How to Land a Tech Job With a Liberal Arts Degree

Option 1: Major in computer science (CS) and job search, hard.

Option 2: Major in something else and job search, really hard.

Having taken option 2—I’m a history major—I have a few things to announce.

1) It’s not easy.

2) It is possible.

3) Swarthmore provides a lot of resources to facilitate the process.

In this post I want to walk you through the path that I (a history major) took to getting a tech job. I know a lot of you reading this blog are many years away from making post-college plans. After all, you’re probably currently working on making post-high-school plans. But most of you will experience searching for a job or an internship—tech-related or not—while being a student. So I want to give you a picture of what this process has been like for me as a Swattie.

I have to warn you, though: this is not a perfect Cinderella story. Yes, it begins with me sitting in (what felt like) the cinders of a major that didn’t open the doors I wanted it to, dreaming of a remote and glamorous future. And yes, I had a lot of help from my fairy-godpeople: Career Services and the computer science department. And yes, I got what I wanted eventually: about a week ago, I received an offer to work as a software test engineer at an awesome company near L.A. But unlike Cinderella, I’ve had a lot of trouble settling into my happily-ever-after. (More on that later.)

I’ve been all about Cinderella every since I sat in on the class Grendel’s Workshop, in which students read and re-interpret fairy tales and other texts, for a week!

But for now…how do you pursue your dream tech job as a Swattie, even if you’re not a CS major? (Some of this information is general enough to pertain to any Swattie pursuing any job.)

1. Take all the relevant classes you can.

Maybe you don’t realize you want these classes until the last moment. But make the best of that final moment. I actually dropped the Honors Program, which had been a long-term Swat-dream of mine, in order to take a coveted CS class, Artificial Intelligence. It was one of the best decisions of my academic career! Through making this decision, I was able to keep doing something that I love (coding) in a department that is warm, collaborative, and a ton of fun. And when the time came around for a job interview, I also got to show off what I’d learned and created in class.

I took this terrified selfie right before dropping out of the Honors Program. You can see the “Withdrawal From Honors Form” in my hand. Oh, sacrifices! Oh, risks! But it all paid off; Artificial Intelligence, the class I wanted to make room for, has been one of the best experiences of my college career.

(General takeaway: Don’t craft your transcript based on how you think it will look to other people. Instead, take classes that you love that build skills you want to use later.)

2. Look for other related opportunities on campus.

I knew I didn’t have a very impressive tech resume, so I looked for other ways to develop my skills. One way I was able to do this was to start working as a CS tutor. (You can work as a tutor for all kinds of subjects on campus – I’ve also worked as an Arabic tutor!) Tutoring CS has helped me keep old skills fresh while becoming more articulate about a lot of relevant concepts. When technical interviews came around, I felt a lot more confident about my ability to break down and explain these concepts.

(General takeaway: If you love a topic at Swarthmore, try tutoring it or finding other relevant opportunities on campus! Not only do you get the joy of sharing it with someone else [and a paycheck], you also become much better at talking about the thing you love.)

3. Use Skills From Your “NonRelevant” Classes

Applying for a job as a software test engineer, one of my technical challenges was to read a bunch of fake interviews from managers at an automobile factory and diagnose the cause of a workflow problem. Honestly, the classes that helped me most with this were in classics and philosophy. In both of these disciplines, I’ve been forced to dissect arguments and identify the stated and unstated assumptions that inform them. As I sifted through the information provided by the factory managers, each one guessing at why the problem was occurring, I realized I was doing exactly what these classes had trained me to do.

(General takeaway: “Critical thinking skills” may sound vague and hand-wave-y, but they are real, and Swarthmore helped me to develop them.)

4. Use your copious free time to self-educate.

I started doing some CS projects on the side, including exploring new programming languages. Sometimes I even use other classes a chance to practice my CS skills—for the second time in my Swat career, I’m building a website as a final project. I am so grateful that taking just a few CS classes at Swarthmore has given me the confidence—and background!—to pick up new languages and approach new tasks pretty easily.

Draft of a website I’m currently designing for a collaborative final project in my student-run history course, Indigenous Communities And The Lands They Belong To.

(General takeaway: Find ways to apply skills you love to independent projects or in other classes. It’s a fun and effective way to gain experience!)

5. Take advantage of Career Services.

You don’t really notice it until it’s time to track down a job or internship, but one of the most powerful benefits of going to college is its networks of people: people who have gone to your school, people who know people who have gone to your school, and people who want to hire students from your school. Swarthmore’s Career Services Center helps connect you to some of those people.

I realized pretty early on that I wasn’t going to have much success on the general job market. How can a history major fresh out of college beat out CS candidates with experience? So I started going to all the career fairs and on-campus recruiting events that I could. Career Services helped me connect to companies that wanted kids fresh out of college, valuing our education and energy without subtracting too many points for our relative lack of experience.

(General takeaway: No matter what kind of job or internship you’re searching for, Career Services can help, a lot.)

I’ll be honest. All of this was completely exhausting. But one fine afternoon, sleep-deprived after traveling back all night from an interview in L.A., I finally got it: an email with an offer for a tech job I wanted.

But remember what I said about having trouble settling into my happily-ever-after? This is the part where Cinderella hears out the prince’s proposal, and then signs up for OKCupid. It was one of the toughest decisions of my life, but after all of this, for a mix of career and personal reasons, I actually decided not to take this job. Instead, I’ll be going to a summer software engineering school, where I can build my skills even more before entering the job market.

This year has taught me that transitioning out of college isn’t easy; graduating from Swarthmore isn’t a guaranteed free ticket to the job or opportunity of your dreams. What Swarthmore does give you is a lot of resources—skills, confidence, connections—to draw on as you fight toward the things you want.

Who wouldn’t have trouble saying goodbye to this beautiful place?



Leave a Reply