“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life” are words often said by students who undertake a degree in arts and humanities. And it makes sense why they would choose this area of study if they are unsure about their long-term career path.
The wide range of subject options means graduates have a variety of fields to choose from, as opposed to a fixed, linear path.
Loretta Brady, the recruitment projects officer for the college of arts, Celtic studies and social sciences at University College Cork (UCC), said while this is a benefit for many prospective students, for others it can actually be a deterrent.
“As human beings, we tend to like certainty. That’s where engineering and pharmacy and so on give people a level of security and certainty. Arts really is the opposite in that it is all about giving you a choice,” she said.
“It’s a broad, open-ended degree that leaves you with lots of postgraduate study options and career options. But I think the difficulty for students and parents, it can give them a kind of anxiety.”
However, Brady said the fact that it’s not a “cookie cutter course” is to be looked at favourably, allowing students to discover their interests in a broader sense before deciding on a specialised career.
The Leaving Certificate curriculum is quite regimented in terms of its subject offering, she said.
Moving into an arts degree at third level allows students to try new things that they may not have encountered before.
“You’d be surprised with the number of students who actually choose these subjects, things like philosophy, sociology, archaeology, or whatever it may be,” she said.
“The number of students that fall for those subjects when they’re exposed to them, and it can lead them to a completely different trajectory in terms of postgraduate study or career options. I think that’s quite important if you don’t know what you want to be.”
There has been focus in recent years, in particular, on the CAO points race for many university courses. In 2021, even people who received the maximum 625 points were unable to get a place in their top course choice due to increased demand and point inflation.
However, points to access arts courses are generally on the more accessible side, which is another reason for their popularity.
In UCC, for example, points for arts degrees this year ranged from 300 to 601, while in Maynooth University, a Bachelor of Arts required 338 points.
University College Dublin (UCD) has three streams of arts degrees: the three-year joint honours, which required 381 points in 2021; modern languages, which required 320; and a humanities degree, which includes a year abroad, a research project or internship, and which required 397 points.
This is a positive for students who may have been disappointed with their Leaving Certificate results. It may allow them to move on to third level, where many young people find achieving academic success more attainable due to the decreased focus on one singular exam.
While all of that sounds positive, there is still very much a perception that arts degrees fail to set graduates up for life.
Indeed, if you look only at immediate progression to employment and earnings, you could be fooled into thinking that arts degrees are a waste of time.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) 2018 graduate outcome survey found that arts and humanities courses had the lowest proportion of graduates working or about to start a job, standing at 63 per cent.
Arts and humanities graduates are the lowest paid on average, with younger graduates from the field earning about €25,300 a year on average nine months after graduation.
But that doesn’t tell the full picture. It might take arts graduates longer to reach their true earning potential, but that is often because many choose to undertake further study as postgraduates before entering the workforce.
A survey by the HEA found that arts and humanities graduates have the highest proportion in further study at 24 per cent. They also have one of the lowest drop-out rates when compared with other courses, standing at about 23 per cent.
Previously, those who undertook study in this field generally progressed on to being secondary school teachers.
While that is still an option for many graduates, the fields in which they can go into are now much more varied than ever before, with many now entering marketing, advertising, journalism, technology and law.
This move has been facilitated, in some ways, by the recent advent of graduate programmes, many of which do not require a particular field of study to be accepted on to the programme.
This means graduates can learn area-specific expertise on the job, while bringing their general understanding of society into the workplace.
According to associate professor Gillian Pye, the dean for undergraduate studies in arts and humanities at UCD, the skills that arts graduates have are highly sought after in the workplace.
As the working world becomes more digitised, it delineates the need for good communicators, linguists and mediators.
“The pandemic has really accelerated that move to the future workplace a lot quicker than we thought we would and obviously machines are going to be doing more and more tasks. So we don’t need graduates to be like machines, we need them to be more human,” she said.
“The more machines are doing these jobs, the more we’re going to need people with these human skills.”
The study of literature, for example, allows graduates to critically evaluate and empathise the emotions and actions of individuals; a vital skill for many leadership roles.
Through the study of these subjects, students obtain an ability to examine why humans act in the mannerisms in which they do, and to analyse these situations in order to find solutions to the problems that may arise.
“It feeds back into society,” Prof Pye said.
Science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) courses have for years been trumped as the most lauded area of study, but that acronym has evolved further to Steam, which includes the arts.
This too shows that the skills of arts graduates are now more valuable than ever and a valued addition to society. The skills taught on these courses are readily transferable, Prof Pye said.
She cited the World Economic Forum’s list of employable skills which highlights the importance of analytical thinking, innovation, active learning, problem solving, creativity, resilience, leadership and flexibility.
“They’re [arts students] learning to research, to organise information, to analyse it and they’re getting that from a range of sources,” Prof Pye said.
“They’re all learning to gather evidence, to examine it from reversed perspectives and to think about complexity and ambiguity.”
The disciplines of the courses themselves are just as important, she added, describing them as “social capital”.
“The way the arts and humanities have become, they’re always working across the boundaries of subjects. In the joint honours, for example, a student might be majoring in two different disciplines,” she said.
“That will be super important in the world of work because they are working in multidisciplinary teams.”