Those Useless Liberal Arts Degrees

I went to college at a school that was known for its engineering program, so when people asked what my major was and I said, “English,” I got these kinds of responses: “Oh, that’s useless,” or “Why are you majoring in English at an engineering school?” or “Do you want to be a teacher? No? A journalist?” or “You know you’ll never get a job with that degree, right?” or “Can you help me write my essays?”

I chose my major out of love. It was what I wanted to do. Realistically, I could have chosen to major in math or biology or computer science or civil engineering. Math and the sciences are not my strongest subjects, but I could have worked my rear end off and done well in them. I might have gotten a job sooner after I graduated, and I might be making more money than I am now. But I don’t think I would be as happy… because those subjects are not what I love.

Today, you hear about a recent college graduate who can’t find a job. The first question asked is, “So what did you major in?” The college graduate answers, “Philosophy,” or “art history,” or “French.” The response is usually something like, “Well, that explains it. Now you’re stuck paying off student loans for a useless degree.”

I believe that a degree or a major is only useless if you choose it for the wrong reasons: it was “easy,” or “my friends picked that major”… something like that. It all comes down to planning. Before your freshman year of college, you might say that you’re going to major in philosophy. Why? Because it’s what you love. But realistically, love for a subject can only carry you so far. You have to know what you’re going to do with your philosophy degree when you leave college. You have to have some kind of plan. You might choose to go to law school. Maybe you’ll go on to get a Master’s and then to get a PhD, so you can teach.

You have to know what you’re good at. You have to know how to apply your degree and your skill set to the real world. If you’re creative and if you look hard enough, you’ll find that there are a lot of ways you can use the skills you have, no matter what your major was. You’ve got to work hard, and that goes without saying for any degree.

In a way, I think those who majored in the math and science fields have it pretty tough, too. Tons of people are following engineering or technology-related paths, and that means they will have a lot of competition for each job. Have a plan. Don’t assume that because you’re majoring in a subject that leads to a high-demand job, that you can slack off. And I would definitely argue against majoring in something simply because that’s where the jobs are nowadays, not because that’s what you really want. That’s like writing a vampire book to cash in on the Twilight craze, even though you’re not really into vampires.

There are no useless degrees. There may be unwisely chosen degrees, but that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Planning and thinking ahead is the key.

11 thoughts on “Those Useless Liberal Arts Degrees

      1. It can be done, but most college students don’t have accurate information about those options that are available, or the real level of competition for what they really want, if they knew what that is.

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  1. I graduated with a degree in Soviet and East European Studies – the same year the Soviet Union fell apart. I think at some point, while writing out bill payments, I started to laugh hysterically about this. Honestly, it WAS a useless degree, but just having a 4 year degree was important in job hunting, so there was that.

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    1. And there are some things you cannot control… like the economy, the Soviet Union falling apart… but like you say, it’s become practically mandatory to have a 4-year degree these days, so it’s still very important.

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  2. I completely agree – you should decide what to study based on what you love and what you want to do for the rest of your life. I think the problem is that there are many young people who, even after college, have no idea what to do and thus “randomly” chose a degree that seemed “fun.”
    I have felt, at times, that my degree in English Literature and Creative Writing will not help me get a job, if I ever quite being an author, but I don’t care. I chose it because that’s what I wanted to do.

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  3. Definitely. If you do what you love and know what you’re going to do with what you love, go for it. I always say that you should never choose a course/degree if you don’t know what you want to do afterwards. For example, I knew someone who did a Biology degree because she loved it. But afterwards, it took her years to decide she wanted to teach it (however now she teaches Biology at a college – good for her!)

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  4. My first major was Math (where I had aptitude but no real interest), then I moved to Music (interest but insufficient aptitude), and finally (probably inevitably) ended up with English. Which didn’t really help in getting a job, but as The Green Study said, just having the degree was important, maybe more than the details of what the degree was in.

    I may have ranted about this before here, but it has been striking in the last few decades how college has shifted to being more and more about careers and less and less about learning for the sake of learning (and ending up with a degree in _something_ at least 🙂 ).

    Not that it was ever some pure, abstract, scholarly place (even apart from the carousing 😉 ), but there has been a shift. And it is really too bad.

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