very difficult uphill battle in the job market. I have many friends who can attest to this, and some I hope I can convince to tell their stories on this blog, but that is for another time.

(Image: Me daydreaming about working forever at a Victorian Mansion- taken on the grounds of Chateau-Sur-Mer in Newport, Rhode Island)

Despite the obvious issues with age and educational background, there is the penultimate punch in the throat we have all seen on job postings- “applicants for this entry level position must have <insert ridiculous amount of time no one could possibly have at this point in their professional lives> years of experience”. Yep. We’ve all face palmed at least once in our lives when we found a perfect position to apply for, only to have our hopes and dreams derailed by this freight train bound for the unemployment line. It isn’t that millennials don’t want to work, really- it is that no one will let us. So, dear reader, let me give you a bit of insight into how to overcome all of the obstacles in your way to put that degree in cultural anthropology with a concentration in the mating rituals of prehistoric nomadic cultures to good use.

Here are a few things you need to do to score your dream job, or at least set you on your path to get there:

  1. Volunteer. Okay, in case you missed it, this is the single most important piece of advice I can offer you, so let me repeat myself. VOLUNTEER. Yes, this means work for free, and sometimes harder than you would at a paying gig. There are so many reasons why volunteering can set you up for success. I am where I am today because I volunteered my time and waited patiently for doors to open. I volunteered with the museum for three years before something became available, and when I was approached about the position I was ecstatic. Did it pay much? No, but that wasn’t the point. I had a real paying job in the museum field, and all I had to do was pay my dues. Both of my Assistant Directors can attest to this as well. When I became the Director and had vacancies to fill, I hired from within. I picked individuals who I knew were interested in the position and who had been volunteering their time with the museum willingly and happily for some time. You see, employers know that hiring volunteers means hiring people who were dedicated enough to the institution to work there for free. That means a lot. So, take those extra hours you spend binge watching “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix and invest them in your future. You will thank yourself later.


  1. Master the art of the Enthusiastic Smile, and Network. So, you’ve been volunteering at a museum, library, writing center, etc. for years and nothing has opened up. Oh ye of little faith- it will happen, but you may need to be open to working with a different institution. The place where you volunteer may not be able to hand you a job, but I would wager they can point you in the direction of someone or somewhere that can. Make friends with those in leadership roles where you volunteer. Ask questions and express a legitimate interest in the field. I promise, those individuals will remember your enthusiasm and may pass along leads for work in the field. This is particularly good advice for those volunteering with an institution with a very small staff, like ours, with a low turnover rate. I may not have been able to offer all of my volunteers jobs, but I have written countless recommendations and called in many favors when it was possible. See the value in your volunteer work and the institution will see the value in you.

(Image: Me and Asst. Director Kelly Kubiak with our fabulous volunteers Tim, Kristen, and Becky. They volunteered their time to play servants with us at one of our recent teas- it was a blast!)

  1. Keep a Running Resume. It wouldn’t hurt to also keep business or calling cards on hand to pass out to potential employers or to use for other networking opportunities. For a while I had cards that had my name, contact information, and degrees listed on them for such occasions. Above all, though, it is imperative that you take the time to craft a killer resume. There is a lot of debate regarding the length of the resume- most people swear by a single page, but I have always had two pages. Always be sure to list your degrees and educational background, relevant work experience in the field (including, and most importantly, unpaid internships and volunteer work), awards and affiliations, and presentations related to your field, if applicable. I like to do every section chronologically with the most recent thing listed first. I suggest crafting your resume and adding in experiences as you have them, rather than waiting until the last minute to add them. This will help avoid you forgetting something- like that time you helped research information for a grant or the local history talk you gave to the captive audience at the nursing home. It all counts. It’s all important. Don’t sell yourself short.


  1. Identify Potential References and Keep them Close. One of the ‘make or break’ parts of the application process, aside from the interview of course, is having a few good people in your corner. This is also one of the many benefits of volunteering and networking- you can find people who may not have employed you but would have if they could. The individuals you choose to give recommendations for you need to have known you in a capacity related to your field. This could be a volunteer supervisor, a senior colleague, a teacher, etc. I think those who have watched you get your hands dirty in the field, like an internship director or someone who had to evaluate your work, should be at the top of your list. If you volunteer or intern somewhere and then leave, but plan to use someone from that experience as a reference, it is vital that you continue some sort of working relationship with them. This could mean grabbing coffee every few months, sending email updates on your job search, or simply phoning them to tell them how grateful you are to have had the experience there. Always provide these individuals with an updated copy of your resume and the cover letter you used in your application. There is nothing more frustrating than being asked to give a recommendation for someone you only marginally remember from an internship six years ago. Put in the effort to keep those relationships solid and you can continue to build on them. The work you put into those relationships will pay you back tenfold.


  1. Have Patience. It’s not going to happen overnight, and if it does, you are one lucky duck. I know it’s frustrating- I’ve been there. I also know you need to eat and have a roof over your head, which could mean having to work full time at a call center while you daydream about the glorious smell of dusty books in a library archive. Just remember that you really can do it. You can use that degree. I am very stubborn and can honestly say that one of the biggest reasons I stuck it out so long is because every fiber of my being wanted to prove everyone wrong. At 22 years old I walked out of ODU with my Master’s Degree and a full year of teaching experience at the college level. I had a friend put in a good word for me and I became an adjunct instructor for ODU and TCC, which I did for three years. I was the same age as my students- literally. It was hard. It was scary. It produced anxiety-ridden panic attacks and made me question my sanity. I never wanted to teach, but I knew it would open doors for me and it did. I worked on relationships with former professors who were now colleagues (which is super weird by the way, especially when they say “Please, call me <insert first name>” when you’ve been calling them Dr. So-and-so for years). Those individuals wrote more recommendations for me than I can count. For two years I held down the roughest schedule of my life in the hopes that I would be able to hold out for my friend and former Director to decide she was ready for retirement. I didn’t want to rush her and I also didn’t want to leave just so I could make ends meet, so I did without things for a while: a social life, sleep, date nights. I taught six college courses each semester while also working as the lone Assistant Director of the museum. It was brutal, but man was it worth it. I am the happiest I have ever been, both professionally and personally. I have my dream job and work with a phenomenal group of people who love and support me and the museum. My volunteers are amazing people with so many talents. I am so blessed. But you, dear reader, you can have it all. Keep reminding yourself this is just a short sacrifice you are making to be the happiest you can be later in life. You can prove them all wrong and you can love every minute of it along the way.


What else has helped you make use of your liberal arts degree? Leave me your comments.


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