I have several friends and acquaintances whose kids are coming up on college. Several of them are taking the, “Let the kid study whatever she finds interesting and suits their talents,” while others are taking a much more militant, “You’re going into some STEM degree program because all liberal arts degrees are useless,” approach.
While I can sort of understand this approach (STEM fields do tend to pay well and with the world shifting more and more to technology, the jobs are there), to dismiss all liberal arts degrees as useless is false. What if your kid isn’t interested in (or good at) math and science? Is it really in their interest to force them to study something they hate? What if they hate it so much they flunk/drop out of school altogether? Is having no degree the best choice, here?
Besides, having a liberal arts degree does not condemn one to a life spent living in a cardboard box underneath an overpass. As with so many things, it’s what you do with the degree that matters. How motivated are you to turn your interests into paying opportunities? That’s what determines your earning potential. I know plenty of unmotivated scientists and engineers who are barely making it, despite having STEM degrees. Why? Because they just don’t care enough about the field/job to do more than the bare minimum. If that.
For those students struggling with the idea of studying STEM for the money vs. studying what interests them, here are some snapshots of people I know with liberal arts degrees who are doing quite well.
My degree is in the nebulous field of “Communication.” My career began in marketing. It paid decently, but the real break came when I discovered technical writing. That paid really well. I didn’t have to understand the science about which I was writing, I merely had to translate it into words that marketers, funding organizations, and corporate big-wigs could understand. Many times, those with the STEM prowess do not have the ability to write clearly about their accomplishments. That’s where the technical writer comes in. That well-paying gig led me to a place where I could comfortably freelance and also write novels.
A friend of mine majored in theater. Halfway through, she realized she didn’t want to be an actor. She still found other ways to work in theater. Now she does fancy things with lights and audio at theaters around the world. (Most of it eludes me.) Much of what she does are things that very few others can do. As a result, she’s paid well.
This friend started out as an art major and realized he was never going to make it as a gallery artist. However, he found a place in the booming field of computer animation. He ended up going to a few computer classes to get up to speed, but it was never a major. He’s still an artist, just a well paid one.
I once worked with someone who makes their living traveling all over the word acting as a translator for businesses and government organizations. She speaks fluent Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, French, and Danish. She also speaks about ten other languages, although not as fluently. We joke that she’s her own personal Rosetta Stone, but that is her gift; an affinity for language. She found a good way to use it.
Toward the end of her degree, this friend realized she didn’t want to go on to graduate school to become a full-blown psychologist (which can be a very well-paying liberal arts gig, by the way). Instead, she carved out a niche, first as a research/marketing analyst for big corporations, and eventually moved on to intelligence analyst for the government. Not too shabby.
This person double majored in theater and art. At the end, instead of becoming an actor or artist, he found work in the theater designing sets and later, working in CGI (which is nothing more than digitally designing sets/worlds for computer games and films). Eventually, he even went on to direct some smaller, indie films.
This degree seems to be the most useless, but there’s something to be said for learning how to construct and follow arguments. Philosophy majors often end up as decent writers, as well, due to the number and nature of papers they have to write. One philosophy major went on to law school. Another went on to work a a big tech company helping them analyze the impacts of their discoveries/developments. Another works in the diplomatic corps.
The one person I know with this degree now works in HR for a major company, helping them sort through diversity and equality issues.
I know many, many more people with degrees in all kinds of liberal arts. And none of them are teaching (the seeming default option for liberal arts degrees), or living in a box. Some of their success stems from a simple desire to do what they love. Others are very good at seeing what employers need and pitching their skills in that direction. Many are working in tech because coders, scientists, and engineers often need people who can help them connect with “regular people.” Liberal arts grads are great at being regular people!
The point is that no degree is by default, “useless.” Much depends on the motivation of the student to make something of themselves, and their willingness to learn extra skills as needed. If someone has a passion for something and a gift for it, there’s no reason they have to live in a box under an overpass.
Of course, there are plenty of people who get degrees because, “It was easy,” or, “I had placement credits from high school so it was faster,” or, “I just didn’t know what else to do.” Sure, these people might end up in trouble later. But so will the biology major who does it because her parents forced her, or the electrical engineering major who did it because his friends were in the program. The difference is one of motivation. A motivated student can become a star worker in almost any field. An unmotivated worker will end up in that cardboard box.
I’m not saying not to go into a STEM field. They have their merits and if science and math excite you, then by all means have at it. Not everyone is wired that way. Some people simply need to know that there is hope if they choose to pursue another avenue. Trust me, there is hope. If you love what you do and you’re motivated to find a way to make it pay, you can do well for yourself.
(Photo courtesy of Olichel)