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A degree in arts & humanities: worth its weight in gold

I have spent equal time over the past three years of my degree either explaining what exactly ‘Classics’ is and justifying what I’m going to do with it after graduation, that at moments I have often doubted the sincerity of my answers.

My definition of ‘Classics’ has evolved from my first year as ‘a study of ancient culture, history and philosophy and the ancient Greek and Latin languages’, to a variation of, ‘50% ancient languages and 50% ancient culture stuff’. The beauty of a subject is so easily lost in bland descriptions, yet repeatedly answering, ‘didn’t you have an idea of what you wanted to do before you chose Classics?’ has a slightly undermining effect on definitions. It’s often easier to make it more statistical.

However, as news emerged earlier this year of the Department for Education’s plan to rank university courses from ‘gold, silver or bronze’ to enable prospective students to choose courses of value, it seemed nothing but a reinforcement of that jarring ‘employment question’. The ratings, to be measured against factors such as students’ job prospects after graduation and likely earnings, would enable students to make “consumer-style” comparisons between degree courses said a Department for Education spokesperson. It’s supposed to “ensure that more students get the value for money they deserve from higher education”, Sam Gyimah, the universities minister said. Yet whilst the system is all about ‘value’, it seems to differentiate little between quality of teaching and measuring success in terms of monetary reward. Getting a job is more than about choosing the right degree, as perhaps Pok Wong, an Anglia Ruskin International Business Strategy graduate who sought more the £60,000 of damages from her university for a ‘mickey mouse degree’. As told to The Telegraph in an interview she said that “since graduating, it has been proven that the degree does not play a role to help secure a rewarding job with prospects”. Would a statistically ranked grading system have helped her avoid the despairing pit of unemployment? I’m not entirely certain it would.

More than ever, a degree does not equate to a job upon graduation and I think that a system designed to systematically rate courses on employment prospects is misleading. Especially when considering degrees within the humanities don’t necessarily provide a straightforward pathway into the job market. This is not however, to say that at face value a humanities degree is less useful than say a course in International Business Strategy. Could it simply be that securing a job after graduation is less about the degree and more about how that degree has helped shape the person that emerges, just as going to university is more than just about the result at the end?

As selection of humanities finalists tell me about their journey through university and their next steps, I’m more convinced this is the case. University is a learning experience and an unprecedented chance to specialise in favourite subjects. It might lead towards further education, or straight into a job, but as all have acknowledged, each stage is a work in progress. There is something finite about university in younger ages, as the goal of academic success and the proposed medal-like system seems to endorse that idea. But going after a ‘gold’ rated degree isn’t crossing the finish line first by any means, it is how you use that time at university. However, as this academic year draws to a close, these finalists are evidence that humanities degrees can certainly be worth their weight it gold, whatever their future rank might be.

Hannah Wigfield is an Ancient History BA finalist. As a winner of this year’s King’s Cultural Challenge, she will embark on her prize of a paid internship whilst looking to establish a career in radio.

“I’ve always known I wanted to work in radio so I intend to get as much experience as possible after graduation (almost always unpaid so I’ll be doing this alongside a job that actually pays the bills). I won this year’s King’s Cultural Challenge with my project, “Take 2 Cinema”: a community cinema for the homeless complete with a social space after the screenings where they could make friends, talk to representatives from various charities and organisations to get advice on housing, employment, legal aid and mental health. The prize is a paid internship (though I don’t know where yet) and I plan to start it at the end of the year. That gives me some security, both financially and plan-wise, and I can look for more permanent positions whilst I’m there. But first, I’m going to enjoy my summer because I feel like I’ve earned a break!

I always knew I’d take the summer off because it’s probably the last time in a long while I’ll have this much free time so I want to make the most of it. But equally, I’m also keen to start working ASAP because I know how crucial these next few months are for establishing my career. I guess I haven’t fully decided my path yet – I’m happy just taking it as it comes.

My humanities degree has developed my critical thinking and encouraged me to look beyond the bounds of what I thought I already knew. Through writing and researching often under self-inflicted time constraints, I’ve learnt the invaluable skill of self-motivation that is so essential for jobs within the creative media industries, although admittedly it’s still work in progress! I’ve also realised that it’s both possible and perfectly desirable to be interested in more than one thing and feel free to explore within your degree.”

Phillipa Knipe read History BA at University of Newcastle and spent the past academic year studying for a masters in Contemporary British History at KCL. She has just landed a place on a coveted graduate scheme in retail management.

