What can you gain from an Arts degree?

Arts students shouldn’t live in a bubble, but their choices are as valid as anyone else’s.

COMMENT“That all sounds very interesting, but what kind of job can she expect to get with this course?” This question came from a concerned mother, flanking her eager but shy daughter in front of the Classics Department’s table at Trinity Open Day 2015. My smile froze, and I stammered something about being able to do anything, really, before swiftly deferring to one of my lecturers. That’s a bloody good question – would you let me know when you’ve figured out the answer?

I was pretty delighted this girl had approached me and asked for every little detail of what my studies entailed, and even more delighted that what she heard seemed to interest her (she even feigned an interest in my dissertation, bless her). In spite of this, I did worry that I was somehow giving her a false promise of a glamorous lifestyle when I myself had no job offers for after my impending graduation.

Her mother’s question is one that is extremely pertinent when choosing a course of study, but it is frequently shoved to the back of the Humanities and Literature students’ minds over the course of their time at university. Sure, there are self-deprecating jokes about the lack of prospects, but the reality behind that kind of humour tends to be ignored. The primary reason for this mental block is the need to stay sane. If you were to pause and examine just how your employability was improving while trying to get to grips with Beckett, you would have a pretty big existential crisis.

In order to focus on the material at hand and get good grades, Arts students have to enter an academic bubble where they don’t question the real-world implications of their study. This is not an attractive trait to prospective employers, who have repeatedly commented that today’s graduates lack an understanding of how the professional world works. Another unattractive trait, however, is not possessing a degree with a good grade – a grade which reflects academic achievement.

So it comes back to the punchline of most Arts jokes: if you want a job, study something else. But despite this assertion, Trinity’s Careers Advisory Service and Alumni Relations Office have managed to find dozens of actual Arts graduates with actual jobs to take part in its GradLink Mentoring programmes for the last few years.

They do not appear to have hired any desperate Drama graduates to pose as successful people. That means that at some point in each alumnus’s life, someone decided that their qualifications, skills, and experience made them a good candidate for the job and gave them that first break which is so vital in building a career – a path that most of them assure us has been far from linear. It stands to reason, then, that Arts students gain some employable skills during their time spent at university, right?

“Spoiled Millennials”

In the last number of weeks, there has been some coverage by Irish news outlets of the graduate jobs market. The Irish Times, in a special pull-out ahead of the Gradireland careers fair, featured an article speculating on the apparent increase in opportunities for graduates in some areas. A couple of days before that, they had run the personal account of a Communications graduate who was facing the dole for the first time.

Journal.ie also ran a story after that, featuring three unemployed graduates discussing their situation; those featured had studied Communications, Ancient and Medieval History, and Journalism. This small sampling is clearly skewed towards Arts students, so it isn’t representative of graduates on the whole, and my suspicion is that those involved are all seeking careers in the competitive field of journalism.

However, what grabbed my interest was not their accounts – pretty much all of my peers are in the same situation – but the reaction of the readers. A quick scroll through the comment section of both articles seems to confirm the deepest, most self-doubting fears of every Arts graduate. A chorus of internet trolls crowing that they had picked sensible STEM subjects belittled those involved in the Journal.ie article, particularly directing their ire at the Ancient and Medieval History graduate. The area was likened to a hobby that shouldn’t be studied by anyone who wants to improve their chances of landing a job. In both articles, there was a strong reaction against what was seen as a whingey tone, and lack of realism by “young people”.

It’s interesting to note that in the previously mentioned Irish Times section on graduate jobs also featured an article exploring the idea that the current wave of youths fresh out of college, as part of the Millennial generation, are entitled and have unrealistic expectations in life. It appears from the most-liked comments on both of the graduate accounts that Arts students need to be prepared for the fact that a lot of people in the real world see them that way.

But do their STEM and Business counterparts not also have to contend with the same issue of managing their own sense of entitlement and other behaviours that present them as stereotypical Millennials? Of course, but they do so armed with the knowledge that their course of study is more attractive to employers, and rightly so in many cases. For the Irish Arts students currently trying to cinch that first paid position, the perceived skill-set gained from their degree no longer carries any kind of cachet.

