Why your choice of degree might be less important to your future than you think

My daughter fell in love with Latin when she was just 11 and won her school’s Latin scholar prize most of her later years. When we discussed whether she should go to university and if so what she would study, it became clear that studying classics would feature in her decision. 

The British Library describes classics as:

‘The study of Graeco-Roman antiquity, from the middle of the 

2nd millennium BC to the end of the 6th century AD, from the

height of the Aegean Bronze Age down to late antiquity. It includes

the study of the history, literature, languages, religion, philosophy, 

art, and culture of the Greek and Roman world during this period.’

Given the long time period covered, the wide range of issues covered, and the number of significant historical people involved, classical studies is considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities and the foundation of a good education.

Although she had no idea what type of job or career she might pursue after university, my daughter was concerned that a classics degree might be seen by prospective employers as inferior to a STEM subject like maths, science or computer science. I disagreed.

While STEM degrees are valuable and do demonstrate useful skills and capabilities that can form the basis of many high-tech and highly paid jobs, they are not the be all and end all necessary to develop a rewarding and stimulating career.

I pointed out to my daughter that studying a wide-ranging humanities subject like classics helps one to understand people - their fears and motivations; analyse and understand large amounts of information; develop self-discipline and self organisation; and develop an appreciation of wider society and how cultures develop, evolve and adapt.

I also pointed out that studying a subject for three years that she really loves would be much easier and more enjoyable than studying one she didn’t! My daughter decided to study classics at Durham, which has an excellent classics department.

Towards to end of her first year I received a ‘motivation SOS’ from my daughter in the form of a text saying she was getting fed up with a few fellow students saying things like ‘What can you do with a classics degree?’; ‘If you aren’t studying a STEM subject you’ll never get a decent job.’; ‘You’re wasting your time with classics.’. 

I decided, therefore, to do some research into the beliefs of these other students (and probably their misinformed parents) that getting a STEM degree leads to higher pay on graduation and turbo charges one’s career.

In 2008 Vivek Wadhwa and his research team at Duke and Harvard universities surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. They found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts and the humanities [my emphasis].

Professor Wadhwa has been involved in hiring over a thousand people and has found no link between what people study and how successful they are at work. “What makes people successful are their motivations, drive, and ability to learn from mistakes and how hard they work.”

In her 2009 book - You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career, Katherine Brooks made an important point “The saddest thing to me is seeing someone take a job because it pays well and then spend all that money on toys to cheer themselves up for being so miserable in their jobs. The people who are doing what they love hardly feel they’re working at all, just living.”

Just to be clear, STEM subjects are important and valuable and if you enjoy and are good at them, they can make a good degree choice. But if you would enjoy and have better results from studying a non-STEM subject, you won’t necessarily be disadvantaged in your future success.

I’ve shared these insights with my daughter and told her to enjoy her time at university, enjoy her classics studies and stop worrying about what job she’ll get when she graduates in a few years’ time. If she comes out with a decent grade and has the attributes that Professor Wadhwa says unpin successful and happy people, she’ll be just fine – and so will you.

Jason Butler