Notes On Majoring In Humanities

Congratulations, you’ve chosen a humanities major! You are either really brave or hopelessly idealistic and clueless. Probably a healthy mix of all three. Below, a list of simple yet useful points I gathered along the way to completing my useless humanities degrees.

Follow your <3.

To everyone who has chosen a “useless” major or is thinking about choosing a useless major: shine on, crazy diamond. Seriously. It takes balls to stick to your guns and do what you love when everyone else is smirking at you going “So what are you gonna do with that?” (By the way, people will do this for the rest of your life — even after you graduate.) At this point you’ve probably already had your ears talked off top to bottom about the economy, the job market, “doing something practical,” whatever, and you’re all like…but I just want to study medieval German architecture, what the hell is the problem? NOTHING. There is no problem. You are perfect the way you are and the world would come to a boring standstill if not for amazingly impractical passionate weirdoes like yourself.

Know thyself.

Don’t major in something because your mom thinks it’s a good idea. Don’t major in something because your best friend’s mom thinks it’s a good idea. Don’t major in something because Newsweek’s Top 10 List Of Whatever thinks it’s a good idea. You know yourself best, so don’t let someone talk you into majoring in accounting when you can’t even add. Yes, it’s good to major in something that makes you happy, but it’s also good to major in something you don’t inherently suck at. I started my freshman year as a neuroscience major (…?) because a) I had this idea that it would benefit humanity somehow, and b) I must have the science gene because my parents are scientists, so I just need to try a little harder, right? Wrong, and it took me several C’s and a nervous breakdown in the neuro lab to figure that out. Don’t do that to yourself. Trust your own judgment.

Actually do things.

Just going to class (or not) and getting A’s in stuff will not do anything for you, I promise. You’re paying out the ass for this education, and if you really do want to be there, why not make it worth the time and money? Just do stuff. Seriously. Don’t worry about fulfilling a list of “requirements” and just goddamn learn. Work on a research project, do independent study, do a senior project on a topic you’re excited about, whatever. If your school doesn’t offer the major you want, make it yourself. Stop worrying so much about your resume and the details you can stuff it with and start making moves in the field you’re truly interested in. Make advances. If you kick ass at something, the right people will notice. And yeah, if you can get a 3.8 while being a drunken mess, cool for you. But if you can get a 3.8 and complete a senior honors thesis on Beat literature through a feminist lens while being a drunken mess, you’re a god.

Go to office hours.

No one ever does until they find themselves failing a class or needing a letter of recommendation, but you should do it. You don’t have to pitch a tent outside your favorite professor’s office every week to build a good relationship with them, but if you’re taking a class with someone you admire who you can learn more from and could possibly work with later, it would make sense to get to know them. Plus, if you know you’re going to be asking for a letter of recommendation eventually, you should probably make sure they know your face as something other than drooling blankly on a textbook in the far back during lecture. TC mark

image – Shutterstock


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  • Maria

    This post is great! I actually posted something on my blog yesterday about the importance of choosing a major that you really loved, as opposed to what people think is best for you, job-wise.

  • Yashley Trivedi

    I have been known to second guess my decision of majoring in English Literature in moments of darkness but this made me realise why I chose the subject in the first place.I can’t thank you enough!

  • Only L<3Ve @

    […] Thought Catalog » Life Add a comment […]

  • Sam

    Don’t do a useless degree.

    As someone with a similar degree from a well respected university I can confidently say that everyone should do the best degree they can handle from the best university they can get in to.

    I was smart enough to do maths or a science or anything like that but I thought I’d do what I enjoyed and go for a film/tv based degree, I ended up learning nothing (Or what I did learn I taught myself outside classes) and hating it anyway. Now, trying to get a job in TV, more than a few employers have told me that universities just use these degrees as a way of subsidising the ‘real’ courses and that I spent three years working on skills that I wont need or could have been learned quickly on the job while being paid.

