Undergraduate Career Advice!

Yeah, but seriously if you are planning your post-school studies, seek proper professional advice and not this blog post.

Via numerous Twittery things, the question of what degree a young person intent on Higher Education should study has been doing the rounds in various ways. One source was a snarky comment about English degrees from a successful writer, a second one I ended up Tweeting about was somebody claiming that STEM students can cope with Arts/Humanities degrees better than vice-versa. I’ll get to the specific question of writing & the humanities v STEM in a bit but I want to look at things more generally first.

More after the fold – as this goes on for awhile.

One piece of free advice I’d give to anybody thinking of undertaking a course is to FIRST consider the likelihood of them finishing the course. There are direct monetary costs with courses (very dependent on the country you live in) but there are also opportunity costs – the time you spend studying subject X could have been better spent studying subject Y. Assuming you can be accepted onto a given course, the main question (aside from money) will be whether you will be sufficiently motivated to finish the course. Consequently picking courses of study in things that you are actually interested in should always be a major factor in choosing what you want to study. I.e. if you are really interested in English Literature then you have a greater chance of 1. finishing a degree majoring in English and 2. finishing that degree with a higher GPA and as actually finishing a degree and getting good grades help you get a job, then picking English Literature may be a very smart choice.

An English literature degree in the hand is worth a lot more than multiple vocation-orientated degrees in technical subjects lying unfinished in the proverbial bush.

Yeah, but, if you are dithering between different fields and you are good-to-OK in several of them, which should you choose if you want to boost your career choices? I’ve only looked at Australian data but there is plenty of it: http://www.graduatecareers.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/GCA_GradStats_2015_FINAL.pdf

The short, obvious-when-you-think-about-it, answer is that degrees orientated to an in-demand vocation tend to have the best immediate job prospects. Table 2 page 6 of the PDF linked above shows a detailed breakdown. Yes, engineers have better (immediate) job prospects than a generic humanities graduate but that creates a misleading distinction. The distinction is not so much arts/humanities versus STEM but General versus Vocational.

Here are some cherry-picked examples:

Breakdown of bachelor degree graduates available for full-time employment, by field of education, 2015 (%) -In full-time employment
Chemical Engineering 63.4%
Social sciences 49.8%
Presented that way and the received wisdom is reinforced: the chemical engineer leaving Uni and going to productive work and the poor social science graduate heading to McDonalds. Aside from the snobbery about work in food service industries the strawman above is an apple v oranges comparison. See what happens if I pick some similar but very different choices:
Breakdown of bachelor degree graduates available for full-time employment, by field of education, 2015 (%) -In full-time employment
Chemistry 50.3%
Social work 71.2%
Yup, in Australia at least, you are more likely to be working (post-degree) full-time with a degree in Social Work than a degree in Chemistry *AND* still more likely than with a degree in Chemical Engineering. But really the only fair comparisons are across the whole table – and more job-specific degrees tend (more or less etc) to have higher levels of immediate full-time employment than more general degrees regardless of STEM v Humanities etc.
What is missing from this picture is the demand for particular jobs and also the extent to which particular course are gatekeepers to professions. In Australia entry to a university course for domestic students is determined by an ATAR score and the required ATAR for a course works on a supply-demand basis. So Veterinary courses (for example) have a high demand but more limited supply (because qualified vets are more likely to be working as vets than teaching) and hence very high ATAR scores to get in and hence tend to be populated with people who-really-want-to-be-vets.
The supply of jobs is another factor. Despite Australia’s substantial mining industry, Geology (55.4%) has lower full-time employment rates than Social Work. This is not really surprising given the nature of the work. Mining companies need geologists but their needs don’t scale in the same way as the way a rising population needs social workers.
Jobs that combine technical skills with interpersonal service (law, nursing, teaching etc) are usually going to have decent chances of employment.
So don’t do a general degree and do a more vocational degree? No, or yes, or maybe,… look still pick the course that suits you. A more vocational degree will push into a specific career path but many jobs and careers simply don’t have obvious degrees tied to them. Also, many employers of graduates are looking for other factors – they just don’t know quite how to identify them.
Which takes me back to the beginning. What’s the right degree for somebody who wants to write? To ‘write’ as in ‘be an author’ – I’ve no idea but I don’t see how having an English degree will hurt (not that I’ve formally studied literature much). Having a specialist degree and some specific career will have the advantage of a particular perspective on life but then…everybody gets to live in the actual real world regardless of your education choices (or non-choices) so I’m not sure that’s a huge advantage. Also, a whole genre (detective fiction) tends not be written by people with direct vocational experiences (i.e. detectives) and also J.K.Rowling did not attend Hogwarts.
But ‘writing’ for money is actually a far more common profession than people realise. The difference is, most people doing it don’t even perceive that that is what they are doing. A hefty chunk of the work I actually do (ok the meat robot on which the Camestros module also runs) for money is writing things in coherent sentences and paragraphs. There is a reason why so many, many people use Microsoft Word every day. Degree courses with a substantial amount of assessed writing (typically of essays) really help with writing for work. My first degree was a Bachelor of Science degree but many years later I also studied for a Bachelor of Arts in which all the assessment was via examined essays (i.e. written in exam conditions – long story as to why). While the first degree strongly shaped my career, it is the sustained practice in the BA of writing essays that keeps me productive at work.
Working in a complex work place with people of different academic backgrounds and specialisms, I’m often very aware of C.P.Snow’s Two Cultures. Yes, I do find some of the lack of broader science knowledge among people with non-science backgrounds infuriating at times but…I’ve also found that many with STEM backgrounds often also lack a broader general knowledge of science outside their specialisms. Combine that inter-STEM parochialism with a more general lack of sophisticated writing skills and you get a substantial issue with communication of complex technical ideas. Writing is hard and it takes practice [which is one reason to have a blog and just vomit up text at it IMHO] and studying *something* and being assessed on what you write about that something is going to help.


