MentalFlossShirtWorking with liberal arts students and graduates, I constantly hear the positive refrain that a "liberal arts major can do anything." While on the surface this seems to be a comforting thought, it's unfortunately also an inaccurate thought which can torpedo a job search and ultimately lead employers to think the opposite: liberal arts majors can't do anything. I'm a liberal arts grad myself, but don't hire me to fix your car or your computer, or write a document in Swedish. In the words of the immortal Clint Eastwood character, Harry Callahan, aka Dirty Harry,"A man's got to know his limitations."

I just read a fantastic blog posting on Dan Schawbel‘s personal branding blog titled "Stop Saying You Can Do Anything." The column was written by Katie Konrath who writes at Get Fresh Minds.

The problem with "I can do anything" thinking is that it keeps you from honing in on what you do well-- and finding ways to attach those skills to the job you're seeking.

One of my favorite mantras is that job seekers who say "I'll do anything, anywhere" are likely to find themselves doing "nothing nowhere. " Bad grammar aside, you get the point. You need to focus. I like to call it flexible focus: you have your eye on a target-- maybe not just the bullseye but a ring or two around it.

In the job search, you need to convince the employer that you're the right person for the job-- why you're better than the other people also interviewing for the position. You do that best with specific (not vague) statements about your skills, accomplishments, and potential.

Let's say, for example, you're interviewing for a job which requires grant-writing skills. Now, you've never written a grant, but you were an English major, and you have been told you're a good writer. you simply write in your cover letter, "As an English major, I would be a good grant-writer" or tell an employer "I can write a grant" when you have no evidence? Well you can-- but if the employer follows up with a typical behavioral interview question like, "Give me an example of a time when you successfully wrote a grant" you're probably up the proverbial creek. Far better action would be to research the field of grant-writing prior to the interview, read some examples of well-written grants and present the employer with a short, sample grant you crafted based on your new-found knowledge of grant writing. Use a hypothetical grant proposal as the writing sample, if a sample is requested (Learn more about writing samples in this post.)

Be prepared to talk about the sections in a grant and how you would approach them, how you would research potential sources for grant funding, or what you know about politicking a grant. That's how you take a general statement-- "I can write"-- and make it specific to the job.

Lack of focus shows up in other typical statements from job seekers. Two of the most common I encounter are "I want to work with people" or "I want an international job."

Let's start with the first one-- I challenge you to find many careers that don't involve people. Yes, I know there are those lab or tech jobs where you're working with data or equipment, but generally unless you're a lighthouse keeper, you still work "with people." Here's a better clarification: how do you want to work with people? Do you want to help them, teach them, sell to them, advocate for them? Now you're getting specific.

You want an international job? Doing what? With whom? In what country? Speaking what language? You get the idea. Narrow it down. What career would you want even if it weren't international? Advertising? Then be an international advertiser. Insurance? Then find an international insurance opportunity. International is just an adjective-you need to add a career field to it.

Schawbel's/Konrath's post reminds me of another unfocused approach to careers for liberal arts majors: those annoying lists of "what to do with your major in..."

Let's say you're an English major. According to one such list here are some careers that fit your degree:

Academic Advisor, Advertising Copywriter, Archivist, Career Counselor, College Admissions Officer, Computer Instructional Designer, Copy Editor/Reader, Corporate Communications Specialist, Correspondent, Editorial Assistant, Energy Researcher, Film Researcher, Freelance Writer, Graphic Arts Designer, Lawyer, Legislative Aide, Library Aide, Paralegal, Policy and Procedures Analyst, Political Campaign Worker, Physician, Publications Researcher, Reporter, Secondary School Teacher, Student Activities Advisor, Technical Writer, User Documentation Writer

In theory, this is saying that as an English major you can do any of these careers.

But can you really?

Would the same person who is good as a political campaign worker be equally talented as a library aide? Would the student activities advisor be an equally good energy researcher because they're both former English majors?

See that's where it falls apart. Because I suspect there are some psychology majors out there saying, "Hey I could do a bunch of those careers, too."

While a list like this can be enlightening in the sense that it might provide someone with career ideas they hadn't considered, the linking of it to a specific major is flawed. It might be better to just say "Here are some great careers to consider, whatever your major. Which ones sound interesting? Which ones would you like to learn more about? And how can you link your skills and talents to one of those careers?"

What would YOU be good at? Your major is just part of the package you offer to an employer--- that's why it's absurd when employers place such an emphasis on the undergraduate major for non-technical positions.  Better to just require the college degree and sort it out from there. Let the best candidate (regardless of major) win.

In the next few posts I'm going to focus on specific majors and help you identify the skills, knowledge, mindsets, etc., you're developing or developed through your major.

But for the moment, please don't say you can do anything. Take a few minutes and figure out what you do when you're at your best-identify your top five talents or skills and think about how they apply to the education you received, and the job(s) you'd like to do. Dirty Harry would be proud.


Image Credit from Mental Floss

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