‘You’ll never get a job with that:’ Debunking the stereotypes concerning the employability of humanities majors

The humanities as an academic discipline examines society and culture. There are 21 humanities majors offered at UConn include which include languages, literatures, histories, and cultural studies. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

When we were growing up many of us learned that majoring in philosophy or art history was the academic equivalent of a post-graduate attempt to start a rock band and wait for your big break. Majoring in these types of wishy-washy whatnots would lead to a life characterized by jobs in restaurants and supermarkets. If by some miracle, you did something with your major, you’d end up working in a museum or a school, living under the crushing debt of your student loans for the rest of your humanities-ridden life.

All humanities majors come with these kinds of stereotypes. But in a school like UConn where STEM initiatives receive heavy attention, humanities students feel the viability of their degrees coming under heavier fire.

“There’s the whole ‘poor art student’ stereotype,” second semester digital and media design student Aiden Brueckner said. Brueckner is an e-board member of HArCo, the humanities and arts collective within the honors community. “It’s said that humanities and arts majors will have difficulty finding a job after college, when in fact there is very little evidence that points to that conclusion. It gets pretty annoying.”

The humanities as an academic discipline examines society and culture. There are 21 humanities majors offered at UConn include which include languages, literatures, histories, and cultural studies. All the majors considered humanities can be found online.

Looking this list, while some are seen as more promising than others (for example journalism might be less stereotyped than history), overall the idea that these majors rarely lead to successful careers pervades the discipline.

Cathy Schlund-Vials, professor in the English department and incoming Associate Dean for the Humanities in CLAS, says in part this is because there is “not one single career trajectory.” Unlike electrical engineering, there is no obvious career equivalent to a Latino and Latin American studies major.

Parents often add pressure for students, encouraging them to pursue majors they think will allow them to find a job immediately out of college.

“I do think that this stigma is even more pronounced now because tuition costs have risen dramatically over the past ten years,” Schlund-Vials said. “Students are faced with an enormous debt burden, which produces an understandable anxiety about employment and being ‘employable.’”

Rather than providing hard technical skills like STEM majors, humanities majors convey a lot of soft skills, like critical thinking and communication.

In his book “The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World,” Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist and former researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, divides those with hard skills and those with soft skills into two groups, “fuzzies” and “techies.” Fuzzies would include students like fine arts and humanities majors whereas “techies” understandably encompasses more STEM disciplines.

What Hartley argues in his book is that the transferable skills fuzzies possess are making them increasingly valuable to the digital world. Therefore, he says, fuzzies and techies really need to be working together so that multidisciplinary challenges can be tackled.

This idea is supported beyond just a book with a cute title. Every year NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers comes out with a list of the most essential competencies employers are looking for, which is then compiled and presented by the UConn Center for Career Development.

As Beth Settje, Associate Director of the CCD, pointed out, critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communications and teamwork/collaboration are annually at the top of the list. Below them, Professionalism/Work Ethic and Leadership, and only after these have been listed do we see Digital Technology, alongside Career Management and Global/Intercultural Fluency. Nearly all these competencies are closely related with humanities majors and less related with the hard skills STEM students are being taught.

“People look at the major, humanities majors in particular in the purest form, and focus on the subject and how I’m going to get a job with this,” The Major Experience Director Harry Twyman said, “and not so much on what really is important, and that would be like what sort of skills and competencies am I taking away from this major.”

Beyond just knowing what employers are looking for, the actual statistics also challenge the idea that humanities majors are unemployable. According to Settje, 84 percent of humanities majors report finding jobs or grad school positions within six months of graduating from UConn, as compared to the 87 percent university-wide. That 3 percent, Settje says, is negligible. And on a broader level, Schlund-Vials pointed out an Inside Higher Ed article which showed that only 4.3% of humanities majors were unemployed in 2015.

“At the end of the day, humanities students are absolutely, unequivocally employable,” Settje said.

Going even further, in addition to the fact that humanities students find opportunities, looking at which opportunities they find is also revealing.

“There is a lot out there for the humanities,” fourth semester English and history major Carson Lee Harper said. “There are jobs you wouldn’t even think that you would get, like a lot of insurance agencies want humanities majors because they know how to speak to people.”

Rather than sticking to museums, schools and fast-food joints as the stereotypes would have us believe, humanities majors can not only apply their transferable skills to a variety of fields, but some of those include STEM areas. In fact, humanities have some of the highest acceptance rates to medical school, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Furthermore, they consistently outperform biology majors on the MCAT. It’s also not unusual that a humanities major can use their transferable skills to find a job in something like computer science, learning the hard skills online or on the job.

“Your major is only part of you,” Settje said. “It’s important here but once you go out after your first job, your major rarely matters.”

Knowing these kinds of facts goes to show that preaching humanities degrees as a sure way to end up in a cardboard box is a sign of ignorance, but on a STEM-dominated campus like UConn, sometimes humanities majors feel they are still getting the short end of the stick.

“My first English class we did not have desks,” Harper said. “We were given just chairs and we had to write on our laps. If somebody was paying attention to where they scheduled people they wouldn’t put an English class in a room without chairs just like you wouldn’t put a biology lab in a room that wasn’t a biology lab.”

Progress in STEM doesn’t have to be at odds with progress in other disciplines, but students feel other fields shouldn’t be overlooked.

“While STEM fields are growing, humanities fields continue to exist and continue to need competent professionals,” fourth semester political science major and HArCo eboard member Miranda Garcia said. “Women, for instance, are encouraged heavily to enter STEM fields because men are the overwhelming majority in engineering and science. (Other fields), like political science, also need more female representation, however, and I think that should be acknowledged.”

In part, some of these feelings of overshadowment may also be the result of well-publicised initiatives like Next Generation Connecticut, which puts a lot of focus on boosting STEM programs in order to cultivate the statewide economy.

While these kinds of initiatives such do receive a lot of attention, that doesn’t mean there aren’t resources and projects going on for humanities majors as well. Online on the library website, for example, one can find information on all the intellectual output UConn generates, encompassing 823 disciplines.

As for resources, CLAS holds a number of events and career nights such as Business for Non-business majors. The CCD also has counselors specific to schools and disciplines. Looking on their website, they have resources to help students determine where they can go with their major.

They also work together with exploratory advisors on The Major Experience, which allows students to explore different majors in interactive and intentional ways, finding one that really suits them, whether that’s in the school of engineering or as an Africana studies major, or in a different school completely.

“For me what helped most was my advisors,” Harper said. “They coach kids through this degree and they coach kids after getting a degree. They know that there are jobs out there and they can tell you that you’re not wasting your time.”

Furthermore, keeping space open for humanities majors is important as well. Not only providing them with resources but really focusing on what they do bring to the community. HArCo is one example of this, providing space for arts and humanities students with the largely STEM-dominated honors program. When hosting Honors events, HArCo does try to focus on professional development, according to Garcia, because often stereotypes do lead to career anxiety for arts and humanities majors, but the club also focuses on anything of interest to members.

“Humanities are, by nature, something that you cannot limit to the classroom,” Brueckner said. “Interaction with other people is something that happens all through life, every single day.”

The answer isn’t to promote humanities majors over STEM majors, Twyman said, but rather to help students find the right place for them, which can sometimes mean eliminating the ignorance surrounding certain paths.


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.