    The general consensus from them has been that I should have got a science degree or a maths degree or something similar because it shows that I’m clever, can retain information, know how to learn and am committed to what I choose to work on instead of a degree that shows that I was prepared to choose the easy option that makes me look like I’m not that clever and would allow me the most return based on the least work.

    • samanthaeden

      Similarly, I graduated with an English degree (which isn’t entirely useless, but it still makes getting a job difficult). There are plenty of degrees out there that are entirely useless, no matter how much someone tells you to follow your heart.

      I’ve been wondering why we place so much emphasis on a college education when many of the skills people expect students to get out of college could just as easily be learned on the job. Then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about whether or not the degree we receive is useless.

      I agree with you.I think people just need to be realistic. They need to realize that majoring in the humanities will likely prove to be difficult after you’ve graduated. But, there are also some pretty useless science degrees (my brother has told me plenty of stories about the debates they have at his college, where most students are in mechanical engineering).

      • Michael Koh

        If you look at the majority of English graduates from Ivy Leagues, they end up on Wall Street.

        I graduated from a state university with an English degree and I’ve been able to work as a freelance copy editor for over two years. Is it easy? No. But it’s doable. Just don’t live in NYC. Simple as that.

        A humanities degree is not at all “useless.” Cultural capital is what we’ve been nurtured on and forever will be our asset. We can write, we can read, we can edit—some extremely essential things for companies. Who would take your Fortune 500 company seriously if they didn’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its”? Business majors are often terrible at writing—I know, I’ve edited some of their crap—and they need us, like we need them to employ us with our useless degrees.

      • samanthaeden

        Great points! I’ve been reading an interesting book about how the science students, math students, etc. will need more help from liberal arts students in the workplace. I don’t think my English degree is useless; I’ve just been pondering whether or not some humanities degrees are useless (and I think a few are). It really depends on what you learn. But you are right, I learned to read, write, and edit, which are all very valuable in the workplace. In fact, my writing skill is what I try to sell most in interviews.

        What it comes down to is how well you learn the skills a humanities degree offers to teach you.

        Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I will continue to think about the benefits on my English degree.

  • michaelgarrity

    All this is just so spot on. The last part especially. I had great relationships with all of the professors in my English Department, and it made college a much more worthwhile experience, I think.

    In fact, I just got wasted with one of my old profs last weekend at her birthday party, so that was fun.

  • Bschwartz

    As an MA student enrolled in an obnoxiously titled “global, international, and comparative history” program, I fully support the points laid out here. This needs to be said more often.

  • Pat Finn

    Thanks for writing this. I hate the term “useless” when used in regard to college degrees because it presumes that monetary value is the only kind of value their is. It’s never useless to pursue your interests. If employers don’t appreciate that, well that’s inconvenient, but it doesn’t invalidate the inherent value of a humanistic education. At least in my view, and I don’t listen to other people when it comes to determining what goals I should have or how I should spend my time and energy.

  • Mitzy (@mitzyredmango)

    Hits home.

  • Not your friend

    Confirmation bias, it affects us all.

    I hope you guys are actively seeking out data that contradicts your hopeful outlook. The knowing sneers of us STEM guys doesn’t count–really, who gives a f*ck what we think. Just as you should probably ignore us, you should also try not to feel too comfortable or assured from other humanities majors that are hoping for the same post-grad reality that you are.

    Personally, I actually do think the world is better off with you people in it. Just make sure that you are prepared to live a life that may be somewhat uncomfortable for somewhat longer than you expect. If you land a great starter-job right out of the gate, one that allows for professional growth in a field you find rewarding AND allows you to chip away at those student loans, then congratulations. OTOH, if you end up making my coffee for a few years then at least you knew that was a realistic possibility. Either way, you’ll still have the pleasures of “the life of the mind,” yes?

    Regarding the comment about English majors at Ivys working on Wall Street, the reality is that era is almost over. Sure, there are a few S&T positions remaining (although the “T” part of that is dwindling rapidly), and you might be able to talk your way into an analyst position (although you’ll wish you hadn’t . . .), but the new rock star positions are the Quants. Don’t kid yourself about that stuff: if all you’ve taken is 4 semesters of calc (which I suspect is 3 more than most of you) then you have zero chance at one of those jobs. Phd in Math or Physics is entry level for a Quant.

