Why I’d Rather Hire a Liberal Arts Student than a PR Student

Over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure to recruit and interview a number of potential employees – and see and speak to a number of amazingly unsuitable candidates. I went back afterwards to see if there was a trend among the candidates (and other students / young pros I didn’t think would be a good fit (I always keep an eye out for possible recruitment)).

And in-fact there did seem to be a trend (at least for me).

But before just giving you the answer – here’s a small list of things I do not want to hear from a candidate – either in a phone interview or on their social media feeds (and if you think I didn’t find everyone’s Twitter (and other public SM) accounts – you’re crazy). Hint hint – there might be a theme here that provides the answer to the trend.

  • (A tweet) Why do I need to learn world history – by June I’ll be a PR pro.
  • I run a twitter account for my uncle’s business, but don’t have my own – I don’t have anything interesting enough to say.
  • (In response to a “what if your executive didn’t have the bandwidth to handle x,y, and z?”) Just reiterate to them the importance of the project and they really must do it.
My initial gut (and silent) responses to the above were along the lines of:
  • Because if you ever want to work in technology, fashion, the arts, manufacturing or any field of PR which includes elements beyond your own backyard having some kind of reference point for your clients’ business is vital.
  • You don’t have anything worthwhile enough to say – on any topic at all?
  • Don’t tell me to completely ignore the obstacle – tell me ways to go around it.

Inquisitiveness.  That was the key trait I found (and still find) lacking.  And it’s also why I’d rather hire a Liberal Arts students over a PR student. Full disclosure: I myself do hold a Liberal Arts B.A.  Fuller disclosure: It doesn’t have to be a liberal arts degree – humanities, multiple majors, unrelated minors, etc. all count for this purpose. Fullest disclosure: Of course PR students can be inquisitive (see Fuller disclosure), but it’s not a given.

A liberal arts student (besides usually having dealt with intense writing requires) demonstrates a level of inquisitiveness that pretty much goes unmatched.  This peculiar student has chosen an educational path that does not guarantee a job and involves studying all manner of material – literature, history, philosophy, art (in many of its forms), etc. and achieving a level of competency in pretty much all of these with the skills necessary to deep dive if need-be.

I can get over lots of things – I can teach someone to “be social,” to work with the client, to create a media list, to structure a pitch, read basic analytics, etc.

I can’t teach them to want to know things just for the sake of knowing them and learning something new – to revel in the discovery process itself.  There’s more to being a good candidate than can be taught in a PR classroom.

PS-Also, please cover your mouth when you yawn.

PPS-The next candidate that comes in and mentions they read this post, or any post of mine, gets extra inquisitiveness points.

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  • Funny yet true, Nathan. I’ve seen the same trends. The job market is very competitive – may the most inquisitive candidates win. One PR candidate I talked to recently said she “Didn’t have time to read news.” yikes! Thx for the post.

    • Hey Jennifer – so true…that one is really a killer for me.  Though perhaps my favorite is someone applying for a B2B/Corporate position who says their news reading comes from TMZ and/or People.  I fully appreciate having a guilty pleasure on a reading list, but if you’re interviewing for a button-up job that shouldn’t be your go-to news source.
      Have a great one, 

  • Tony Jones

    Very true Nathan especially of today’s students. I agree with Jennifer about the “Didn’t have time to read the news” quip. Students today just don’t have the inqusitiveness orcuriosity to check out what’s before them rather than the latest app on their iPhone. Basic message … you must be well read and know what’s going on in order to fully understand where it is you need to go. And today’s PR students just seem to lack this. Also as a point of reference I graduated with a communications degree and PR was one of two courses required for my degree. But so was philosophy, world and american history, physics and at least  one writing course per semester. When I was ready to graduate I felt as though I was ready to write another version of War and Peace!

    • Hi Tony – Thanks for your comment (and your comms curriculum sounds fantastic).  When it’s so easy to access the world news (esp on said iPhones) it truly is disheartening when they aren’t even willing to overcome that minor hurdle.

      Thanks again, Cheers, N

  • What a terrific observation about the life-long curiosity and inquisitiveness of liberal arts majors! I happen to be one with a masters in mass communications/PR for a double dose of life-time curiosity. I too prefer to hire LA majors and connect with clients the most who have similar backgrounds.

    • Totally hear you Kellee.  A lil secret – I also went through law school and practiced as an attorney for some time 🙂  Have a great weekend!

  • Great article. I just wrote a blog post– “Daily Affirmation… of Liberal Arts” on my perspective as a recent lib arts grad. http://kevon-brooke.blogspot.com/2011/10/daily-affirmation-of-liberal-arts.html 

    Our professors always told us we would be better prepared for our professional jobs, the real world and life. We all bought in. It is wonderful to hear/read that others believe in the importance of a holistic education, too.

    • Hey Kevon –

      Thanks for the read and kind words.  Will def check out your post later today.  Have a great weekend, N

  • Interesting. hard to get through the front door though with out a knowledge of PR

    • Hey CT – for someone who wants to go into this space it’s not tough at all – an internship or a handful of PR classes will get you the basic knowledge if an agency really wants it, but plenty that I’ve seen are more than happy to shape their new employees’ knowledge of the field as they put them to work.

  • These are good tips for PR students to take note of! 🙂 

  • So glad I minored in English. 😉

  • These are great tips and encouraging to be as a future PR professional because I love to learn. I often joke that I would be fine staying in school forever. It is good to know that I will not have to stop learning after college! 🙂

    • Definitely not Bethany – that’s the beauty of agency life – diverse clients and a chance to discover new things all the time

  • An Entertainment Business student would do it the best.

    And not only because I am one, but because it embodies the happy engagement of both sides of the brain, the curiosity, imagination, creativity, big picture orientation, symbols, feelings, possibilities and risk taking of the right brain hemisphere and the logic, detail, facts, precise words and language, objectivity, and practical strategy of the left brain hemisphere.

    The education in Entertainment Business integrates the use of traditional tools with new technologies, intense writing with visual presentations, exploration with practical applications. And above all, art in any form!

  • Really enjoyed this — not just because I’m a liberal arts student.

  • Haha – though I’m betting that didn’t hurt either :). 

  • Haha – though I’m betting that didn’t hurt either :).

  • Haha – though I’m betting that didn’t hurt either :).

  • Interesting post, definitely puts things into perspective for many..

  • I often made the same argument about liberal-arts vs journalism students when I was a journalist. A  liberal-arts education teaches one how to think, not what to think (at least when it’s rigorous, but I see evidence that rigor is lacking these days). Many of my lib-arts colleagues ran circles around the J-school grads from Columbia, NYU, Mizzou and Northwestern.
    I wasn’t among either set: I had a degree in … PR. 

    • So true Jim – the journey to knowledge (i.e how to get learn/think) definitely trumps the knowledge itself.  Have a great one 🙂

      I wouldn’t worry about the PR degree 😉 – obviously your interests were plenty broad if you spent some time in journalism. 🙂

  • Hate to be a nerd, but I have to reference “Why School?” by Mike Rose. It’s an indirect ode to the divide of education’s purpose. In particular, it mentions the traditional reason for universities and the theory behind subjects taught = higher education, insight and exploration. Not occupation training.
    Over the years, skills-related majors have filled universities and are pushing out traditional courses that inspire inquisitiveness. Say “hello” to more PR and business majors, “goodbye” to English and anthropology majors.Irony = I studied this book and related concepts in a composition course for my English minor. 😀

    • Great note Raquel – I remember a time when educators had degrees in the fields they taught – then education itself as a major went through explosive growth teaching teaches to teach rather than a field of knowledge that they love and want to teach to their students.  That passion carried through – now for many (not all certainly) it’s just a job.

  • Christa Marzan

    Full disclosure: I’m was liberal arts student. Fuller disclosure: I 100% agree with you.