Where previously, employers advertised training programmes for graduates of all disciplines, many schemes now specify that they are looking for candidates with a degree in a specific discipline but they that they would also be open to more general STEM or Business graduates. Arts students need not apply. The skills acquired in their fields of study are also implicitly devalued in many job specs and discussions on the workforce.

The principle strings to an Arts graduate’s bow tend to be critical thinking, literary research, communication, and time management, all of which are considered soft skills. They’re the kind of attributes employers want their new hires to have, but they’re not generally what will get you past the first massive stack of CVs to the interview. Even the more creative areas of business, like marketing and communications, increasingly seek those who can already analyse numbers and metadata ahead of more literary-minded types.

The other obstacle that Arts graduates face is that areas of employment which have traditionally been open to them are currently in crisis, or changing in a way that even professionals at the top of their game are having a hard time grasping. Even the old reliable, teaching, has been a path rife with joblessness in the last few years. Talented múinteoirí have opted for working abroad, where their most employable attribute is essentially their anglophone origins. Hopefully the recent budget’s plans to hire 2,200 more teachers will provide some benefits to both staff and pupils, but current class sizes and underemployment are still far from desirable by the standards of an OECD country.

The price of culture

On the other hand, the lack of work for Arts graduates in cultural areas is symptomatic of a wider societal issue. For media, museums, music, theatre, and other creative centres, the budget has shrunk. Many organisations don’t have the money to retain their current staff and maintain a decent output, let alone hire new people. The endless unpaid internship cycle associated with people trying to prove themselves in these areas is well-documented. The main reason for this is obvious: people just don’t want to pay for culture.

Aside from rife outright piracy, the evolution of social media, and online publishing and streaming platforms means that everyone can access free art, literature and news. I myself am guilty of reading as many free articles as various paywalls allow me, and simply waiting impatiently until I can view more. Our standards for the free content we consume at increasing speeds are also climbing ever higher. This attitude towards culture is akin to walking into Penneys and hoping for a bespoke, intricate item of clothing for under a fiver. Even if that is possible, it’s because someone in the world was unfairly compensated to make it so.

However, it wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that cultural activities don’t generate revenue in any capacity. Ireland’s rich heritage is repeatedly exploited as a marketing tool for both tourism and Irish exports more generally – the main beneficiaries of this being the hospitality, food and drink industries. Is it right that we continue to trade off of our traditions when we don’t pay our pipers, playwrights and poets; while we continue to cultivate a land of software saints and jobless scholars?

I do not make these points out of bitterness towards the worlds and people of STEM and Business. They are absolutely vital ingredients of a functioning society. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore that the artsy types among us also have a role to play. I also do not believe that unemployed nurses, engineers, accountants, or even construction workers would be blamed for their situation and have their life choices criticised if they were to publicly discuss their lack of success when applying for work, as those presented in the Irish Times and the Journal were.

Of course Arts students need to ensure they are fully aware of the rocky road to employment they are going down when they choose their course of study, but they shouldn’t be entirely discouraged from doing so or ridiculed afterwards. There are plenty of graduates out there who are thriving in not only the creative sector, but also as CEOs, educators, community workers, and all sorts of other impressive positions.

If you were to ask most of these successful people about their journeys, they would describe crisis points in their lives when they weren’t sure what they would end up doing or whether they would make anything of themselves. Many have gone in different directions after their Bachelor’s degree, but I haven’t heard them say that those three or four years were a total waste of time. I myself have returned to full-time education to gain some computer science skills that I think will help me, but I haven’t turned my back on my B.A. so far. You can take the girl out of the Orts Block, but you can’t take the Orts Block out of the girl.

“That all sounds very interesting, but what kind of job can she expect to get with this course?” If I were to meet that mother again, I would tell her this: she can expect nothing, except to learn. But she can still do anything, really, if she puts her mind to it. It’s not very straightforward, but it’s still a path, and just as valid as any of the rest of them.