    Yeah, I mean, it’s your life and you should do what makes you happy. I agree it is kind of f*cked up that if you don’t treat college as technical vocation training then you run a significant risk of living in near poverty. If it were me, and I cared about things like art, or literature, or gender equality, or whatever it is that you people study, then I might come to the conclusion that my life would be happier with a library card and enough income to spend some of it on art, or helping people, or whatever.

    But that is just me, what do I know? Good luck.

    • Pat Finn

      in a decent society, working in a service position — “making coffee” while pursuing artistic or literary interests that might not cover all of life’s expenses — wouldn’t be such a dire fate. society needs people to do those kinds of jobs; it’s fucked that they aren’t usually able to pay off their student loan debt or even have decent health coverage. that’s a problem with america, not english majors who, to be honest, probably wouldn’t make very good analysts anyway. the problem of people picking “useless” majors and failing to secure a decent career is just a symptom of how difficult it is becoming for most people in this country to achieve a middle class standard of living. if everyone majored in engineering, there would still be tons of unemployed college graduates.

    • rebeccahaze

      I’m the child of two relatively successful humanities scholars. It is possible to support a family quite comfortably while studying obscure Mayan art and the feminist underpinnings of crappy sitcoms. My parents are not lazy, self-indulgent, or pretentious at all–they are bona fide adults and have been for my entire life (also: they don’t do hard drugs or host orgies in the living room or whatever it is you think humanities people do for fun). It’s difficult for me to get behind the stereotype of humanities graduates as whiny, directionless hipsters when my family’s entire social circle is an aggressive example to the contrary.

      Of course we need people to write code for websites and figure out how to make a bridge stable, but we also need people who can create interesting content for the aforementioned websites (Thought Catalog, anyone?) and make the aforementioned bridge’s design more aesthetically pleasing.

      Yin & Yang, baby–something us filthy humanities kids happen to know an awful lot about.

  • MM

    What do you do if you are undecided (only going into 2nd year) but going to a ridculous expensive school ($57,000 a year) and want to major in humanities and don’t like the school all that well but all the schools you like cost way more. How do you deal with this…?

    cause I am in this rut. and my mom is driving me up the wall talking about how expensive my education is…

    • Pat Finn

      sorry to hear about your situation, MM. though i know nothing of your position beyond what you posted, i would advise you against choosing a major that you have little interest in just because it seems more “practical.” you’re not guaranteed a job no matter what you major in and you have a much better chance at excelling in something you love than in something you care little for. i know it’s a cliche — and even worse, one i heard from my mom — but it’s best to never make decisions based on fear. there are jobs out there that are related to the humanities, it just takes a bit of creativity and initiative to find them.

      or so i’ve heard. i graduated with a degree in english from an expensive liberal arts school last may and am still unemployed.

    • FC

      you really have to go to a cheaper school unless your parents have enough money to help you pay off your student loans in the future.
      i can barely afford a state school though, so i have a completely different view.

      • Pat Finn

        this sounds pretty rational.

  • Charlie

    The worst thing about having a humanities degree is the presumptions other people have of them. I graduated with a BA in Communications and Media studies and people assume I spent three years running around with a camera, which is so far away from what it actually was its unreal, and I spend interviews explaining to employers what my degree actually is. Which for the record was a mixture of English (language and literature), mass media studies and writing. I spent many hours in the library crying over a Kurt Vonnegut novel trying to figure out how the hell I was ever going to get my head around Modernism/Post Modernism. And I doubt someone with a Science or Maths degree could understand it any better. My cousin just graduated from Cambridge with a First Class MA in Chemical Engineering and he has walked into a £40,000 a year job. But he can’t write an essay for shit, and has no common sense whatsoever, he just has a head for maths and physics and works goddamn hard and got lucky. The bastard.

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