February 22, 2022

Put Your Liberal Arts Degree to Work: An Interview with Gillian Tisdale, '16

If you’re navigating your job search with a liberal arts degree, you may find it tricky to demonstrate to future employers the value and versatility of your Smith education. You know you’re the right fit for the job, but how do you leverage your background when it comes to submitting job applications and heading into interviews?

With years of professional experience across consulting and marketing, as well as a dual degree in philosophy and logic from Smith, Gillian Tisdale '16 shares her answers for common concerns that recent liberal arts grads face so that they can take the job market by storm and land that new role!

1. What liberal arts skills should candidates highlight to future employers?

Your liberal arts background will have helped you develop a wide range of skills. I love that liberal arts education fosters an inquisitive nature and ability to approach any problem – especially vague ones – and figure out some path forward. In fact, contrary to how you may feel during the recruiting process as a senior or recent grad, when I’ve been in the position of hiring for entry-level roles, I love to see a liberal arts degree on an applicant’s resume.

Specifically, many students graduate from schools like Smith with the following skills:

  •    Critical Thinking: This relates to what I mentioned about the ability to approach a problem from multiple angles. Rather than having learned a particular process or algorithm, which can be efficient to execute but only in narrow circumstances, you know how to solve for vagaries.
  •    Qualitative Analysis: Who said the humanities aren’t useful? I graduated with a dual degree in philosophy and logic, the former of which is the OG humanities subject. Perhaps you’re adept at qualitative analysis or close reading. Whether you studied philosophy, polisci, history, literature, or something else, take a moment to think about how you can sum up your ability to research and analyze. Consider leveraging your senior thesis as a case study in this skillset.
  •     Writing & Rhetoric: Reading, writing, and arithmetic… the three (non)-Rs of education. Change that to reading, writing, and rhetoric, and you have a recipe for gainful employment. Many people say they can write, but if you can prove it, you have a leg up on the competition. This is particularly useful for roles in areas such as marketing.
  •    Quantitative Analysis: As a logic student, I would be remiss to neglect quantitative analysis! I think STEM fields often get the spotlight, so you may need less encouragement here, but keep in mind that this doesn’t just mean crunching numbers. This means interpreting outcomes and even transferring logical thinking to areas such as Excel wizardry.

3. What should candidates do if a job application requests specific non-liberal arts majors?

This is a tricky one! If the role lists clear skills-based requirements that you can’t fulfill, take that as your exit cue. But, if you feel confident about the role except for the degree requirement, try to get in contact with the recruiter to acknowledge the requirement but demonstrate why you’re the best fit for the role. If that’s not possible, go ahead and apply anyway – the worst that can happen is you don’t get the interview! This is also a prime scenario in which a referral from a current employee can go a long way.

Remember, on average, men apply for jobs when they fulfill a far lower percentage of the listed requirements than do women. Check out this HBR article for more.

4. What makes an application or interview from a liberal arts graduate shine?

The no. 1 thing to make your application shine is to be unique. I don’t mean cutting out letters from a magazine into a serial-killer style collage, but do let your personality shine through in every facet of your app. 

A partner at a leading consulting firm once told me he was unsure about hiring more liberal arts students into entry level roles, but that he was impressed with their often highly unique backgrounds. Recruiters and hiring managers are wading through pools of resumes and cover letters, and, often, are even conducting a lot of interviews. The more you can demonstrate how you are not only qualified, but are uniquely qualified, the better.

5. What are common mistakes you see liberal arts graduates make while applying or interviewing? 

Confidence, confidence, confidence. Sure, you don’t have a cookie-cutter degree that will enable you to hit the ground running from day one. I won’t mince words: your ramp time is likely to be longer at your first job than that of your business school peers. That fact shouldn’t diminish your incredible skills, and you deserve to be confident in them.

The other mistake I see, which is somewhat related, is a lack of industry experience and networking acumen. Students at business schools (including undergrads) are pushed to ‘get out there’, which isn’t always the case for liberal arts majors. If you’re still at Smith, the Lazarus Center is an excellent place to get started with networking events, and I would highly recommend getting an internship if it is at all available to you (Smith has funding for this, too). If you’ve already graduated, try to attend networking events in your field of choice and get used to the song-and-dance of the corporate world. This is obviously harder when most events are virtual, but the more you learn the verbiage and sub-culture of your chosen industry, the better.

The more you gain exposure to the nomenclature and processes of a particular area of business, the more you’ll be able to flex the skills you learned in the liberal arts. The next time that someone asks what you studied, declare it loud and proud.

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