A liberal arts education refers to college studies that provide general knowledge and develop intellectual ability. It is a well-rounded education that goes beyond career prep in a narrowly defined field to give students the foundational skills of critical thinking, quantitative analysis, writing, and speaking that tend to serve graduates well in diverse fields of human endeavor. Liberal arts students tend to be encouraged to think in interdisciplinary ways. According to Albert Einstein, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from text books.”
Liberal arts institutions arm their students with skills which I will refer to as the “Big 3”:
- Communication Skills
- High Emotional Intelligence
Before I go into too much detail about the “Big 3”, I will give you some background about me. I am an alumnus of DePauw University ’13, a small liberal arts school in Greencastle, IN, and currently on the Technology team at West Monroe Partners. I am originally from Belgium, Wisconsin where my father owns a dairy farm and my mother owns a sports bar and restaurant. Growing up, I never really knew what I wanted to be; I went from meteorologist to architect to the first woman in the MLB to an event planner. When applying for college, all of my applications had “Undecided” listed as my tentative major. Because of my indecisiveness, I decided that going to a liberal arts school where I could take an assortment of classes and play softball would be the best option for me, thus I landed at DePauw University.
While at DePauw, I took a variety of classes which ranged from Criminology to Human Cultures to Web Design. I chose most of these classes to fulfill my “group requirements” AKA “pre-reqs” for my Bachelor of Arts. Because of the group requirements and some coercion from a close friend, I ended up taking Computer Science 101 which led to me to majoring in Computer Science. I had no idea what Computer Science even was before I came to DePauw, and now I’m making a career out of it because I just happened to take the intro class. In retrospect, I realize now that was DePauw, and many other liberal art’s institutions create an environment that allows students to participate in an array of new experiences which in turn, helps them find their true interests.
Attending DePauw University was the best decision I have ever made (besides joining West Monroe!). I could list a million reasons why I love DePauw on top of just finding my major (feel free to contact me about this), but for the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on how it armed me with the “Big 3”, and why these skills make me successful in consulting.
Adaptability is a skill that liberal arts institutions really emphasize for its students. According to JP Hansen, career expert and author of The Bliss List: The Ultimate Guide to Living the Dream at Work and Beyond, “The ability to comprehend, communicate, and conquer problems is the name of the game and is implied with a liberal arts degree.” This skill is extremely important when it comes to consulting. As consultants, not a day goes by that a new problem isn’t thrown at us, and we need the ability to think on our toes; and yet, we are challenged to come up with the best solution for our clients. Knowing how and where to find the answers and demonstrate them creatively is a trait that is always needed in the consulting industry.
New projects arise often at West Monroe, and when assigned to a new project, it’s important to be able to quickly ramp up on the particular skill set needed for the project. This is applicable whether you’re on the business or technology side of a project. The faster you are able to adapt a new skill set, the sooner you are able to charge clients for your work and make money for your company.
In consulting, we are always communicating with our clients whether it’s in person, over the phone, or via email. Having the ability to communicate professionally is particularly important to be a successful consultant. Companies invest a lot of money into their employees to increase communicative skills. One-third of employees at blue-chip companies cannot write well, and businesses spend up to $3.1 billion annually on remedial training to improve their workers’ writing skills, according to a report by the National Commission on Writing. Thus, bringing in employees with a liberal arts education can decrease the need for additional training when in the workforce.
In general, employers pay more for people with specific skill sets than people with more broad skills such as that of liberal arts students, but the skill set of a liberal arts student becomes more important overtime. Danielle Moss Lee, president and CEO of the Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF) explains that many graduates in more practical fields such as Accounting may find their skills outdated within five to 10 years, but liberal arts students have the chance to invest in skills such as writing that will be useful to them throughout their careers. For example, at DePauw University, all students are required to take a “W” (writing) class before their junior year to enhance their writing.
Don’t let the initial salary decrease get you down, though! There has been data to suggest that even though liberal arts graduates in an entry-level position tend to earn less than their counterparts who have very career-focused degrees, within 10 to 20 years they tend to outpace their counterparts in terms of income, Lee says.
Overall, when it comes to communicative skills, a liberal arts education will require its students to write more papers for the most part, give oral class presentations, and collaborate with other students and professors; all of which better prepare them to be successful; in the work force, especially in consulting.
In my opinion, high emotional intelligence (EQ) is the most important skill you can have in the consulting industry. According to Howard Gardner, an influential Harvard theorist, “Your EQ is the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.” In consulting, every project involves collaboration with other individuals whether it is consultants on your team or client representatives. Working with people who are different than you and learning how to appropriately communicate amongst them is a skill that is only achieved through experience and natural ability.
In general, liberal arts institutions are usually smaller schools with more collaborative environments. A liberal arts education forces its students to work with a variety of people and make decisions while feeling slightly uncomfortable. According to Michael Akers and Grover Porter, “For most people, emotional intelligence (EQ) is more important than one’s [general] intelligence (IQ) in attaining success in their lives and careers. As individuals our success and the success of the profession today depend on our ability to read other people’s signals and react appropriately to them.” The collaborative nature of the small classroom setting forces students to understand their audience and how to converse with others effectively by reading body language, tone of voice, and other social skills.
Even outside of school work, students often partake in extracurricular groups such as clubs, Greek life, athletics, and honor societies. As an employer, involvement in groups that put you in these tough decision-making situations is just as important as getting an A in Biology 101. At liberal arts schools, typically a higher percentage of students are involved and constantly collaborating within these groups. Students who own leadership positions such as fraternity president or team captain, become well rounded individuals, and increase their emotional intelligence because of these experiences.
The “Big 3” are just a few reasons why I think liberal arts students make great consultants. This is by no means saying that having a more-focused degree is a waste of time, but it’s not always necessary to be specialized in one area if you have the ability to adapt and quickly learn about a topic, access your audience, and clearly communicate about it. Because of the curriculum and experiences liberal arts students have, they are trained to think out of the box which often makes for very successful consultants.
With that, “Here’s to you, old DePauw.”