6 Ways 'Unprofitable' Degrees Can Still Lead to a Great Job

by Emma Bates
Image shows a row of old-fashioned lamps on a library table.Looking at discussions of higher education, at least in the UK, it can sometimes feel like STEM subjects (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) are the only ones that count.

You should also read…

Certainly, it seems like they’re the only subjects that will get you one of the limited number of highly-paid, well-respected jobs available to growing numbers of graduates. There’s a huge drive to get more women to study STEM subjects, but no comparable move to get more men to study languages, despite the fact that the gender gap is greater in that area (the graduating class of 2012 in the UK studying Physical Sciences was 57% male, 43% female, whereas only 31% of their contemporaries studying languages were male). This year’s A-level results showed a fall in the overall pass rates, but this was still heralded as a success because it can be linked to an increase in students taking “harder” subjects such as sciences and Maths.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Careers articles."

Image shows a book lying open on a library floor.
Are STEM subjects the only ones that count?

This is undoubtedly good news for students for whom spending three years studying Chemistry sounds like bliss, but what of everyone else? Those interested in English, History, Drama, Media, Film or any of the social sciences? Is it a case of shoving your passions to one side for the sake of a good job?
There’s an argument to be made that the job you’ll get at the end of your degree isn’t the important thing; that we should study what we love based on the inherent value of learning. Yet while the inherent value of learning is not to be dismissed, with the prospect of £16,000 fees on the horizon, few students will be in a position to commit to a degree without some prospect of a job that will enable them to pay off that terrifying mountain of debt. Thankfully, it isn’t actually a choice between STEM and poverty, regardless of how the media (and certain Cabinet ministers) may choose to portray it. You can do an ‘unprofitable’ degree – the kind of degree that makes people ask “what are you going to do with that?” – and still come out with a great job. Here’s why.

1. The hours you spend in lectures aren’t the only hours you spend gaining skills

Image shows a bored-looking lecture audience.
Lecture time can sometimes be less important than independent study.

The average student has around 14 contact hours a week, but this isn’t divided evenly between different subjects. Med students can expect to have at least 20 timetabled hours of lectures and practicals, whereas History students, on average, have less than half of that. So it would seem to make sense that students studying Medicine – or anything with a similar course load, which usually means STEM – will be learning more. There’s certainly more in the way of easily quantifiable stuff to learn in those fields; aside from testable skills, med students also have to memorise an astonishing number of facts. How can anything in the humanities – which, from GSCE level onwards, can’t really be assessed by the multiple-choice consideration of facts – hope to compare?
The answer should (hopefully) be obvious: contact hours aren’t everything. A humanities student could be spending just as long studying in total, when library hours are added to contact hours. I say could because the statistics suggest otherwise – the total average workload of a university student is about 27 hours a week; most STEM students do more, most non-STEM students do less.
Yet even this difference doesn’t make a non-STEM degree less valuable – at least, it doesn’t make the 3-4 years you’ve spent in university studying said degree less valuable. We could assume that our average student, with his or her 27 hours of study time, is maybe working 10 hours per week part time, and devoting another 5 hours on top of that to extra-curricular activities. By contrast, the typical med student is probably putting in less time to extra-curricular activities and probably doesn’t have time for part-time work at all. All of this time is taken into account by employers – they may be impressed by your high-value STEM degree, but they may well be just as impressed with the 3 years of sales experience you have from working in the alumni office a couple of evenings a week, or the organisational skills you learned as President of the Knitting Society. If you expect your degree to land you a job all on its own, you’ll be disappointed – but if you can demonstrate the value of all the activities you took part in at your university, your CV will look very appealing indeed.

2. Many, many jobs simply require a 2.1

Image shows the New York skyline.
Many top employers don’t care about your subject, just your degree classification.

Accenture. Aldi. Deloitte. Freshfields. GlaskoSmithKline. KPMG. L’Oreal. MI5. Teach First. What does every company in this diverse group of graduate employers have in common? It’s that for their graduate schemes, they accept a degree from a very wide number of disciplines – in the majority of cases, any degree will do, so long as it’s at least a 2.1.
This is crucial because many students think they should take subjects that they don’t think they’ll enjoy studying, which may not be the ones they’re best at, on the principle that those subjects will be the best route to a good job. Not only is this attitude mistaken, but it may be actively counter-productive. After all, most people do better when they’re studying a subject that they enjoy. These graduate employers’ requirements show that getting the best possible grade is more important than second-guessing what might be the best possible subject. Instead, pick the best possible subject for you.
This is true in all but the most specialised areas. We don’t recommend going for graduate entry to Medicine as the competition for the limited number of places available is fierce, but for other fields, there are often opportunities to change direction far later than you would think. For instance, Law degrees are by far not the only route into working for a law company; non-law graduates are in fact highly in demand, and can make up as much as 50% of the intake at some firms. This is partly because:

3. Transferable skills are real skills

Image shows someone looking at a graph on a computer.
Transferrable skills are highly valued.

