Recently, I had a conversation with a new acquaintance about where we went to school. I told him my alma mater (a large state university), and after we talked about its March Madness bracket potential this year (mediocre to decent), he asked what I studied there. The answer: English. The response: “Oh, so you must teach.”
The implication was that if I had such an impractical major, it was teaching or bust. Now, the lovely person didn’t mean to imply that I was otherwise unemployable, but that’s how conversations like that can feel when you’re the one with a humanities degree.
If you tell people you majored in accounting or computer programming, they likely have a good idea of what you do every day. But what about those of us who majored in philosophy or history? Are we doomed to a life of standing on street corners in the middle of the afternoon, giving speeches on the many subtexts of Hamlet? Short answer: no. And if you too are a humanities grad, you don’t need to fret too much about your employability. Here’s why.
1. The employment picture isn’t as grim as you may have heard.
According to Business Insider, humanities majors face an unemployment rate of 9%, which is on par with the rate for non-humanities majors like math (9.1% unemployment), and all majors overall (7.9% unemployment). Graduates of most majors face a challenging job market, but it’s not necessarily worse for humanities majors by default.
2. You actually have a number of options once you graduate.
Many humanities majors have to make a decision: Continue on the academia path, or go out into the “real” world? Both are valid choices, with different higher ed and employment concerns. This allows you to do your own thing and choose a career path that works for your interests and immediate goals. You’re not locked into a specific job type.
3. Your skills aren’t easily summed up by a major name.
Sure, you studied art history or cultural anthropology. You also spent your time in college developing critical thinking skills, writing skills, and comprehension skills. Humanities especially lean heavily on using writing and communication skills to develop concepts. These are essential in any job, whether or not that job is directly related to your course of study.
That can give you a leg up over people who took mostly specialized classes in college and may have very specific knowledge and skills, but weaker writing and communication skills. Writing skills will get you everywhere.
4. Your skills aren’t easily outsourced.
When the economy shifts and companies try to find ways to outsource jobs to other countries or to computer algorithms, humanities majors aren’t easily replicated. Again, those writing and critical thinking skills are extra essential. Your ability to take information and apply it toward a solution is something that can’t be replaced easily. Empathy and social skills, same deal. There are some elements that can’t be pushed out, and that makes those skill holders valuable in any economy.
5. That you graduated is often more important than what you studied.
On a resume, that A.A., B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. tells the reader that you had the skills and drive to finish your degree. Regardless of where you went to school or what you majored in, it gives a baseline sense of your accomplishments.
6. Social intelligence may beat subject-specific intelligence.
This is not necessarily true for, say, surgery (or maybe it is!), but in most professional fields, employers are now seeking candidates with emotional intelligence on top of hard skills. The kinds of skills you develop in the humanities can give you an edge, and show that you’re the kind of employee who can grow, analyze, and flourish on the job. You can always go and learn skills like coding, but it’s tough to go back and teach yourself how to analyze situations and talk about them coherently.
7. A major is not a lifelong decision.
We make lots of decisions between the ages of 18 and 22 that we wouldn’t want dogging us for the rest of our days. Perspectives change, realities change; needs change. Even having a “practical” and specific major is no guarantee that you will have lifelong employment in that field.
For example, I have a friend who gave up her engineering career, and is now a cake designer and a small business owner. Building a specific set of skills through a major is pretty important, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing forever. Building a set of skills that will serve you flexibly throughout your career evolution, that’s the key to longterm success.
The next time you start to feel like your liberal arts major may fail you in the long run, remember that you made a choice that set you on a path—not a dead end. You can work with the skills you’ve built to make your humanities degree match your professional goals. And you don’t have to panic the next time someone looks skeptical and says, “So, uh, are you just going to go to law school, then?”
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