I recently participated in a humanities alum panel. I reflected on the experience, particularly on ways I as a panelist may have let down current students. I think we may not have had enough time to expand upon how to get into a job as opposed to how to thrive in the job you already landed. To address the former:
How to market your "soft skills"
A student asked this, and I thought it was a difficult but good question.
What do we mean by "soft skills"? Interpersonal and communication skills, empathy or compassion, adaptability, teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving? So say this and this, OK. We talked about valuing these a lot as humanities alums.
Mentioned point: for jobs that require cover letters, yes, crafting them well is important.
(Note: many tech jobs, especially software engineering, don't require cover letters.)
Mentioned point: for jobs that heavily rely on networking, yes, expanding your network is crucial. Beyond chance (your birth, how and where you were raised, your demographics, your socio-economic status, etc.), you can boost your network
- with professionals via internships, meetups (virtual or in-person), career fairs, and folks who market themselves as open to mentoring
- with other students (your future colleagues and the world's future professionals) via classes, clubs, other social activities
Mentioned point (by me), but not fully articulated: most jobs have some kind of succession hope – that a manager, a professor, a senior engineer, etc. can eventually be replaced by a younger or less experienced professional one day so that the work in mind can continue in perpetuity. (Well, that sounds a bit dystopian.) Demonstrating that you've developed others through being a teaching assistant, peer consultant, club leader, mentor to others, etc. shows that you have drive to be a leader, that you probably take initiative, that you have excellent interpersonal skills, that you are expert enough in something to pass on knowledge and skills to others, and so on. Interviewers love that. Talking about your past experience is one way. Listening to understand (rather than to speak) and cooperating (for example, through a test problem/scenario) during the interview is another.
Developing an online presence
Not mentioned: creating a greater online presence to showcase your work and writing skills. to showcase your work and other (writing, speaking, video, and more) skills. You can do this via a personal website or blog (like this one!), a Youtube channel, a stellar LinkedIn profile (or other platform for your desired profession), or a combination. Posting especially on a professional network continually gets you more attention from recruiters and other folks who may be vital to landing your next job, graduate acceptance, or whatever else is next in your professional journey. You can post about the things you're learning, an interesting article or video you just consumed, work you're proud of sharing (past, present, or future), and more. Content creation further stretches your skills and impact on the world, too, a little bit at a time.
With every successful (and some unsuccessful) interview I've had, an interviewer commented on how interesting and encompassing my blog is on both technical and non-technical material. We then had more topics to discuss as a result. As an interviewer myself, I also notice when someone showcases their learnings or portfolio online: it demonstrates not just your writing skills and work beyond your resume and cover letter, but also your passion for your work and other parts of yourself. Any way to appropriately showcase more of your full self to interviewers is a positive thing to me and makes the job process that much more human. My blog is often part of how I stand out among other candidates.
Of course, you don't need to be a software engineer to create an online presence: there are many tools out there to help automate the technical parts so you can focus on your unique content.
One of the panelists touched on this, and I'd like to emphasize it: most, if not, all careers are human-centered, human endeavors in some way. That's what makes the humanities that much more special. While you need to put food on the table, when you have the capacity, step back and consider what your job and career are doing for the world – how human-centered are they, and what are the ramifications of that in relation to the rest of life and the ecosystem? Is the human-centeredness hyper-focused on one aspect, such as profit for certain individuals? Is it not inclusive enough of other humans and life on Earth? As a humanities graduate, you are all the more equipped to
answer explore these questions and challenge the status quo for better.
Sorry, now I'm getting too philosophical.
"soft skills" are rare and hard to develop
I don't like the phrase "soft skills" but can't think of a better alternative. Perhaps the phrase encompasses too many things that are simply not job-specific skills--or, more broadly, characteristics. They are skills and characteristics that describe your potential for growth and adaptability to different people, circumstances, and problems, and they are often a reflection of your values, identity, and humanity. They truly are harder to teach and develop than the contrasting
technical or hard job-specific skills, and yet they are vital for fruitful relationships, an examined life, and--yes--career success.
Let me try "holistic characteristics and skills" for now.
I appreciate that all the alum panelists agreed on the importance of holistic characteristics and skills. I don't know if current students will truly understand that importance until they see for themselves outside the (university) bubble and with some more life experience. (Or maybe I'm just projecting.)
At the same time, I do sympathize with immediate needs of current students who worry about their financial livelihoods come graduation.
What we can definitively say is that you haven't wasted your time with a humanities degree – what you've gained will be with you forever, and it will allow you to flourish in any direction you take. You may need to brush up on those skills specific to a particular job in order to begin in that job, but you will be able to learn all the more effectively and then excel beyond that. You will figure it out. You're incredibly smart and capable; you have a network of alums like us as living proof that you can do it, too; and you can always reach out to folks like us for advice or that chance connection.
Life is more than just your career
I felt that some if not all of the panelists were itching to say just this. Life is more than work; my degree prepared me for more than work. My degree formed my adult values and identity, which extend to all parts of my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything.