Job advice for Arts graduates entering the workforce


I’ve just completed an eight month work placement component for my English MA. Before I was finally hired at a local marketing company, I was turned down by six companies in a row. I realize now I wasn’t hired at those first six jobs because academic hubris got the better of me. I thought that my graduate student status would automatically qualify me for jobs ahead of undergraduate co-applicants. Bad move.

It took me two months to find a co-op job. Coursework was mounting and I needed to find work. It was very frustrating. So I booked an appointment with an advisor, attended a practice interview session, and had my resume edited. Along the way, I asked a lot of questions and received a lot of helpful advice. I was hired by the next job I interviewed for.

This post is a synthesis of my advisor’s advice and the advice of several prominent local technology managers–gleaned from a Non-Acadmic Careers Workshop. I hope these tips help you find the job of your dreams.

What makes Arts graduates worth hiring?

Analytical thinking

Arts students are taught to analyze poems and dense literary or philosophical texts by breaking texts down to their fundamentals and researching problems that have plagued academics and scholars for hundreds of years. In the workforce, Arts graduates can do the same thing for business problems. Analytical thinking is thinking on your feet. It’s the ability to make a point, back it up, and persuade your audience.

Lateral Thinking

rubicks cube Lateral thinking is quickly recognizing connections between dissimilar concepts. This is how Arts graduates use their creativity and experience to connect with the needs of their employers. I had no experience in communications, marketing or professional writing when I graduated with my English degree; in fact, all I had on my resume were jobs waiting tables. Lateral thinking allowed me to pull transferable skills out of my past experiences. On my resume and cover letters, I argued that a waiter has to be an expert at customer service, multitasking, defusing tense situations, working in a fast paced environment, in a process of constant decision making.

Critical Thinking

Do you think literary theory or philosophy doesn’t matter in the “real world”? Your experience with critical theories gives you a critical viewpoint. This when you use your powers of analytical thinking to explore a concept/object, but then detect flaws, logical lapses, or potential binaries that could be impeding some type of progression/connection.

Whether your perspective is postcolonial, postmodern, linguistic, or philosophical, Arts graduates think critically about problems, solutions, and processes from multiple perspectives. You’re finding problems before anyone else realizes there are any.


Aside from the ability to learn, write, and think, your Arts degree represent respect for timelines, schedules and deliverables. You’ve worked hard under pressure to ensure timely completion of your work. Graduate students should mention the difficult application process for graduate studies, and the strategies they use to manage an intense workload.

How will your resume and cover letter lead to job interviews?

Cover Letters

For every job your apply for, take the posted job requirements and demonstrate your awareness and abilities with an individually tailored cover letter. Carefully read the job descriptions and try to single out buzzwords to smoothly incorporate into your resume and cover letter. Pay attention to striking verbs that are likely common within your potential employer’s corporate culture. This demonstrates you’ve done your research and, thus, you’re a quick learner.


Potential buzzwords to consider: experience, rhetoric, human factors, interactivity, information architecture, technical communication, user experience, product management, versatility. In any communications field, remember to talk about an audience.


TeamworkComputer hacking skills, Bow Staff skills . . . Seriously though, don’t forget to highlight your extra-academic skills. Employers are interested in your experience with music, drama, dance, sports, and any other type of collaborative enterprise that demonstrates teamwork, creativity, or coordination.Also highlight any volunteer experience you have.

You might want to tweak this section of your resume depending on the job you’re applying for. For example, demonstrate an interest in technology if you’re applying for a job with a technology company.

Also discuss your awareness of or experience with relevant technology for the workplace (this information is in the job posting; for example, a posting may indicate experience with Microsoft Visio is recommended). Remember, you may not have experience with Microsoft Visio, but you do have experience with research. So go look up Visio, check out its Reviewers Guide, and familarize yourself with the program. Then you can add “familiarity with Microsoft Visio” to your resume as the job posting indicates you should.


Ensure your references are up to date and let them know that phone calls will be coming. Don’t be afraid to remind your reference of the skills that made you a good colleague while you were in a professional setting.

Professional Associations

Though likely out of your purview right now, consider membership with a professional association, such as the Society for Technical Communication, the Usability Professional Association, or the Editors’ Associate of Canada. These certifications are a great way to demonstrate that you’ve purposely gone out and became certified as a specialist in a given field. All of these professional associations have student rates. Professional certification is a nice balance with an academic career—it shows practicality and that you know what you want out of your career . . . even if you don’t.