  1. delagar

    Here at my university, in Northwest Arkansas, I’m an adviser to many students — well, these days I’m senior enough that I’m only advising in the major (English), but less than five years ago, I was advising gen ed students. I’d get disaffected young students in my office who were being forced to major in specific fields by their parents: almost always business, although occasionally computer science.

    “What do *you* want to study?” I would ask these students.

    “I don’t even want to go to college,” one of them told me glumly once. “I hate school.”

    “Huh,” I said. We stared at one another a moment. “What do you want to do?”

    This was, apparently, a question no one had ever asked him. And it was awhile before he could answer. “I like working on cars,” he said. “I want to work on cars.”

    We have a two year degree in automotive repair, luckily. I sent him over to talk to them.

    My point — and I do have one — the idea that there are only a few degrees worth having, and that these are engineering, or IT, or Marketing, is (a) wrongheaded and (2) so shortsighted. How do people who are spouting this claptrap think we are going to run a society when everyone is an engineer or a computer programmer or a marketing specialist, and no one is a teacher or a museum curator?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. KR

    Yeah, I saw those exchanges and find them ill-informed and tiresome. I guess we are so thoroughly ensconced in a neo-liberal zeitgeist predicated upon perpetual austerity, productivity metrics, and returns-on-investment that these insulting claims are just part of the baseline cultural assumptions nowadays. I feel like as soon as humanities agrees to defend itself by listing employability rates, salaries-over-time etc, that it has already conceded defeat. In point of fact, humanities graduates are highly employable in a variety of fields. The gaming industry employs history majors to write content (“Civilizations” anyone?) All that this rapid expansion of STEM programs means is that there will be a glut of mediocre and underemployed STEM graduates soon, just as there was an oversupply of law students ten or so years ago.

    There is, of course, a definite gendered dynamic underlying this whole STEM vs Humanities thing.

    As automation comes for our jobs (including science and tech ones), governments should be redirecting their resources to the provision of human services: leisure, arts, performance, social work, nursing, rehabilitation, therapists, elder care, travel, libraries, gardens, cooking, teaching, environmental sustainability, restoration – creative and affirming work in all its reach and fullness etc. Such an approach would have the benefit of expanding job options while also improving the quality of life for the general population. There is a huge, sucking demand for rehabilitative, therapeutic and elder services – long wait lists, tough affordability. I’d like to see our energy being directed that way. Humans for human services.

    Anyway, this is a topic that, paradoxically, both vitally concerns me and I never want to think about again. I’m exhausted by having to defend my existence and life’s work and being told it is useless. … “The world is too much with us, late and soon/ … For this, for everything, we are out of tune/ It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be/ A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn… ”

    I was mainly just stopping by to wish you a nice and sparkly day, Camestros Felapton. All best to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. KasaObake

    I used to live with one of those STEM types who thinks arts/humanities are a breeze and it’s way easier to go from STEM to arts rather than vice versa. The kicker is, at this point he’d already failed to complete a degree in history after failing to write his dissertation, while I’d graduated and gained a BA in English literature. It was a major factor in deciding to be proud of the fact that I’d graduated from any degree, and gained skills and confidence that put me in a much better position to be able to get a job.


  4. bghilton

    I used to work in the hospitality industry, until I got my English degree. Now I’m doing pretty well for myself in advertising, a fact I delight in telling ‘STEM degrees only’ types.

    (Not that there’s anything wrong with the hospitality industry, by the way. You meet all sorts of interesting people, and your qualifications are internationally portable. Just got tired of the hours.)