NHA Quarterly Column | Study the Humanities: Articulating Career Pathways

by Scott Muir, Study the Humanities project director | Feb 07, 2020

This Quarterly Column from the National Humanities Alliance highlights a variety of efforts to articulate career pathways for humanities majors collected through the NHA's recent Humanities Recruitment Survey. 


Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for the widely observed decline in humanities majors and enrollments. Evidence suggests the primary cause is a dramatic reordering of student priorities away from existential educational aims toward pragmatic financial goals, beginning around 1970 and accelerating after the financial crisis of 2008.

Herein lies the greatest opportunity for reversing the decline, for the problem is with students’ perceptions more than reality. It’s not that the humanities don’t prepare students for career success; humanities majors’ career outcomes are in fact quite strong. But in the absence of clear pathways to a sustainable career, students and parents whose confidence has been shaken by the Great Recession and rising student debt fill the void with their fears. To restore confidence in the humanities, we must replace a cloudy picture of uncertain outcomes with a brighter vision of expansive possibilities. But how? 

At the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), we have gained a unique perspective on this challenge and the opportunity it presents. Over the past two years, we’ve assessed the field of undergraduate humanities recruitment efforts, including a recent survey of more than 390 faculty and administrators at nearly 300 institutions. We’ve collected a wide variety of promising strategies for recruiting students with the goal of sharing these strategies to benefit the whole community. Many involve clarifying career pathways for humanities majors, ranging from efforts aimed at persuading prospective students to those that help graduating majors successfully navigate the job market.

For prospective students and their parents, many faculty and administrators have reported that presenting the national employment data featured in our Study the Humanities toolkit helps confront widespread misconceptions concerning career prospects. Additionally, data and success stories drawn from one’s own institution provide a more concrete and accessible picture of the possibilities. For example, at Brandeis University, the School of Arts and Sciences has partnered with the Hiatt Career Center to present outcome data by major, which Dean Dorothy Hodgson reports “shows the tremendous placement success—and overcomes parental and student anxieties.” At Lebanon Valley College, the English Department researched their graduates’ career outcomes and created a brief video that presents the actual job titles of alumni to prospective students and their parents.

Once on campus, general education courses provide crucial opportunities to demonstrate the practical value of humanities skills to broad populations of students. At the University of Missouri, the College of Arts and Sciences appointed a Career Readiness Faculty Fellow to help faculty across the college incorporate modules explaining how the liberal arts equip students for long-term career success into their gen ed courses. And at the University of Minnesota, the College of Liberal Arts developed a pedagogical tool to help students identify the skills developed through their assignments and translate them to non-academic settings. Importantly, they also implemented incentives to encourage faculty to incorporate the tool in their courses, as well as identify transferable skills on their syllabi. As a result, more than 10,000 students completed the translation assignment last semester.  

Other initiatives help ensure humanities majors preparing to graduate are equipped to transition to the workforce. For example, the English Department at West Chester University created a poster series and annual event entitled “What can you do with an English major?” to help students explore a variety of career pathways. Furthermore, the department created an internship course and a series of six workshops that help majors translate academic accomplishments for job application materials. At Hendrix College, John Sanders redesigned the Religious Studies Department’s capstone course to help students articulate transferable skills gained through previous courses and capstone projects. Meanwhile, students work with career center staff to hone their resumes and interview skills.

Finally, humanities faculty and administrators are developing new ways to engage alumni and employers to identify opportunities for their students and increase demand for their skills. For the past decade, Duke University has hosted an annual weekend of programming that brings together arts and humanities majors interested in working in a wide variety of media-related fields with alumni who have found success there. And at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, the Humanities Network and Consortium has partnered with career center staff to bring employers and recruiters to campus for regular events that highlight the professional advantages provided by the humanities.

Together, these initiatives present models for identifying transferable humanities skills and illuminating career pathways, helping to correct misconceptions and provide a clearer, more accurate picture of humanities majors’ career prospects. Of course, there are many other benefits to studying the humanities and strategies for highlighting them. Several campuses are experimenting with cohort programs to help students forge deep connections. Others are developing or revising courses to demonstrate how the humanities can help address a wide variety of contemporary challenges.

In the coming year, we will be working to ensure the lessons learned on individual campuses benefit the whole humanities community. To better understand which recruitment strategies are most effective, we have developed survey instruments to measure their impact on students’ perceptions and behaviors. We are partnering with directors of compelling initiatives to implement customized surveys. And we will distribute resources that provide an overview of various strategies faculty and administrators across the country are employing and highlight particularly promising models. We invite you to partner with us in these efforts by sharing your strategies via our survey.




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