Amid all the angst of the declining value of a liberal arts education, the American Association of Colleges and Universities last week released its latest survey of employers. The findings, which echo similar results from a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, found that 93 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve major problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” The study also noted that employers placed high value on the application of analytic and problem solving skills. Eighty percent believed that regardless of major, every college student should acquire a broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. The complete survey results make for interesting reading.
In an era where the classical model of a liberal arts education is under attack, legislatures are interested only in funding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, and students (and their parents) are increasingly focused on directly connecting college major to post-college careers, such findings are important. But they also signal the need for faculty to rethink both the content and delivery of our courses and how we communicate the value of our fields.
To develop the skillsets desired by employers, we need to focus on providing more opportunities for students to practice those skills. The traditional read-lecture-test model of education does little to develop the critical thinking, teamwork, negotiation, oral and written communication, and problem solving skills that our students need. Active and problem-based learning strategies are more effective. Ample classroom discussion also helps.
We also need to do a better job helping our students articulate their own skillsets. It’s not enough for our students to say they are good writers or have good teamwork skills. They need to be able to communicate specific examples of how they used those skills and—ideally—provide relevant samples of their work.
It’s in the development of these “soft” skills that our students will be successful.
I blogged last week about the skills that our students develop in the political science major. Subsequently, I read Stephen Walt’s “Top 10 Things That Would-Be Foreign Policy Wonks Should Study” on his blog at Foreign Policy with great interest.
Walt’s list consists of the following items:
- Foreign Language
- International Law
- An Ethical Foundation
Walt’s list seems pretty thorough, and it’s hard for me to disagree with anything he includes. However, I might also add some of the “soft skills” that are often taught in political science but which often remain unspecified or covert. These include networking, team work, and writing and critical thinking.
Networking. Students are often surprised to learn that the vast majority of jobs are not found via the want ads or online, but through personal networks. Teaching our students how to network thus increases their post-graduation job prospects dramatically. Internships provide outstanding opportunities to develop a wide array of soft skills while simultaneously developing individual networks. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that students who have an internship as part of their undergraduate program are far more likely to secure a job upon gradation.
Team Work. A job candidate goes into an interview and says they want a job working with people. The interviewer responses, “That’s great, because all our jobs working with rocks and trees are taken.” It’s hard to imagine any job that doesn’t require working with people. But our students are often unable to articulate this skill in a way that doesn’t come across as contrived. In most political science programs, though, team assignments are common, and opportunities for team-based activities (like Model UN, Mock Trial, etc.) abound. Getting our students to think about the skills that they are developing will help them to be able to clearly articulate their skillset for future employers.
Writing and Critical Thinking. Perhaps more than any other area, this is a skillset developed in the liberal arts. It’s also one in high demand by employers.
Now its your turn. What skills do you think every political science major should have? How do you teach them in your class? Share your thoughts below.
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.