“Whilst applying for my undergraduate degree, I had always thought that I’d like to do a Masters at a London university. I’d actually been offered an undergraduate place at UCL, but after attending their open day, I felt that I really wasn’t ready for living in the capital city as my first home-away-from-home. After choosing to do my BA in History at Newcastle, to be frank, it really wasn’t until my final year that I got back on the Masters aspiration. A lot of my friends were planning travels or ski seasons, a handful secured jobs, and an even smaller handful were going into further education. After conducting thorough research, I was desperate to be accepted at King’s as their MA in Contemporary British History was the perfect blend of history, politics and economics which was what I really wanted to learn more about. I think it was this passion, and now wanting to go to prestiguous London university with all the perks of the metropole, that got me a place.

When you’re getting to the second-half of third year, it all gets a bit intense. At the same time as trying to sit your final exams and do your deadlines and dissertation, you’re all trying to sort out your next-steps after graduation. No-one wants to be officially unemployed with no plan. Luckily, I had enjoyed my degree so much  that doing an Masters was the only option for me. As I only undertook one application the pressure was relatively little as opposed to applying for loads of job roles. I was also by this time set on moving to London, as were a few of my Newcastle uni friends, so it worked out that we could live together, which was great. So it all worked out pretty smoothly!

I honestly think a humanities degree is a golden ticket to being a capable, well-rounded and conscientious individual. You learn so much in so many different ways, and because its subjectively marked unlike maths and sciences, it really teaches you how to argue competently. It also really teaches you to question everything as you’re getting so much information from lots of different sources. Versatility is another thing, as I’ve undertook such a broad range of work which includes document commentaries, source analysis, reports essays, group presentations, controlled assessments, exams, a dissertation and so on – you learn to stay fluid.”

Blyth Crawford studies Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and will embark on a MSc in Security Studies in London this September.

“I decided what I wanted to pursue a masters in Security Studies very late so I didn’t have much specific experience before this. For me, it was all about finding ways to make what I had done relevant to what I wanted to do. My undergrad is in Anthropology so I took some time to brainstorm what skills I learned from that, and then made it really clear in my applications that having a great understanding of people would really help me in studying security and politics, particularly from a psychological perspective. I had also completed a year abroad during my degree so that also helped me present myself as someone who’d worked really hard and had some international experience. I think it sort of shows that if you haven’t done the whole internship thing you’re not totally hopeless!

I decided (vaguely) around January this year what I might want to do after graduation, but it’s still a process and as I learn more, I’ll be more sure of my future. My degree in Anthropology helped me decide as I learned from that, I loved studying people, and really challenging assumptions about the way we think. I also got really frustrated with Anthropology and its ambivalence with a lot of things so I wanted to go on to study something that could more easily translate in to direct action. My undergrad also helped as it was such an essay based subject, that I found I was able to write personal statements for applications that were pretty interesting and maybe a little unusual which I think helped me stand out from the crowd of applicants.

I’ve definitely learned that you can merge creativity with academia and dense theory, and that often that’s the best way to approach something new. Spending every week reading about a new culture has also given me an interest for travel and foreign affairs I didn’t have before, and has made me want to do something for humanitarian good. I think Anthropology has given me a real idea of how to do that well.”

Anne May Dallendörfer, Classics BA will take a moment to reflect upon graduation before enrolling in a master’s programme, the subject of which is still to be decided.

“I’m still surprised that I ended up studying Classics at King’s. Growing up in Egypt, I actually wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn any of the ancient languages if it hadn’t been for a family friend who was a retired Latin teacher and lived in the same city. It was this teacher who first stirred my interest in the subject, and of course all the ancient temples and monuments in Egypt made me curious about ancient civilisations too. So I chose to continue studying what I enjoyed doing most in school and the opportunity to study at King’s just came up at the right moment at the right time, but I never had a clear vision of what I was going to do after my studies.

I haven’t completely decided yet what I want to do next. I would like to do a Masters programme at some point, but I still don’t know what subject. I don’t just want to rush into taking the next step, investing time and money in something that might not be the right thing, so I’m thinking about doing a gap year abroad to pick up another language or to do an internship with a charity to do leadership training and to grow in basic life skills. Going into teaching might also be a viable option.

There are still a lot of things to be learnt and improved on, but I’ve definitely found out a lot about myself in these three years. For example, what it means to be an introvert and how to make active time to rest. I’ve learnt and am still learning to organise my schedule and that it’s okay and actually vital to say ‘no’ to things. Persistence and discipline unfortunately are still things I definitely have to work on, but I’ve definitely learnt from the mistakes I’ve made and it’s good that university is such a place where one is free to make mistakes and learn from them.”




This article originally appeared in the online edition of Roar in May 2018. 



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