    While my “core” curriculum was quite annoying in college (we had general core requirements AND core requirements within each major), I’m so glad I took all of those classes. Especially in my major. I was a Communications major, emphasis in advertising, but I took all kinds of classes in PR, digital media, journalism. I work as a graphic designer but can easily step in to write a press release if my boss is out , and I love it. I feel that makes me a more valuable asset to my team, which makes everyone happy…haha.

    Thanks for writing this post and sharing your thoughts!


    • Hey Christa – A perfect example of why the diverse education (and knowledge seeking) is so well suited for this biz.

      Have a good one, N

    • Exactly what I was about to say. I also attended a liberal arts college and majored in Communications, but our school required to take classes in mass media as well. That way we were exposed to many forms of media and saw things from different perspectives. 

  • Alexjmorgan33

    What about a liberal arts PR degree?? Thanks Monmouth College for supplying me with that one!

    • Hey Alex – Sounds like a very interesting curriculum (and a pretty good mix of the two fields) – glad it’s serving you well.  Have a great weekend,

  • This is so great! I wish that more potential employers would have looked at my Twitter activity, involvement in social media, and given me a chance in an interview. I was an English Education major, yet I was given the chance to interview to become a writer (obviously I got the job…)

    If my bosses would have looked at my major alone, I never would have be called in for an interview. It’s nice to hear that those in charge are starting to realize that what you study in college doesn’t have to fit into a small window of options in order for someone to be successful.

    @prcog:disqus I hope you found some good yawn mouth cover-ers.

    • Hi Amanda – 

      Thanks so much :).  I definitely like to look at a person’s entire history and dig a bit deeper than just top line information – helps pull out the good and weed out the bad as well.

      Have a great one, N

  • Very insightful! I plan on sharing this with my PRSSA chapter.

  • Public Relations, Business and Journalism weren’t even offered as majors when I attended Carleton College (still aren’t).  How about a B.A. in Asian Studies and M.A. in Chinese?  Not only was I constantly challenged to think critically and write prolifically, but those fields of study require being able to understand the perspective of a different culture throughout time.  

    In addition to intense writing requirements, liberal arts colleges also usually require academic proficiency in a foreign language.  Languages all have their own cadence and methods of expression, requiring careful attention to audience and thinking in a different way.  It is excellent preparation for marketing and public relations:  understand target markets who view the world differently than yourself and understand the way a client wants to express their brand and mission.

    If you hire a liberal arts major, though, be prepared.  We were taught to think critically, to question the establishment and to regard all information as biased.  If you are a button-down establishment with a strict chain of command and tend to discourage productive, albeit critical, dialogue, then prepare to be challenged by an independent thinker.

    P.S.  I am a career changer and actively seeking employment in social media management.  Some days I think I should leave my majors off my resume, as well as the magna cum laude and the master’s degree.  I am guessing that these trigger the “not-really-over-but-wrongly qualified” toss of my resume into the rubbish bin.  What is your opinion?

    • Hey Gretchen –

      Thanks for your comment – you’re definitely right – LA majors can be a pain in the tush! 🙂

      I don’t think it’s a great idea to drop your qualifications from your resume, but rather in either your cover note or “Objective” part of your resume include some connection from your last career to this one and how specific skills are transferrable, etc.  


  • msolsyd

    Hi Nathan, I totally agree. General degrees (liberal arts, humanities, even sciences) give people tools that a comms degree doesn’t – including the ability to research, absorb and disseminate complex material…they also tend to encourage people to be interested in the world (as you mentioned). 

    In the UK most employers prefer to employ graduates with degrees which have given them the capacity for critical thinking and research tools and then they train them in the specifics on the job (whether that be banking, PR, management consultancy or the like). Sadly, here in Australia (where I am currently based) employers are focused on vocational degrees. I have a humanities degree and a grad diploma in journalism – which I believe has been a great combination – but I gained most of my skills on the job and from the rich experience (and mentoring) of my supervisors and I hope I have been able to pass on, in turn, to the people I have supervised.

