No STEM Major, No Problem: How to Make a Liberal Arts Degree Count

By Eliza Haverstock  for Nerdwallet

A young woman sits in front of a computer at a computer lab. A second woman stands near her, leaning towards the computer screen as if to indicate something on the screen.

Majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) isn’t the only way to land a job that makes college worth it.

A liberal arts degree can pay off, too — but you may need to put in more legwork than a STEM major would.

“Going to school and being a liberal arts major in and of itself is not going to give you the same outcomes as focusing on your career preparation in tandem with going through your college experience,” says Joshua Kahn, associate director of research and public policy at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

If you want to major in English, history, sociology or another nontechnical field, here are some expert-approved tips to help make your liberal arts degree pay off.

Do your research before choosing a program

Before deciding on a college or specific degree program, research your post-diploma employment and salary prospects.

“Check out the schools that have really good internship rates for liberal arts majors,” Kahn says. “Ask about resources at their career center, and what they’re specifically doing for liberal arts majors.”

Research student outcomes at various colleges through the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard. You can also use the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook to compare average earnings across various industries and job functions.

Earnings data can help you determine how much to borrow for college. As a rule of thumb, aim for monthly student loan payments that won’t exceed 10% of projected after-tax monthly income in your first year out of school. So, a borrower who will make $50,000 a year should ideally take out no more than $29,000 in student loans.

Start career planning early

Start thinking about your future career as early as high school or your freshman year of college. You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do yet, but having a dream career in mind can help you build a path to your first job.

“Career-readiness is really an ongoing process. It’s not a one-time thing, so I think it’s really important for students to start out early,” says Leigh Anne Byrd, assistant director of career development and college relations at Virginia Tech, a large public university.

Work with a career counselor at your university or reach out to alumni for informational interviews about their jobs. And while researching, remember that your future career doesn’t need to align perfectly with your major — especially in the liberal arts.

“A student might think that, as a history major, maybe they need to go into education, but history majors can work in the media, they can work in business, they can do nonprofit work, they can work in the government or law,” Byrd says.

Get internship and work experience

Practical work experience is crucial to landing your first job. An internship helps you build a resume, professional network and new skills.

“Employers say that students with these experiential learning and internship opportunities are deciding factors for them when they’re making selections of who their hires should be,” Kahn says.

Doing undergraduate research with a faculty member, joining a study abroad program and job-shadowing are other ways to gain hands-on experience, Byrd advises.

Consider a second major, minor or certificate

While liberal arts majors have strong long-term salary prospects, STEM students earn more straight out of school: 99 of the top 100 programs that lead to the highest average salaries in the four years after graduation are in STEM, finance or economics, according to an April 2023 College Scorecard analysis of 36,000 undergraduate programs.

If you major in a liberal arts field, adding a second major, minor or professional certificate in a more technical subject could give you the biggest payoff.

Even if you don’t pursue a formal STEM certification as a liberal arts student, take as many elective classes as you can in areas like statistics, artificial intelligence and coding, says Mark Schneider, director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences.

“You have to follow your passion, but you better have some skills to put bread on the table,” Schneider says.

Market your skills effectively

Technical skills can help your resume shine. But employers also value liberal arts students for their soft skills, like critical thinking, communication, adaptability, cultural and ethical awareness and emotional intelligence, explains Anthony Pernell-McGee, executive director of career exploration and development at Oberlin College and Conservatory, a private liberal arts and music school in Ohio.

“Students who graduate from the liberal arts are lifelong learners,” Pernell-McGee says. “We hear from employers that our students may not have the business background, but within six months, they can learn it, and then they come to the table with the other core skills that the employers like their candidates to have.”

Reach out to your university’s career center for personalized help in marketing your skills. You can set up a one-on-one session with a career counselor, attend resume and interview workshops, get connected to your alumni network and access other resources.

By Tamar Celis
Tamar Celis STEM Career Educator