Not all doom and gloom; the benefits of an arts degree

It’s a common misconception that arts degrees are for those who don’t know what else to do. Contrary to popular belief, holding an arts degree can be very beneficial, depending on what you make of it. 

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) degrees often get a bad reputation due to the stereotype that a humanities-based degree will lead to a low-paying job. Students are encouraged at second-level to study science, engineering, technology or business-related subjects, as these are seen as more lucrative career sectors, which will contribute to economic growth and development. However, while the importance of the science, engineering, technology and business sectors is indeed significant, a new study carried out by Oxford University in the UK has shown that humanities-based degrees are of vital importance to society, the economy and to the graduates who hold these qualifications despite the fact that ‘the need to demonstrate the impact and value of Humanities higher education to society and the economy has intensified during the recent period of economic crisis’. A similar report was published in 2010 by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS), which sheds light on the importance of AHSS degrees within an Irish context. Both reports show similar general trends in the careers of humanities graduates.

The report carried out by Oxford University is based on data acquired from surveying 11,000 humanities alumni from Oxford University. It surveyed the career patterns of the alumni over a significant period of time (1960 –1989, encompassing all kinds of economic trends), displaying the long term career achievements of the alumni, rather than relying on data acquired six months after graduation: ‘The length of the period and the time elapsed since their graduation allows for a better understanding of employment trends than immediate graduate destination surveys do’. The report shows that investing in AHSS is worthwhile due to the social and economic contributions made by the graduates in this field. According to their research, 80% of graduates found careers in the following five sectors: education, media, law, finance and management.

The report carried out by the HEA and IRCHSS also draws attention to the important role arts, humanities and social sciences play in the Irish economy, both directly and indirectly:

‘We also need to be careful about stereotypical assumptions about disciplines, for example, assuming that economics is only about improving the financial functioning of society or that law is about regulation. Each of these disciplines may in fact contribute much more to societal cohesion and sustainability; and it may well be the literature scholars who have greater economic impact.’

Both the HEA and IRCHSS report and the Oxford report draw attention to the fact that many humanities graduates go on to work in the law, finance and education sectors, contributing extensively to the development of society and the economy.

Vast opportunities

One of the most interesting findings from this report is the vast range of career sectors in which AHSS graduates are employed. Similarly, it is interesting to note that both reports found that a substantial number of humanities graduates changed career sectors from their first graduate position. The movement between sectors is perhaps the most appealing aspect of a humanities degree; it should serve to offer graduates more certainty of securing a position, as opposed to entertaining the notion that those with a humanities degree will find it more difficult to find a job than those in other sectors. Movement between roles and sectors also shows a graduate’s first job does not define the entire course of his or her career path and offers options and diversity. The IRCHSS report also displays how the most valuable aspect of a humanities degree is the vast skill set graduates are equipped with upon graduation. Both reports state that these degrees provide graduates with the skills that are most sought-after by employers, such as communication skills, research and analysis, creativity, self-confidence and critical and analytical thinking.

‘… [Humanities] disciplines make a unique contribution to the creative and cultural industries and contribute to developing a wide range of generic skills beyond specific qualifications, such as critical and analytical thinking, cultural awareness, communication, etc.’

The IRCHSS report notes that the contributions made by arts and humanities graduates ‘make Ireland an attractive place in which to live and do business’, thereby indirectly playing a part in economic growth. The arts are also an intricate part of Irish culture and history, and give us our ‘national identity and sense of self’, and promote tourism into the country. One of the major successes during Ireland’s recent presidency of the Council of the European Union was the agreement reached to invest €70.2 billion in research and innovation; €11.9 billion of that will go to the European Research Council, with 38% of this figure being used to fund research into societal changes through both sciences and the humanities (Irish Times – 25th July 2013

There are countless options open to graduates due to the valuable skills associated with these degrees. Ultimately, humanities graduates who are currently job hunting should emphasise their transferable skills on their CVs and gain valuable work experience, rather than believing the often untrue rhetoric which says that a degree in humanities will lead to a low-paying job; it is therefore up to the graduate to decide how valuable their degree is and how they will put it to use.

