If you look at a chart of post-graduate salaries, the liberal arts don’t look very appealing. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
If you study and set out to find a job in a narrow academic area, you’re going to have a hard time. But if you’re smart about it and do something like what Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell suggests and supplement the major with in-demand skills, you’re a member of an “endangered species” who can think and write well, and for whom there’s a surprising amount of demand.
That demand is well warranted, so here’s 10 reasons why you should ignore the haters and major in liberal arts.
For those of you who have already graduated, it’s never too late to hit the books again.
#1 You actually learn how to think and write
Even students at the top colleges in the country can be surprisingly deficient when it comes to writing. That’s because teaching writing isn’t as mechanical as computer science. It comes with time studying the way other people think and write, writing a lot yourself, and a deep knowledge of culture and history. You don’t get that from one class, or a pure engineering degree.
There are enough poorly written emails in the world already.
#2 The stats aren’t as bad as you think
As grim as things are made to sound for humanities majors, right out of college, things aren’t quite as disastrous as they’re made out to be, a Georgetown survey of recent college graduates finds.
The average unemployment rate for new graduates across all of the humanities is 9%, right on par with computer science and maths (9.1%) and not too far off all majors combined (7.9%). There’s some data missing from the survey, but it doesn’t paint nearly as bleak a picture as one might expect.
When it comes to underemployment, those who major in the humanities don’t stick out as badly as many seem to think. The most underemployed major is actually business, because there are a ton of them and not that many jobs for those without an MBA.
#3 Be able to do things that machines can’t do in a service economy
An increasing proportion of the world’s jobs, the ones that can’t be outsourced overseas, are the ones that require interaction with people. Humanities majors, usually people- and word-friendly, have something of an advantage over many maths and engineering majors.
And as highly valued as coders and data crunchers are right now, some argue that the trend may be towards fewer of those jobs in the future, not more, says SUNY New Paltz Chemistry professor Daniel Jelski.
He argues that there are three laws of future employment. Law 1 – jobs come from things that computers can’t do. Law 2 – a global marketplace means that there will be lower pay and opportunity in many careers. Law 3- professional people are more likely to be freelancers in the future.
The humanities are a good bet because the things that are hardest to computerize or outsource are going to be all about skills that emphasise human interaction. Empathy, sociability, writing, analysing, and reacting to people — all things more likely to come from the humanities than hard sciences.
#4 You learn to explain and sell an idea, and actually deal with people
The humanities are the study of people. Regardless of whether it’s history or literature. It’s one of the best ways to figure out how to understand and relate to people, and use language to convince them of your viewpoint. A brilliant technical mind isn’t always enough.
Of the skills most valued in high-demand, high-compensation jobs, according to the Georgetown centre on Education and the Workforce, is people focus.
As Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini puts it, “I’ve seen many an actuary and many an engineer who are brilliant, but they fail in their ability to communicate or commercialize an idea because they can’t relate to the people they’re dealing with.”
#5 Degree and GPA matters less, emotional intelligence, data and skills matter more
Companies like Google are realising that specific degrees, GPA, and quantitative brainteasers don’t matter all that much. Exactly what and how you did in college doesn’t correlate at all with success two years out of school. It’s about data and skills.
Some companies are starting to measure and seek out things like adaptability and social and emotional intelligence, particularly in managers, which will be to the benefit of humanities majors.
As for the skills part, people who are sufficiently motivated can learn to code on their own or from myriad online tools. And there’s nothing that says that a humanities major means you never take a science class. And a lot has to do with the ability to learn and adapt on the job, which doesn’t come from a tech background.
#6 It pays off in the long run
Many people don’t stay with their first career forever. Or their second. In fact, most people switch a number of times during their life. So skills that persist, like the ability to reason and write, may be a better bet over the long term than something narrowly tailored.
Also, humanities degrees are one of the biggest feeders to graduate programs, which helps reduce the salary gap with STEM folks.
#7 Stand out from the crowd in the coming STEM glut
People inevitably respond to financial pressure. With large and highly publicized demand for STEM graduates, many perfectly rational college students are going to go in that direction. Over time, there may be a glut, just like we’ve seen over the past few years in law.
#8 Studying the humanities is a way to get ahead of the curve
Also, combining the liberal arts with a degree of technical know-how helps. A journalist, marketer, or manager who can code, or at least speak the language, stands out a lot more than yet another new developer hire.
Harvey Mudd, the American college with the highest return on investment according to Payscale, is very much an engineering and science school. But it’s also very much a liberal arts school, and produces more well-rounded graduates.
Even the hard core engineers take a class in their freshman year deliberately focused on developing their writing and analysis skills, plus 10 more in the humanities, social sciences, or arts before graduation. The job market certainly seems to like it.
#9 It’s the one kind of education you can’t get better and cheaper online
Online courses are exploding, both in quality and popularity. They’re particularly well suited to teaching things like biology or computer science, often taught in large lectures, with tests and problem sets that have a right answer and can be graded by computers.
There’s a reason that the first full-blown, degree-granting online masters program will be a computer science degree offered by Georgia Tech.
Online courses are particularly poorly suited to replicate the best, most important parts of a liberal arts education: long papers on complex topics, graded by a human being, and intense discussion of ideas.
#10 You’re in pretty good company
Former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano was an English major at Johns Hopkins. American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault majored in history at Bowdoin. George Soros was a philosophy major. There are countless other examples.
#11 Everybody will be secretly jealous of how well-read you are
And there’s something satisfying about catching someone when they get one wrong, even if you’re too gentlemanly or ladylike to call them out, of course.
The above advice comes with a caveat. If immediate employability and student loans are the biggest issue, liberal arts aren’t necessarily the best choice. When starting salary is the biggest concern, there are better options. But here are some of the excellent reasons to ignore the pressure from parents and employers and go for the humanities.