How do I nail my interview?


Discuss an interest in educational opportunities, professional development, or a future with the company —after all, you’re a graduate and employers look at degrees as evidence of commitment to an ideal. Ask abut pay raises, objective setting, and employee reviews—again expressing an interest in self-improvement and training that will contribute to your employer.


9153703052 Ask lots of questions about the organization that will cause interviewers to “sell” the company to you. If they’re selling the organization to you, then you don’t have to talk as much during the interview and the interviewer feels great about their job at the end of it—it’s a win/win and it makes you look good. Remember, effective questions for the interviewer will be based on your research.


Interviewers want to know what kind of person you are. The business world is about deadlines, multitasking, and teamwork. These are the kinds of activities at the job–not the job itself—so demonstrate you’re aware of HOW to work effectively. Anybody hiring you is thinking of systems, relationships, and how to streamline company processes. You need to show how you will fit in. Interviewers want you to highlight the fact that you know how to learn.

Importantly, before answering a tough interview question, take the time to pause and think about your answer. Don’t just start rambling and then lose your thought process. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “good question, let me think about that for a second.”

What kinds of questions are they going to ask?

One technical communications manager I spoke with mentioned three standard interview questions her company uses, why they ask them, and the answers they want. Here they are:

#1: Think about a time you had to sell a problem, influence a decision, or recommend a change nobody wanted. How did you forward your agenda?

The goal of questions like this is for you to tell the interviewer how you communicated effectively in ‘situation X’. Remember, your answer doesn’t have to be something professional, it can be personal. So you could talk about an experience with a group project in school or an experience from your jazz band—it’s up to you.

#2: in the past, have you had to deal with a difficult developer? How did you get the information you required from that developer?

Some company interviewers will deliberately use terminology that you’re not familiar with in order to put you out of your element. The goal of this questions is for you to demonstrate lateral thinking by connecting the fact that, although you probably haven’t worked with a “developer,” you have worked with a difficult person—again, a great time to talk about how you communicated effectively in ‘situation X’. So talk about how you were working with a difficult person in a collaborative setting and the strategies you used to forward your agenda.

#3: How would you start documenting a software feature?

Again, the interviewer knows you likely don’t know about “software features,” but they want you to make a connection; they want you to think laterally. So talk about how you would document anything: you would do research and use analytical, critical, and lateral thinking to establish your audience’s need. From there you would write a concise, effective document about that “software feature” for that audience.

Any other advice?

I can’t emphasize this enough: RESEARCH! Demonstrate that you’re aware of what the company you’re applying for does and what your potential role there entails. This is great fodder for questions you will ask during your interview, and interviewers love being asked questions!

11 thoughts on “Job advice for Arts graduates entering the workforce

  1. Great post. So much useful info.

    Two things came to mind, though.

    1) I’d steer clear of asking about pay raises, bonuses, etc. until you’ve been offered the job. If you ask in the first interview it may appear that you’re just in it for the money (which maybe you are but they shouldn’t know that). Plus, you have more leverage for negotiating better pay/benefits after a company decides they want you!

    2) A tip for answering any situation-based question, like “Tell me about a time when…”: use the STAR response method. Describe the Situation you were in, the Task you were given, the Actions you took, and the Results that occured. It covers all the bases of what an interviewer is looking for.


  2. Cheers for the tips on interview technique! They were really useful. I’m not too sure about the cover letter part, as if you’re applying to a big business, they’ll just read the CV (resumé) and decide from that


  3. Solid post Allan. I disagree with Nathan – it takes all of 15 minutes to bang out an individually tailored cover letter, time well spent just in case the letter is actually read. If it is, you can bet your resume is going into the recycling if you’ve submitted a standard, bland form letter.


  4. I think it’s important to include an individually tailored message of some type. So if you think that they’re too busy to read a cover letter, then write a paragraph about why you’re a fit for the company and open your resume with that paragraph under the heading Objectives.

    But, yes, I’m with you, Josh. A cover letter is an industry standard–at least in Canada.

    Is it different in the UK, Nathan?


  5. Fantastic Site! I wondered if I could site some of your site and use a few things for a term paper. Please drop me an email whether or not that would be fine. Thanks


  6. Amazing prose and such valuable information for me in my job search as a much-longago Art Grad and my soon-to-graduate from Art School daughter !

    Please continue and Best regards,

    Two More Fans !


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