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.

For more information on career sectors, visit

You can download our careers guide for this sector at:

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