Earning power: majors are minor

A report released this week on liberal arts majors and employment by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that liberal arts majors may start off a bit slower than others when it comes to earnings, but the salary gap closes over time.

The results counter the idea that liberal arts majors do not keep up with their business school and STEM peers when it comes to earnings.

“It’s positive news, but not surprising,” says Andy Chan, vice president of personal and career development at Wake Forest. “What one majors in does not define who you are or what you will do. The findings demonstrate that liberal arts majors have just as valuable knowledge, skills, drive and experiences as graduates from other disciplines.”

Kate Brooks, executive director of Wake Forest’s Office of Personal and Career Development (OPCD), told the Wall Street Journal that career earnings for business and science majors versus liberal arts students is “like the difference between a 50-yard dash and a marathon.”


Students with a variety of majors and interests meet with recruiters at a recent Wake Forest Career Fair.

Out of the gate, some graduates earn more than others. The real story, however, is about building meaningful, purposeful, successful lives – not just getting a high paying job after graduation.

“The challenge with these reports is that they focus entirely on one, easily measurable, quantitative aspect of career success: salary. But the job that pays well will not be satisfying if you’re dragging yourself out of bed each morning and dreading work.”

While compensation is important for students to consider when planning career paths, Brooks says other factors are equally important. For example, personal pride and career satisfaction, whether the work takes advantage of individual talents and values, and the impact and influence of the one’s work on others whether locally or in the world.

Visual mapping is one technique that helps students think through these factors.

What is visual mapping?

Visual mapping is a nonlinear approach to career planning where there is no particular goal in mind. Students look to their past to discover strengths and talents they can carry on into their future work. They might use magazine photos, or hand-drawn words or images to look for themes in their lives — those things they most enjoyed doing and where they found satisfaction and success.

“The next step is for students to craft stories to share when networking and with potential employers,” says Brooks. “So when they interview, they are not just saying, for example, ‘I like to write,’ but instead, ‘Writing has always been an important part of my life, I wrote poems as a child, won an essay contest as a teenager, and managed the content development for the my high school yearbook. Now I’m ready to apply my writing talents to in public relations and advertising.’”

Visual mapping is not just for liberal arts majors either. The process also helps those in all other disciplines, including engineering, science and business, to reflect and consider what meaningful work looks like for them.

Liberal arts and mapping for STEM and business majors

Yana Klein, a senior biology major, thought she might go to medical school after graduating, but now, she isn’t sure that’s the right path. Though she hadn’t thought of pursuing science writing as a career, Klein is looking back at what she’s enjoyed most in college to find where her interests lie as she’s thinking about her career.

“My favorite class outside of science was, ‘How to write a story,’” says Klein. “What I learned in the class just seems to stick with me. I liked the freedom to write on things I felt strongly about, and I learned the power of words in getting people excited about an issue. I stepped out of my very comfortable academic box and into a new way of learning, thinking and writing.”

Visual mapping can help STEM majors think about careers, such as science/medical writing, research, marketing or sales, which they might never have considered.

Among business majors, there are a group of focused students who know where they plan to go, says Mike Crespi, associate director of undergraduate market readiness and employment. But the majority of business students are liberal arts-oriented in their thinking. They are good at and enjoy many different pursuits.

“Visual maps help these students identify themes in their lives. They are a form of self-discovery when they connect seemingly random memories  identifying work related themes, and potentially a job function or industry where they can develop their interests and talents.”

Crespi says all students should consider the “Big Three” when thinking about a career – content of work, lifestyle and compensation. “The sweet spot is the small point where they all intersect — it’s not salary alone. And the balance of these three will change during your lifetime. When you know yourself and your needs, it’s easier to be clear and confident in your career planning decisions.”

Categories: 2014 Highlights: OPCD, Admissions, For Alumni, For Parents, Top Stories