Why STEM companies are turning to liberal arts grads

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Why STEM companies are turning to liberal arts grads

Technical skills aren’t just for STEM students on the hunt for a software development job. Technical skills can also give your humanities students a leg up in the job market, writes Benjamin Pimentel for EdSurge.

In fact, companies in STEM fields are increasingly hiring workers with liberal arts backgrounds, according to a report by researchers at Strada Education Network and Emsi.

That’s because companies in STEM fields want to hire employees who can relate to and communicate with the people and communities who use their products, writes Pimentel. They also want to hire employees who can contribute to the creative and ethical processes of developing technology.

“It’s so important that we have people who are thinking about the ethical implications of the technology we’re building today,” says Jennifer Wolochow, a philosophy and religion major who now works to develop educational programs for Coursera. “It’s important that it’s not only people trained in engineering that are making these decisions.”

Wolochow explains that her humanities experience has shaped her work with Coursera. “I was an educator so I understand where [teachers and students] are coming from,” she says. “I can put myself in their shoes so we can create products that actually work for users.”

But Wolochow still had to acquire certain technical skills, like programming basics, before landing her job at Coursera. “I can understand the concepts of what [the computer engineers and web developers are] talking about even though I can’t create a web page the way they do,” she says.

Learn more: Why STEM majors need the humanities, and vice versa

Of course, there are certain roles in STEM suited only for someone with highly specialized knowledge, or “deep engineering chops,” notes Victor Wong, who has managed partnerships at tech companies like Square and NerdWallet. But there are plenty of opportunities for liberal arts grads in the STEM industry—if they’re willing to learn basic tech skills, he adds. “These days, programming languages are accessible enough for pretty much anybody willing to do the work,” explains Roger Kay, a technology industry analyst.

Wong shares that when he first entered STEM after studying sociology and working predominately in nonprofit jobs, he struggled with “not knowing how to speak the language right away. It was like being in a foreign country, at first,” he says. “But that’s true of any job. You adapt by immersing in the organization.”

But Wong’s liberal arts background provided him with the tools necessary to adapt. “Sociology and my understanding of how organizations work help me understand how to quickly build relationships,” he says.

Two ways to integrate professional development into the liberal arts

Some experts speculate that rise of automation will further solidify the need for liberal arts students in STEM. For instance, Avi Goldfarb, coauthor of Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence, suggests that “the most valuable combinations of skills are going to be people who both have good training in computer science, who know how the machines work, but also understand the needs of society and the organization, and so have an understanding of humanities and social sciences.”

To equip students with this combination of skills, several colleges have begun integrating STEM and liberal arts curricula. For example, Cornell University recently debuted a data science ethics course that explores the ethical gray areas data scientists face every day. And both Wellesley College and Davidson College have incorporated more STEM courses into traditionally humanities-focused curriculums (Pimentel, EdSurge, 2/25).

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