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Is a degree in humanities worth less than a science degree?

Faith Clarke looks at the pros and cons of each and evaluates the impact of your degree choice on your future career
Choosing a career

The ‘humanities versus science’ debate has long been deliberated in the media, particularly in more recent years, with government investment directed more towards the sciences than to the promotion of creative industries.

While it’s easy to state the pros and cons of a degree at either end of the spectrum, it is perhaps significant to question the point of degree education in the first place. Is its sole purpose to lead students to a specific career, or is it more ambiguous than that? Many opt for a degree in a subject simply because they enjoy it, or to prolong their education experience — but also because of the belief that a degree in any subject is valuable in some way or another.

The latter is certainly true — most, if not all degrees, strive to teach its students a particular set of skills that they can apply to the wider world when they graduate. While many people invest more trust into science-based degrees, — often due to the perceived higher guarantee of a job — the skills gained while studying a humanities or arts degree mustn't be overlooked. Degrees such as English Literature, History, and Philosophy teach you to be critical and promote free-thinking. Subjects like Journalism and Politics enhance debating skills and broaden an individual’s understanding of current affairs, both of which are essential to life post-university. On top of this, a degree such as Geography can strengthen vital research and analytical skills; all of these proficiencies are useful in almost any sector, be it legal, business, or creative.

What do employers have to say?

International firms, such as Morgan Stanley, have spoken about the importance of diversity in their employees’ backgrounds, and why this enhances the overall workforce. They stress how a financial background is not essential; they hire graduates from scientific, financial, and humanities disciplines alike. More important to them is the ability to transfer skills acquired at university into the world of work, even if these skills are not directly linked with finance. Having variation in the graduates working at a firm brings new perspective and a sense of creativity to the working environment.

What are the pros and cons?

One question that’s often considered when choosing a university subject is “Is my degree good value for money?”. With university expenses already high, and expected to increase again, this is an important consideration for many. This can be another swaying point for scientific degrees, as they are hailed as the more reliable, or ‘traditional’, careers — overall, they are deemed to have more quantifiable benefits to society, and so more worthy of the associated cost of the course. For example, doctors provide health care, engineers construct infrastructure, and scientists are forever furthering our knowledge of the world. These consequently allow us to have greater control over our health, environment, and lifestyle. Through science, we learn about our history and improve our future.

The benefits of a humanities degree are deemed less quantifiable in this sense; this does not mean, however, that they are less valuable. A world without arts and humanities would be devoid of culture, philosophy, and literature, which ultimately bring greater significance to our existence. On top of this, arts and humanities degrees can produce intuitive and free-thinking individuals who are adaptable to a wide range of careers. In the book ‘Rework’, written by the founders of the highly successful tech company 37 Signals, they stress the importance of hiring good writers; they offer two reasons for this. The first is that communication is essential in every aspect of business, and secondly, that clear writing is an indication of clear thinking. A person may be highly intelligent, but if they lack quality communication skills, what is the value of that knowledge to their team? Business is about much more than computer coding and spreadsheets — it is about effective communication and creative problem solving as well.

And in the real world?

The ways in which the media portray humanities degrees can be disheartening to those who study such subjects, even having the potential to lead them to think that their career choices are narrow. In fact, it is the narrative surrounding the subject that is narrow and one-sided. Instead of promoting certain degrees and industries as superior, the government should work to inform students about how to use their degree skills, regardless of what subject they choose to study. Teaching children to code and promoting mathematics and science in early education is, of course, vital to future society, but so are the arts and humanities. Without promoting creativity, enterprise, and critical thinking, we may fail to raise well-rounded, individual thinkers — and our future entrepreneurs.

You only have to look at some of the most prominent CEOs in business to realise that humanities and arts graduates are far from unemployable. Take Michael Eisner, for example; the former CEO of the Walt Disney Company received a BA in English Literature and Theatre. Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO, studied a BA in Government at university, and Susan Wojcicki, Youtube CEO, received a BA in History and Literature. Perhaps most surprisingly, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, read Medieval History and Philosophy at Stanford University.

The bottom line is that it matters less what subject you do, and more what you do with the skills that you acquire from your degree. Any degree subject that teaches its students a set of skills they may not have otherwise acquired, and broadens their worldview, allows them to progress to places they may not have previously considered, and pursue things they may not have thought within their reach. By studying an area you have a real passion for, you will likely get more out of your degree than by choosing a ‘safe’, traditional course that you have less interest in. Whatever subject you choose to pursue, you are bound to learn key skills, both in and out of the lecture hall, that will stand you in good stead for future employment.