The Value Of A "Useless" Degree

By Erin Joyce | April 21, 2010 AAA

Every humanities student experiences it: that moment when you are surrounded by future doctors, lawyers and MBAs and you think, is the most important question I am destined to ask at work "Would you like fries with that?"
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If you have a humanities degree, you could have studied an incredibly broad range of specialties, including political science, history, social studies, environmentalism, English, religion and more. More specifically, the area of study could be anything from Taoism, to women's studies, to peace and conflict studies.

However, as technology blurs global borders and the appreciation for varied experiences increases, having an arts degree is far from a liability – it can be a great asset, especially if you know how to market it. (Education and training benefit not only the worker, but also the employer and the country as a whole. Find out more, in How Education And Training Affect The Economy.)

The Human Element
One thing this broad heading has in common is the study of our humanity, what exists beyond our physicality, in our brains, our hearts and our actions. Whether you are examining the unfolding of the Holocaust or deciphering the meaning of Geoffrey Chaucer, a humanities degree allows you to better understand the human condition.

So how does that help you in your post-graduation search? The movement towards a global society means now more than ever, companies are interacting with clients, employees, employers and partners from all walks of life, and all kinds of cultures. The broader your understanding of our common humanity, the better at communication you will be. And people skills are almost always high on a potential employer's wish list. (Professional maintenance can be a chore. Learn how to streamline the process, in Keeping Up With Your Continuing Education.)

Those Who Don't Know Their History…
Studying history, political science, environmentalism, gender studies and similar areas, allows you to see where we've been, how we've grown and how far we've come. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that the hard-fought knowledge of past generations does not fade away; instead each new generation takes up the ongoing quest and hopefully makes certain we do not repeat mistakes made. Armed with centuries' worth of knowledge, it's hard to believe something you learn won't have an application in your professional life. At the very least, consider how often you or someone you know has gained a professional opportunity because of a shared interest – maybe you found out about a job from someone in your book club or maybe your interview went especially well because your prospective employer shares your interest in Russian history.

"As that world becomes more interconnected, the disciplines of the humanities – the study of history and culture, language and philosophy, art and music - have acquired a fresh relevance," says Dr. Suzanne Crosta, Dean of Humanities at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. And you just never know how that relevance will manifest itself. (Retirement and education financing are the two most important planning items for taxpayers. Find out more in Don't Forget The Kids: Save For Their Education And Retirement.)

Interdisciplinary Approach, Varied Experiences
Often, humanities degrees offer more flexibility in terms of class selection than a more structured science or business degree. This gives students the freedom to pursue specific areas of interest that may not fit into their overall career plans. For example, a student planning to be a history teacher would no doubt pursue a degree in history, but he might also take a class or two in religious studies because of a personal interest.

Upon graduating, our example student may find that the public schools aren't hiring history teachers – but the Catholic school board is. Those elective courses may turn out to be a valuable experience.

The Universal Degree
Regardless of the kind of degree you hold, many universal skills are obtained by achieving that diploma. Time management, project completion, effective learning habits and the determination to complete objectives as large as a several-year education are all highly desirable skills regardless of your field of work. In that regard, it is important that the field you choose be one you enjoy, to ensure you actually complete the degree.

As bachelor's degrees become more and more prevalent, many students are already planning on graduate school before they even enter undergraduate studies. Graduate schools, even law and MBA schools, are more open now to accepting students with varied undergraduate degrees, so choosing a liberal arts degree need not limit your future options.

The Bottom Line
Pursuing a degree or diploma is an investment in your future earnings. But it is also a huge expense and personal undertaking; if you don't enjoy what you're learning, it can be an excruciating process, and even if the end result is a high paycheck, will it be worth loathing your job? Following your passion takes guts, and nearly everyone has to work less desirable jobs to make ends meet, but if you stick to it, you can end up with a very satisfying career – and you may never have to ask people if they want to supersize their meal.

Find out what else is making news this week Water Cooler Finance: Everything Old Is News Again.

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