    Thanks for an interesting post. Marjorie Solomon

  • Matt LaCasse

    I can buy the premise, but I think it has less to do with the degree someone has earned in school and more to do with personality. Regardless of major or discipline, some people are just naturally inquisitive and thirst for that knowledge to be a well rounded person. Others prefer to keep their heads down as they walk through life, missing everything around them. I’ll agree that a liberal arts degree can better prepare someone for a career in PR; even go so far as to say a philosophy major who has learned how to think critically, is better prepared for a career in PR than a PR major who can write the perfect pitch, but the pitch is so devoid of creativity it gets thrown away.

    Nice article Mr. Burgess. 

  • Jordan728

    I have a friend who is an English Education major, while I’m a PR major. I found it interesting that we’ve both ended up in similar places with different educations. Its forced me to rethink the practicality and usefulness of degrees ,I had once ignored or considered not useful, for a career in the business world.

  • I’ve attended three different colleges, taught at two, and interviewed countless job candidates for all sorts of positions and I’m convinced I can find just as many disinterested, ignorant and imprudent Liberal Arts students with poor hygiene/manners as you can find PR students.

    PR programs can be diverse, and Liberal Arts programs can be narrow; it’s up to each student to broaden their horizons and challenge themselves in order to take full advantage of their time in school.  I don’t think it’s not a given that Liberal Arts students are naturally inquisitive (or even inclined to be more inquisitive than PR students).  It could just be old age creeping up on me, but I’m often scared and disappointed by the lack of curiosity in many students (even graduate students) I’ve encountered regardless of major.

    One could make the case that a lack of focus is a negative quality – that it doesn’t allow one to efficiently utilize higher education resources.  For what it’s worth, Liberal Arts is routinely one of the five lowest-paying majors (http://onforb.es/udBuIS). 

    That said, I’m firmly of the belief that it isn’t the mission of a college to get a student a job – rather it is to turn out well-rounded individuals who are broadly-educated to be solid participants in society.  Far too many students enroll in college just to get a piece of paper and land a job (of all majors) – and that’s had the effect of inflating grades, reducing rigor, and lowering the value of a college degree as a whole.

    Kudos to you on using social media to augment the interview process; I once asked my HR department why we weren’t formally using it for a hiring committee I was on and their answer was “because then we’d have to do it for all applicants.”


    “A liberal arts student (besides usually having dealt with intense writing requires) demonstrates a level of inquisitiveness that pretty much goes unmatched.”How are those “intense writing requires” working out for you?  ;-]

    • Hey Derek –

      Probably true – seems they don’t flock to PR firms though at the very least, since the candidates I’m seeing that have a la/humanities background (even if they go unhired) have a better worldview and skillset than the ‘pure pr’ types.

      Re: programs – yep – there are plenty of good pr programs out there.  I’m guessing there are also plenty of students who don’t take full advantage of their course catalog and enroll in classes that are convenient, not necessarily enriching.  I am curious though (and not just being snarky) where are there narrow lib arts programs? (You can email me privately, don’t want to trash anyone publicly). That is a bit disappointing.

      Totally agree on the goal of higher education :).

      And very high kudos to you for noting the typo :).  I blame writing on a flight in the window seat on a netbook with wifi about to cutout for that one :).  Oh well =D

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  • Hello Derek

    Your post has make me rethink whether I should get a Twitter account, as the reason I don’t have one is similar to the explanation you stated above.  I will say similar but not exact as I do believe I have worthwhile comments to make about the fashion industry, which is why I started my blog- http://myfashionslashlife.wordpress.com.  Furthermore, so that more people know what I am saying, I have increased my Facebook, Linkedin, and direct email efforts, as well as joined forums to ‘get my word out there’.
    But I’ve avoided Twitter because I feel the channels I’m using are enough, for now anyway- I wonder in the land of PR (promotion) whether too many cooks can ever spoil the broth…

  • Caleb0228

    Interesting view on things, and yet I completely agree.  I feel like some of the professors here at Missouri State University have began to notice a trend too.  They have started assigning projects that require us to pick something we don’t know about and then take it to the next level and find out everything we can about that subject.  Right now I am working on learning as much as possible about QR codes and how they can help to grow a small business.  I am a public relations major and do not regret reading this post, in fact I see at something that I can learn from in the future.  Thanks.

