How to Succeed with a “Useless” Degree

How to Succeed with a “Useless” Degree


By Susan Johnston

For many people with a fine arts or liberal arts degree, the question, “Great, but what are you gonna do with a _____ degree?” is an all too familiar refrain from well-meaning relatives. It turns out there’s a lot you can do with these supposedly “useless” degrees.

According to Andrea Wolf, director of the Career Education Center at Simmons College in Boston, Mass. and a 15-year veteran of the career development industry, “The key issue isn’t what you major in but what you decide to do with your career. A liberal arts degree rarely restricts a student to one career path.”

Here are some possible career paths arranged by major.

1. Theater

If you think all theater majors grow up to be Hollywood hotshots or starving actors, think again. The mid-career median salary for someone with a theater degree is $59,600, according to online salary database PayScale.com. And there’s a lot more you can do with a theater degree than recite lines or paint scenery. Sarah Hamilton majored in theatre and now she manages logistics for productions and events, including working as a venue manager for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. "Venue management is a paradox of being able to see how things operate both on the micro and macro levels," she explains, adding that her experiences in college taught her to work with a variety of people.

2. Foreign Language

Wolf says that many foreign language grads “go into education or healthcare international nonprofits where they can use their language skills.” Other career paths include business, government, human services, and media. The mid-career median salary for someone with a degree in French is $61,400. For instance, after a series of internships, Matthew R. Smith used his French language and literature degree to land a job with a boutique public relations firm that specializes in luxury goods, including French wine.

3. Philosophy

“The value of the degree in philosophy is less obvious, so it doesn’t automatically translate to a job,” says Wolf. “But the value of the degree is how the student uses it.” Many pursue academia, attend law school, or branch out through internships or study abroad. In fact, the mid-career median salary for someone with a philosophy degree is $72,900. Ashley Howard, director of marketing for an ecommerce company, says her philosophy degree, “taught me to genuinely be able to argue any side of an issue, which gave me the ability to understand and foresee objections that may come up in respect to my proposals.”

4. History

“History students … learn attention to detail, critical thinking, reading and writing, and those skills are valued [by employers],” says Wolf. For instance, Nicole Rogers earned a degree in history and now works as a recruiter. She says her background in history has helped her in several ways. “In history we analyze the past to understand the present,” Rogers explains. “If I have a recruiting strategy in place that isn't bringing in the candidates I need, I have to assess what is and isn't working with it, so I can create a more appropriate recruiting plan for the future.” The mid-career median salary for someone with a degree in history is $73,000.

5. Literature or English

Some people pooh-pooh English and literature degrees, but an ability to communicate clearly prepares grads for a variety of jobs. “Some of our best people in the media, from Bob Woodard to Mike Eisner, had English degrees,” points out Wolf. The mid-career median salary for someone with a degree in literature is $65,700. Possible career paths include journalism, marketing, teaching, and non-profit work. Wolf says English is also one of the most popular majors among law school admissions committees, along with history, philosophy, and political science.

Boston-based freelance writer Susan Johnston has covered career and business topics for "The Boston Globe," "Hispanic Executive Quarterly," WomenEntrepreneur.com, and other publications.

Source: All salary data is from PayScale.com. The salaries listed are median, annual salaries for full-time workers with 13-15 years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions or profit sharing.

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