Our culture has a tendency to play down the value of “soft skills.” Writing emails, talking to clients, proofreading documents, planning events, addressing meetings, giving cogent presentations – these are easy things, surely? They go alongside being able to operate a photocopier and type at a reasonable pace – we expect pretty much anyone to be able to do them.
Yet it’s not the case that everyone can. Even the photocopier part can be something of a challenge. You may not need a degree to be able to do these things, but chances are, by the time you’ve spent three years in higher education, you’re reasonably competent at them. You might have defended your view on Hamlet’s madness to your seminar group. You might have composed polite but persuasive emails asking for an extension on your essay. You might have run events for societies or negotiated discounts for student union members. All of these things are directly relevant and hugely valuable for pretty much any variety of office job.
It’s true that the jobs you’ll get with a humanities degree won’t, for the most part, be clearly related to the things you spent so long learning (unless you go into teaching or academia). But studying Law is nothing like practising Law; studying Medicine is nothing like being a GP. The skills that employers value from your degree may not feel like the most important part of what you learned – they may feel like something you picked up, incidentally, along the way. Nonetheless, they will be valued.

4. “Recruit for attitude, train for skills”

Image shows smiling job applicants at a recruitment event.
Your attitude to work can be the most important thing.

Alongside the need for soft skills is the HR manager’s favourite motto: ‘recruit for attitude, train for skills.’ The theory goes that it’s much easier to find someone with the right attitude – such as a willingness to learn, try new things and be a pleasant person to work with – and train them to do the specialist thing you require, than it is to find someone who already knows how to do that thing but who would need to rewire their entire personality in order to be tolerable to share an office with.
This is only comforting up to a point, since someone with the right attitude and the right skills will presumably be at the top of the recruitment list. But the principle still stands. Very few employees require no training whatsoever, so if you can excel at those things that can’t be taught, you should find doors opening even in industries that might seem to have no relation whatsoever to your degree.

5. If you spend 3 years studying, you shouldn’t compare yourself someone who’s spent a decade studying

Image shows a stethoscope against pink fabric.
Don’t just consider the degree, but the amount of subsequent training it takes to get to a decent level.

It’s easy to feel resentful of med students. There’s the saying – what do you call someone who graduates bottom of the Medicine class? Doctor. Once they finish their degree, they can waltz straight into a job that anyone’s grandmother will think is wonderful, and once they’re in that system, they’d have to make a real hash of it to end up unemployed.
The thing is that this isn’t quite the reality of the situation. Becoming a doctor is a long slog of five years of med school, two foundation years where the length and intensity of shifts brings a new meaning to the word ‘exhaustion’ and three to eight further years of training to achieve a specialisation – including for general practice. That’s ten to fifteen years of studying in some manner. Given that, it seems a little unfair to be grumbling that you don’t have the same pay or career security after three years of an undergraduate degree.
If it seems that doctors still get a better deal, being respected, well-paid and more-or-less recession-proof, consider something like architecture. Yes, the average salary is a very healthy-sounding £40,000. But it takes seven years to become an architect, and 22% of architects are unemployed. Four years after the end of your degree – as a peer of those architecture graduates – you might expect to have accrued enough skills in the workplace to keep yourself from the dole queue. That is, but for the fact that…

6. The idea of planning for a job for life has become obsolete anyway

Image shows a bell, an apple and a spelling book on a wooden table.
Your job doesn’t need to be easily summarised in order to be valuable.

Some attitudes to careers planning can feel like they come from primary school, where the only jobs that count are ones that can be summarised in a single word. Programmer. Engineer. Doctor. Lawyer. Teacher. The kind of job where you start at entry level and slowly get promoted, staying in that one career for the rest of your life, until you emerge with a shiny pension. This may have been the way of life for some – though by no means all – of the Baby Boomer generation. It is certainly not going to be the way of life for the Millennials. The idea that the average person changes career seven times in their lifetime has been disputed but the impression it gives still rings true.
It’s true that ‘unprofitable’ degrees don’t lead neatly to those easily-defined single-word jobs. That seems to be at the heart of the difficulty of answering, “what are you going to do with that?” The answer is not one single, particular thing. The answer is that there are a huge range of different things. And being able to do a range of different things, rather than training for one specific position, must surely be seen as an advantage, not a downside.
Given the current economic situation, it’s hard not to be a little gloomy. The flip side of “non-STEM degrees can give you just as many options as STEM degrees” is “STEM degrees are now offering as few options as non-STEM degrees” – the straightforward route from degree to prosperity is gone, if it ever existed. Yet there is plenty of cause for optimism. You can do the degree you want to do, study the thing you love, and still get a great career at the end of it, regardless of which discipline it is that you want to pursue.


Your email will not be shared and you can unsubscribe whenever you want with a simple click.

Image credits: banner; book; lecture; New York; office worker; smiling applicants; stethoscope; teaching.