It’s not news that liberal arts and STEM graduates typically begin their careers at different ends of the salary spectrum.
But liberal arts students can land high-paying careers, too—if they pair their humanities education with in-demand technical skills.
Tech-savvy humanities grads are in particularly high-demand in Silicon Valley, reports Jeffrey Brown for PBS. Brown spoke with tech professionals to understand what makes humanities students competitive job candidates.
Silicon Valley seems to be turning to humanities grads to help shape how humans interact with technology, says Brown.
For example, Catie Cuan, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, pulls from her background as a professional ballet dancer to help robots seem more approachable and less intimidating to humans.
As a robot choreographer, “I move with robots in my research, and my research and my artistic work is about how those movements can either control robots or change human behavior and human conceptions of themselves,” Cuan tells Brown. People tend to fear robots, which is “why we need artists and people from humanities backgrounds to help reframe what robots can and will be in society,” she adds.
Humanities grads are also trained to ask questions about the large-scale human problems many tech companies are trying to solve, says Scott Harley, a venture capitalist and author of the book, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World.
Professionals who lead successful careers in tech “have the ability to take a step back… ask the right questions… empathize with the customer,” says Harley. “And these are the various things that you learn through a humanities or liberal arts type program.”
People who can understand and empathize with others are in high demand in the tech world, says Eric Colson, the chief algorithms officer at Stitch Fix. Empathy is “what’s most important to [a Stitch Fix stylist] job. You are picking clothes, not for yourself, but for your fellow human client, and you want to make sure you understand them,” says Colson.
Humanities grads also bring an ability to think critically about language and solve complicated problems.
Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, says he uses his philosophy degrees to “work through a very complex problem, whether that’s a business problem or a human problem, that helps, that ability to follow the logical chain all the way to the root.”
And for Jamie DeLanghe, Slack’s head of search learning, her literature background and love of James Joyce underlies how she helps people find what they’re looking for on Slack.
Search is about language and how it’s used and intended, says DeLanghe. “I loved the people who were more playful with language, and I think a lot of what I spend my time doing in the technical world, sort of trying to build the best product, is thinking about what is somebody typing, what are they trying to do here?”
But humanities grads still need “fluency with technology, literacy with technology, in order to get [their] foot in the door,” says Harley.
Students from every discipline need a balance of soft and hard skills to be a competitive candidate, adds Colson. “If you’re on the techie side, you’re going to have to learn how to work with people and learn the power of storytelling and getting people on board with your ideas. And if you’re on the soft side, you’re going to have to appreciate what technology can do for you.”
“You’re not done yet, I think, if you’re an English major,” says DeLanghe. “You have to do a little bit more thinking and reflecting on where it is you actually want to be and apply those skills, I guess, in society,” says Delanghe (Brown, PBS, 12/7).