Hearts and Humanities: The Benefits of Pursuing a Non-Vocational Degree

“The calling of the humanities is to make us truly human in the best sense of the word.” - J Irwin Miller

'What are you going to do with that? Teach?'

For the record, I have nothing but tremendous respect and admiration for those who teach. As caregivers, counselors, life coaches and social workers (amidst many other things), teachers have an immense responsibility to uphold in moulding the young minds of our world. But for the moment, I have no intention to be one. I never had the intention to be one. And my choice of course was not based on a fixed vocation, it was rooted in a passion for learning and a desire not merely for one open door but many.

As a woman entering the workforce, the pressure to carve a successful path in a highly competitive employment era is intimidating. There continues to be a distinctive link between gender, education and the imbalances which exist within our working world. These links manifest themselves in the form of the ever-prevalent gender pay gap, the notorious 'glass ceiling' and also - but perhaps less acknowledged - the disparagement of typically female-dominated fields following what is generally considered a valued avenue of work in our society.

The latter is exemplified by male-dominated courses such as engineering being well paid and generally female-dominated courses such as nursing being despicably underpaid. Likewise with teachers - a profession which was historically one of few opportunities available for women and whose integral role in the building of our society and workforce is completely undervalued as a career - is viewed as the inevitable, last-resort outcome for the likes of us wasteful Arts and Humanities grads who have nothing better to do.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently released statistics stating the gender pay gap had narrowed but disparity remained at a dismal 18% [1]. Depressingly, Deloitte further claimed this gender pay gap would not close until 2069 [2]. These statistics are shocking and discouraging for any woman in the workforce, never mind recent graduates who are uncertain about their career paths.

The statistics conveying inequality here are important but should not dictate our attitudes in how we pursue a career. Quite simply, the statistics will not determine whether you or I find a suitable job or not. The importance lies on not being caged in by the figures or naysaying of a society which is fixed on doing precisely that. What is rarely mentioned is that it has been reported in 2013 that 60% of the UK's world leaders have arts, humanities or social science degrees [source] - a symbol of the huge potential an arts based degree has to facilitate a fruitful and rewarding career.

I studied History at the University of Glasgow from 2011-2015. I specialised in gender-based subjects, most notably Women and Feminist Movements c.1789-1945. This inevitably led me into an inextricable relationship with feminism which served to transform my path completely; deepening my view of the world and opening my eyes to the complexities of this very human life. I still do not know what I am doing with my career but I have never once regretted my degree.

In many ways, even when I frequently failed to attend university and shamefully shunned my education in favour of wild nights in the city and lazy afternoons strolling through Glasgow's Botanical Gardens, obtaining my degree taught me invaluable skills. When third year rolled around, I was convinced my party years had led to an intelligence regression and I was snapped into reality when a lecturer told me I should accept a poor grade because 'most people get 2:2s'. I would not accept this. I wanted to learn more. And so I bucked up my ideas, finally learning to take books out the library and balancing a rigid study regime on top of lectures, work and a term-time internship. In return I received an education that encompassed political, social, cultural, environmental, psychological, economical and, of course, historical concerns. It enriched my knowledge of the world and my skill set. It taught me how to think critically, debate persuasively, write eloquently and, most valuably of all, to live meaningfully.

For myself, the decision to study was always about pursuing my own interests. I had the privilege of a free education in Scotland and I remain incredibly grateful for this opportunity which so few people in the world have. My decision was not driven by the prospect of financial gain to compensate for my debt-burdening university years. Although, in my view, my degree was a springboard for a career. I slogged weekends working in a supermarket, wishing for a more stimulating job with better money and prospects. I knew my degree was a pathway to this. But I also knew it was not the only pathway to success.

Many people with degrees are not always deemed conventionally successful. Conversely, there are many people with no further education who have built massively successful lives and careers. A university degree does not equate a career, just as a career does not always lead to a meaningful life. There are as many different ways to be smart as there are a variety of ways to be successful. However, as many graduates of Arts and Humanities will attest, a non-vocational degree is often diminished as 'pointless' and, well, a waste of time.

'What are you going to do with that?' people will ask. 'Arts degrees are easy,' say those who are not usually proficient in Arts subjects. I care very little for these questions and comments but I understand a course of study not leading to a specific job at the end can be baffling. What's the point? Well, it's not just the invaluable skills learned while obtaining a degree which enhance your employability prospects but a social, political and historical awareness concerns everyone. These fields need to be further examined. Humans need to understand themselves in order to improve themselves and the lives of others. The pursuit of knowledge should not be undermined merely because it cannot be defined vocationally.

And besides, when has more education done more harm than good? If you are in the fortunate position to educate yourself further and learn for the sake of learning, then why not? When did acquiring knowledge become a 'pointless waste of time'? When did learning to work to deadlines on independent projects involving complex theory become easy? When did a social, political and historical human awareness ever hinder our lives? Why is it that cultural subjects are not seen as valuable in an economy where creative and tourism industries are booming? Why do students of Science degrees typically scoff at the pursuit of other non-vocational degrees?

The worst part of this disregard for non-vocational degrees is that a naysaying consciousness has become ingrained in graduates of these courses. It saddens when I hear people refer to their English Literature degree as 'colossal waste of time' or deduce that they are 'never getting a job' based on these negative and frequently unfounded attitudes. The narrow-mindedness of those who cannot think of any profession suited to these courses other than teaching is rather astounding. But the lack of imagination of those who graduate with Arts based degrees makes my heart swell with sadness when I know there are immeasurable benefits of having an open degree.

I landed a graduate job before I even graduated. The job specification required someone creative with the ability to understand complex information and who could write well. It sounded perfect and the role was one which I did not know existed. Furthermore, my History degree did not stop me from obtaining four internships throughout my university career. When I walked away from my graduate job because it was not for me, I had several interviews and two job offers all within a few weeks which I respectfully declined. Finding a job was not easy, but it was certainly possible.

Many people will take down Arts and Humanities degrees as worthless. But when people tell me my opportunities are limited, I tell them my possibilities are endless. When people try to diminish a university education by fobbing individuals off as nothing more than a teacher, I think what a wonderful and challenging role teaching would be. And yet, what a distinct lack of imagination when thinking of a career for someone who could have so many. The working world is competitive and systematically imbalanced in terms of sex, class, money and power. The working world is indeed vocationally biased. But that does not mean we have to be.

The immense possibility of what can happen in your career begins with an open mind and a little imagination. It means being prepared for pursuing something you did not know existed; for being open to change in a way that may be radically different in every professional role you perform. It means knowing how valuable you are as a member of society and aspiring to reach your full potential. You might not always know to how research or find the roles you do not yet know about. You might not always like the roles you do find. Your definition of success may well differ from those around you.

I never wanted one career in my life so I actively pursued an education which could lead to many. I wanted options and avenues for change. A working life does not have to be singular or linear. Other people will try to limit you but do not ever limit yourself. Work hard, be creative, show initiative. Believe in your potential which could lead to so much possibility. The open doors are there but sometimes you have to be tenacious enough to find them. With our current government in place, it is an incredibly long working life - dream big and pursue it boldly. The power of possibility lies in you.