There has been considerable debate in recent years over the value of a liberal arts education. This story from The Atlantic illustrates the general tenor of the debate. On one side, critics are calling for dramatic reform, asserting that we need less liberal arts education and more practical training in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and business fields. On the other side, defenders assert that liberal arts education facilitate both human development and develop practical skills.
In any economic downturn, students (and their parents) rightly become concerned about post-graduation job prospects. As department chair, I’m regularly asked “What will I/my son/my daughter do with a degree in political science after they graduate? What kind of jobs are there?” Fortunately, my department regularly tracks our graduates, so I can answer those questions. A concrete answer grounded in data provides some reassurance, necessary in light of hostility expressed by some of our elected leaders.
The traditional purpose of a liberal arts degree was to develop the skills essential to taking part in civic life. This includes many of the top skills desired by employers: oral and written communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and so on. Indeed, the National Association of Colleges and Employers annual Job Outlook Survey asks employers to rate the importance of candidate skills and qualifications every year. According to the 2012 results (which have not shifted dramatically in recent years), the top in demand skills are:
- Ability to work in a team structure
- Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
- Ability to make decisions and solve problems
- Ability to obtain and process information
- Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
- Ability to analyze quantitative data
- Technical knowledge related to the job
- Proficiency with computer software programs
- Ability to create and/or edit written reports
- Ability to sell or influence others
These are precisely the kinds of skills our students are developing in the major. However, they often have a hard time articulating the specific skill set. As political science educators, we should be signaling how we are developing these skills in our students. Our responsibility as educators is to make the development of these skills clearer for our students. When they enter the job market, they should be confident in the skills they have.