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The Employability of Humanities Majors

Preparing for college can be one of the most stressful times of a student’s life. From selecting a school and finding a roommate, to buying the essentials and crunching numbers—the list goes on.

However, nothing can be more stressful than deciding which major to pursue. This choice not only affects the student’s experience at school, but it also dictates his future, including financial, geographical and other career-related concerns. As artist E. St. John once said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented—or disoriented—than the choice of a major.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 80 percent of U.S. students will change their major at least once. Most colleges and universities require students to have a declared major by the end of sophomore year, so they can complete all of the courses needed to obtain enough credits for a four-year degree. In addition, at least 50 percent of students entering college are undecided about their major.

McDowell Senior High School guidance counselor Scott Boyd said the best approach a student can take when selecting a major is to “understand [yourself] and know your skills, aptitudes, interests and abilities.”

According USA TODAY College, the ten most popular college majors in the U.S. are history, English language and literature, liberal arts and sciences/general studies, accounting, criminal justice and corrections, teacher education, general biology, nursing, psychology, and business administration. Though some of these majors, such as English, have been decreasing in numbers, pursuing a more general major may just pay off in the long term.

English Is More Than the Language We Speak

Not all English majors end up as the stereotypical stuffy old professor; there are numerous other career options. Though there has been a decline of the number of students graduating with English degrees, it remains in the top ten college majors in the United States. According to the New York Times, 165 students graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1991. By 2012, that number was down to 62.

Students may shy away from majoring in English out of fear of not finding a job outside of teaching. The recent push by the U.S. in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education has most students focused on pursuing careers in engineering, technology or medicine because they are higher-paying, more sought-after positions.

But before you think you have to exchange a pen for a test tube, understand that a degree in English can be very versatile because the coursework teaches students how to think critically, analyze deeply and write clearly. According to the Stanford University English department, “As an English major, you are developing a heightened awareness of the power of language. Your considerable vocabulary, understanding of style, advanced critical thinking abilities and experience writing complex, original work gives you distinctive verbal capabilities: precision, subtlety, persuasiveness and clarity all number among the tools at your disposal.”

Individuals with a degree in English typically pursue careers in teaching, law, editing and publishing. Other interesting career pathways English majors could pursue are copywriting, technical writing, public relations or social media managing.

Those looking for higher-paying or highly sought-after careers in this field need to be prepared for more than a four-year investment. “In most cases, these majors often require post-bachelor degrees or certifications, so students will be looking at 5-7 years of schooling,” Boyd said.

Skills Beyond the History Textbooks
At least once along the way, parents of a history major have asked their child, “What are you going to do with this?” Perhaps it is just a love of history that leads a history major to study it, but as it turns out, history degrees are comparable to English degrees in skill building. They both provide the recipient with important analytical skills. However, the skills are taught alongside information that is unique to the subject.

Similar to English and other humanities majors, history majors typically go on to study law or become a teacher or professor. Many adults with history degrees also desire to become historians. McDowell graduate Annette McDannel attends Penn State Behrend and plans to major in history. She expressed her love for history and said her passion for the subject was what influenced her decision when selecting her major. “I think some students shy away from these types of majors because there aren’t as many jobs,” McDannel said.

According to Eastern Washington University, the skills a history major acquires include “solid writing skills, effective speaking skills, the ability to ask good questions, research and investigative ability, the ability to analyze information critically, the ability to view problems in a larger context while still paying attention to detail, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, foreign language, and information technology skills.” By putting these skills to use, history majors may be able to find jobs working for law firms, cultural heritage organizations, archives, museums and even in grant writing.

Get Psyched
Students who have a genuine interest in helping others tend to want to pursue psychology in college. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot become a therapist with just a bachelor’s degree in psychology. According to the College Majors Handbook, the top ten jobs that only require a bachelor’s degree in psychology fall under the following categories: management, sales, social work, personnel, health care and even financial specialists.

Psychology majors who intend to be therapists often go on to earn post-bachelor degrees and/or certifications. Typical careers in this field include psychiatry, clinical psychology, school psychology and special education teaching.

Some of the most important skills that psychology majors develop while in college enable students to be flexible when working in various fields. According to Psychology Today as outlined in the American Psychological Association’s white paper regarding the increasing number of psychology majors, the ten skills that make students more marketable when job-searching are that they can:

1. Predict and understand the behavior of individuals and groups.
2. Understand how to use and interpret data.
3. Evaluate the legitimacy of claims about behavior.
4. Know how memory and learning function.
5. Have insight into problematic behaviors.
6. Demonstrate the capacity to adapt to change.
7. Understand and operate effectively throughout the channels of an organization.
8. Manage difficult situations and high stress environments.
9. Start and carry out projects with limited information or experience.
10. Show persistence in challenging circumstances.

Despite claims about careers in these three humanities majors requiring further degrees and certifications, those with a four-year degree in these areas are still perfectly employable. Depending on the individual’s personal interests and abilities, one can earn a degree in any of these three majors and pursue a career in something completely unrelated because of the nature of the coursework and skills acquired during the undergraduate studies.

About Lilly Hanko

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