What Is a Liberal Arts Degree?

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Earning a liberal arts degree means studying a subject in one of four primary disciplines, and gaining a more flexible education to help you pursue a range of careers.

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A liberal arts degree is an undergraduate degree you can earn in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and fine arts. You can either get your degree from a college or university that offers liberal arts majors or from a liberal arts college. A liberal arts degree emphasizes valuable workplace skills, like critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving, and tends to be a more flexible education. Liberal arts students learn how to think broadly and deeply about a subject, applying that training to a number of careers. 

Earning your degree in a liberal arts subject typically means you're not tied to a certain profession. For example, philosophy majors can apply their logic and analytical skills to careers in human resources, technical writing, teaching, social media marketing, and more.   

In this article, we’ll review the four disciplines that comprise liberal arts majors, the skills you can gain with this type of degree, and what you can do with it. 

Liberal arts degrees: Disciplines and requirements

A liberal arts education tends to be expansive. The purpose is to foster students who will go on to think for themselves and be responsible citizens. By earning a liberal arts degree, you’ll take courses meant to improve your ability to think critically about the world around you.

What are the main liberal arts disciplines?

A liberal arts degree means earning your Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, or Bachelor of Fine Arts in one of four primary disciplines: the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, or fine arts. 

The type of degree you ultimately graduate with will depend on your major. For instance, many humanities subjects typically equate to a BA degree, whereas science subjects equate to a BS degree. However, it’s worth noting that some majors—like economics, psychology, or environmental science—offer you an option. Learn more about the difference between BA and BS degrees, and how to decide which type is best for you.  

Humanities

Majoring in the humanities means studying ideas related to humans and humanity.  Common subjects include: 

  • Literature

  • History

  • Philosophy

  • Religion

  • Foreign language

Natural sciences

Science majors study the world around them and how it functions. Common subjects include: 

  • Astronomy

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Physics

  • Mathematics

  • Geography 

Social sciences

Social science majors focus on subjects that investigate human behavior, either on an individual or collective level. Common subjects include: 

  • Psychology

  • Sociology 

  • Anthropology

  • Criminal justice

  • Economics

Fine and applied arts

Fine and applied arts majors focus on the creative arts, either with the intention of pursuing a career in that field or by applying what they’ve learned to a different industry. Common subjects include: 

  • Fashion

  • Film

  • Graphic design

  • Theater

  • Costume design

  • Production design

What skills can you learn with a liberal arts degree?

Depending on what you study, you may gain useful technical skills related to your subject matter. The vast majority of liberal arts majors also emphasize workplace skills (formerly called “soft skills”) to prepare you for a variety of careers. 

Among the skills you’ll learn in a liberal arts program are:

  • Research

  • Writing

  • Communication

  • Analysis

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem-solving

  • Teamwork

The skills you can develop through your liberal arts degree program are valuable. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that employers ranked skills like communication and critical thinking higher than many technical skills [1].

Despite their value, articulating the skills you gain from your liberal arts degree can be challenging, according to NACE [2]. When you choose to major in a liberal arts subject and are nearing graduation, think about what you’ve learned and compare your skills to in-demand transferable skills. Then list them in the skills section of your resume and mention them again in your cover letter

How do you earn a liberal arts degree?

A liberal arts degree is a bachelor’s degree. As such, it typically takes between four and five years to earn. Earning a liberal arts degree either means attending a liberal arts college or choosing a liberal arts major at a public or private four-year institution. 

Most bachelor’s degrees require you to complete a minimum of 120 credits to graduate. All undergraduate students are expected to take core liberal arts coursework during their first two years before beginning their major coursework. As a liberal arts major, you will deepen your knowledge of one liberal arts subject.  

Learn more: How to Get a Bachelor’s Degree

What can you do with a liberal arts degree? 

A liberal arts education is designed to help you gain and strengthen skills you can apply to a range of careers. In fact, one of the degree’s greatest benefits is career flexibility. You can begin working in a related field, or you can take what you’ve learned and explore careers that would benefit from your unique skill set.

For example, a biology major might find an entry-level role in a research lab, or become a health communications specialist, working with community members to develop health-related programming that benefits a local population. 

Not sure what you can do with a liberal arts degree? Check out 11 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get with a Liberal Arts Degree and learn more about the careers you can pursue once you graduate. 

Graduate school

A liberal arts degree can also prepare you for graduate school, which can lead to advanced careers in numerous fields. A liberal arts major can lead to a master’s in a similar (or new) subject or a professional degree, such as law or medicine. In fact, a liberal arts degree can lay a strong foundation for future academic endeavors. US News found that law schools accepted more than 90 percent of linguistics majors compared to 56 percent of nursing majors in 2016 [3].

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

Explore further

There are many courses and specializations available in liberal arts subjects from leading universities on Coursera. Sign up for Wesleyan University’s Creative Writing Specialization,  Berklee College of Music’s Music Production Specialization, Michigan State University's Photography Basics and Beyond, or California Institute of the Arts’ Fundamentals of Graphic Design. Learning online comes with many benefits, including greater flexibility and self-paced courses. 

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Article sources 

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Putting Your Liberal Arts Degree to Work, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2017/article/pdf/liberal-arts.pdf.” Accessed July 25, 2022. 

2. National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Reinforce Value When Helping Liberal Arts Majors Articulate Their Skills to Employers, https://www.naceweb.org/career-development/special-populations/reinforce-value-when-helping-liberal-arts-majors-articulate-their-skills-to-employers/.” Accessed July 25, 2022. 

3. US News. “Choose the Right College Major for Law School, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/top-law-schools/articles/2017-12-14/choose-the-right-college-major-for-law-school.” Accessed June 24, 2022. 

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