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Arts graduates find new career paths by adding skills

If you earn an arts degree, you'll never get a job. That's a message you'll probably hear more than once while researching universities and academic concentrations.

You may not be able to turn a background in Shakespeare or the Roman Empire directly into a job, but that doesn't mean the hours you spend in a lecture hall are without value. "When you're studying a subject, you're acquiring skills in communications, problem-solving, critical thinking [and] teamwork," says Clare Tattersall, manager of career development and community-based learning at Huron University College.

According to Tattersall, these strengths – particularly communication, problem-solving and teamwork – are routinely listed by employers as being the most sought-after attributes in their workplace, giving arts graduates access to an impressive range of potential work environments.

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Your university can put you in touch with career fairs and networking events, but it's important to do your own research, particularly if your interests lie off the beaten track. As you spend more time looking into your options, you'll develop a clearer sense of where your career interests lie, an awareness Tattersall insists is part of giving yourself the best odds. "You're less likely to succeed in attaining a goal if you don't even know what you're trying to attain," she says.

Work experience empowers

A great way to gain some workplace experience even before graduation is to participate in a co-op or internship program. More than 80,000 Canadian students take part in co-op
programs each year, says Julie Walchli, director of the arts co-op program at the University of British Columbia.

The program provides students with a series of paid work placements and they must complete a minimum of 12 months of placement time to graduate with a co-op degree. By providing multiple placement terms, the program gives students a chance to work in a variety of industries, maximizing their chance of finding a good fit. "Co-op really empowers arts students," Walchli says. They can build experience and a good network of contacts to use later.

Aside from giving students a head start on professional development, employers are particularly interested in students with co-op experience. "Employers see [co-op] as a way to kind of try out people that they might want to hire back at graduation. A lot of big companies in Canada use co-op as one of their main recruitment strategies for permanent positions," she says.

There's also a financial incentive: The average student who completes the minimum 12-month commitment at UBC earns nearly $30,000 – a big bonus for the budget-conscious.

Two students' path to a job

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Maryn Wallace entered UBC's arts co-op program during the third year of her sociology degree after having watched her family of arts grads struggle to find satisfying employment. Her placements gave her work experience in the not-for-profit sector – and an enormous advantage in the job market.

When she graduated in 2006, Wallace found a job in the university's development office. Six years later, she works in the same industry as the resource development specialist, philanthropy, for British Columbia's United Way of the Lower Mainland.

Fellow UBC alumnus Duncan Wright, an Asian studies graduate, completed a few co-op work terms: with the Westin Hotel in Awaji-shima, Japan; the Vancouver Regional Office of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT); and within the U.S. Commercial Relations Division at DFAIT headquarters in Ottawa. Then he started his career with the Embassy of Canada to Japan, as the trade commissioner responsible for the digital media industry.

"Getting here was a culmination of my various co-op terms, coursework and extra-curricular experience," he says. "An arts education provides the flexibility to tailor-make your studies and your extra-curricular

Open heart, open mind

Going into an arts degree with employment on your mind requires a healthy dose of pragmatism. You'll need to be prepared to start a journey uncertain where you'll end up. "Your career is not point A to point B. It's more like a meandering stream," Tattersall says.

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Whether you take advantage of a co-op program, volunteer in your field or network with professionals who you look up to, an early start is the best move you can make.

"Students who start to think about their career plans early and start to get involved a little bit at a time are much more successful and prepared by the end of their degree," says Aleasha McCallion, manager of workplace learning at UBC's Centre for Student Involvement and Careers. "It's important for arts students and all students to gain work experience while they're still in school."

Wright's advice? "Make the most of your arts degree by undertaking a variety of challenges outside of the classroom, including co-op, learning another language and part-time jobs that help you build your skill set
and confidence."

Whatever path you choose, keep in mind that all experiences are opportunities to learn. An unpleasant job placement or networking event doesn't mean that your degree is worthless or that you've failed. Treat every experience as an opportunity to clarify and pinpoint your goals and interests.

Cassandra Jowett is a content manager with as was Elias Da Silva-Powell, who is now an MA candidate.

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