  • Ryan2012

    Before I read this post I thought PR Breakfast Club was here to help students, young professionals and even older professions gain even further insight regarding the career choices we chose. After reading this post I do not think that anymore. This post made me think for a second that the last three years I spent in the class room was a waste of time and the tens of thousands of dollars I put into my education was for nothing but I realize that is not true. There are several places that will hire me once I graduate without a Liberal Arts degree. I may be a public relations major gradting in May 2012 but I will get a job evenutally. Furthermore, I feel that this post is very one sided and that theres majors out t anything and everylike learning

  • Ryan2012

    Before I read this post I thought PR Breakfast Club was here to help students, young professionals and even older professions gain even further insight regarding the career choices we chose. After reading this post I do not think that anymore. This post made me think for a second that the last three years I spent in the class room was a waste of time and the tens of thousands of dollars I put into my education was for nothing but I realize that is not true. There are several places that will hire me once I graduate without a Liberal Arts degree. I may be a public relations major gradting in May 2012 but I will get a job evenutally. Furthermore, I feel that this post is very one sided and that theres majors out t anything and everylike learning

    • Ryan – Please re-read the post.

      It may be the late hour or a particularly bad day for you, but unfortunately you demonstrated some of the exact traits I discussed.

      A) This post is one person’s opinion (though it’s apparently agreed upon by others based on the comments). B) It appears you didn’t read the post completely (or were so upset some of it didn’t register) – please take a look at the paragraph after the bullets. C) [And of course I wouldn’t base my opinion of someone’s writing solely on a blog post, much less a comment of a blog post, but] Reread your comment – but there’s at least 3 grammar/spelling errors not to say nothing of the composition.

      Keep coming back – and if you really disagree that much, write a response piece…  Cheers, N

  • Sara

    I am a public relations major and I love to learn so this is not entirely true. I actually enjoy watching the history channel and like histroy classes. Maybe you should put “will not hire public relations majors” in your description of qualifications. I have seen a special events internship and that was in their job description so I did not even waste my time applying. Just something to think about! I also feel that every major has its share of cocky people and its share of genuine people who really want to try their hardest at anything thing they do and are always willing to learn.

  • I completely agree with this post, Nathan. I am a Broadcasting Communications major with a minor in Public Relations/ Journalism. From taking this broad spectrum of classes, I can see how you would want someone who is much more well rounded with a liberal arts major. The classes I am taking as a communications major force me to take steps and learn outside of the classroom and actually put into application the things I am learning. We are used to making those “discoveries” and not just processing information shoved into our brains from a classroom setting. A liberal arts major allows one to be so much more creative in their thinking and actually exercise that creativity. 
    PS Covering your mouth when you yawn is very important!

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  • Every once in a while I need affirmation that my education choices were correct, and this helped. I went to a liberal arts college where I was a double major in Communications and Studio Arts, but my educational experiences went way beyond those two. I am now pursuing a graduate degree in Public Relations because I wanted more targeted education. By combining the two degrees I think I will make a much stronger practitioner.

  • Anonymous

    I, too, am a liberal arts graduate and could not agree with you more. We were required to take classes in 9 of 11 areas (at least I think that was the number). It exposed us to a wide variety of subjects, many of which professors tied together for us, and taught us critical thinking and reasoning.

  • Dianna

    I found this article very interesting because I was actually debating this exact scenario earlier today. At first I thought that having a liberal arts degree would almost be a negative thing because I thought not having a focus would be a turn-off to employers. But everyone here is saying the exact opposite. This has definitely opened up my eyes a bit and I appreciate you writing this post because I think this is something a lot of students can relate too.

  • Savannah

    Is wanting to go to college to be a PR a bad thing?