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Where are the gaps for graduates? Report on the National Skills Bulletin 2013


There is an increasingly diverse range of opportunities for graduates in the Irish labour market compared with previous years, according to the recently published National Skills Bulletin, compiled by the Expert Group for Future Skills Needs (EGFSN). This year’s bulletin points to a more flexible jobs market and more work opportunities for those seeking employment. The figures indicate that overall market stability has improved in 2012 and, what’s more, graduates who pursue a course of study up to honours level 8 (National Framework Qualifications, see image below) are more likely to find employment following graduation.


Where are the jobs?

As expected, some sectors indicate more demand than others, notably information and computer technology (ICT), engineering, finance, business, health and increasingly cross-discipline skills such as ICT and a language or engineering with a bio-medical focus.

Information Technology

This demand complements gradireland’s research into graduate recruitment, as published in our 2013 directory, and we know that the IT and accountancy/financial management companies are currently recruiting the most graduates. In terms of trends the Bulletin says; ‘Over the period 2007-2012 the ICT sector recorded the strongest growth, adding 11,000 net jobs.’

This is consistent with the establishment of European headquarters for many of the world’s biggest technology, internet and social media enterprises in Dublin, and our healthy start-up culture. Many IT companies also report that they are unable to fill vacancies due to skills shortages in this area, especially with regard to mobile technology, cloud computing and web development, making these skills particularly marketable for graduates.


Another sector that has seen increased demand according to the Bulletin is the engineering sector, both at professional and technician level and especially in the areas of medical devices, polymer technology and pharmaceutical manufacturing. This is supported by the increasing amount of pharmaceutical and bio-medical device manufacturing companies in Ireland, such as GmbH and Vistacon. Additional sectors which indicate demand are food technology and quality control. According to the National Skills Bulletin; ‘there is a demand for engineering expertise combined with the skills necessary for interaction with customers.’

This reflects the trend for integrated professional development modules within engineering programmes in many institutions.

Bringing it home

Overall, the report’s authors say that graduates have a more favourable position in the labour market than in recent years and despite the fact that many vacancies are quite specialised, there are still considerable opportunities for students from a broad range of disciplines. ‘Although the (skills) shortages continue to be primarily confined to niche skill areas and in most instances remain of low magnitude, this year’s Bulletin highlights the persistence of skills shortages in the areas of ICT, science, engineering, sales, marketing, business, finance and healthcare.’

However, those students graduating with language skills are also being favoured by many global players, who offer employment opportunities in a variety of sectors including sales, IT, customer service and PR and marketing.

Getting Experience

Ireland’s recent economic turmoil has resulted in some advantages for graduates, the silver lining being that employers are now recruiting graduates through graduate schemes and internships all year round rather than just through the traditional ‘milkround’. This is significant as employers now consider work experience to be of complementary value to skills obtained in third level. Una Halligan, Chairperson of the EGFSN confirms this; ‘What is worth noting is the continuing emphasis by employers on the importance of work experience. Recruiters are not only looking for appropriately qualified staff but also employability skills gained through work placements.’

Contrary to popular opinion it seems there are indeed jobs for graduates, if you know where to look. Although many areas are specialised, there are no shortage of postgraduate courses tailored to these areas and many come in the form of conversion courses, taught masters and higher diplomas. Queens University offers a Software Development conversion course, while NCAD offers a postgraduate course in Medical Device Design and Trinity College Dublin offers a cross discipline course in Health Informatics. If further study isn’t for you, there are great graduate programmes in these areas too. Ericsson for example has opportunities in research and software development – typically for engineering and computer science students. BNY Mellon on the other hand, offers careers in financial services from a range of disciplines, including business and a language and international commerce courses.

A wide range of graduate jobs and postgraduate study opportunities can be found at and