An arts degree: Is it worth it?

A common question from students this time of year is, “What exactly is an arts degree”? Otherwise known as humanities education, this is a broad qualification, offering you a wide range of two-subject combinations to degree level. Bachelor of Arts degrees are diverse and encompass a wide interest area, including English, history, geography, psychology, law, music, computers, and languages. Humanities students could also have BAs in business, economics, maths, and politics. In addition to academic study, students acquire transferable skills in critical thinking, problem solving, communications, digital expertise, and creative solutions to problems.

Structure of arts

For the majority of arts degrees, you have the choice to study three subjects in first arts and continue to study two of the subjects that you pass in first year to degree level. Most arts courses take three years, unless you are taking a language, which often gives you the opportunity of an extra year abroad. The BA CONNECT programme in NUI Galway offers a four-year degree with one specialist subject area and two other subjects. You finish with a BA in your chosen subjects but also a wealth of knowledge and experience in your specialism which includes areas from journalism to film studies and human rights. Arts students make up almost a third of the entire student population in NUI Galway. Heritage studies and film and documentary in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT ) have proven popular choices in recent years each of which lead to Level 8 honours degrees.

Career prospects

There is a common misperception that arts degrees do not make for strong career prospects as, unlike vocational degrees, they are not geared towards a direct qualification such as nursing or primary teaching. An arts degree is generally seen as a gateway degree. In this regard, statistics on postgraduate employment provide a truer representation of job prospects. The advantage of gateway degrees is that many students are not yet ready to fully decide on their chosen vocation. This is not that different from studying for psychology, law, or accounting as with these degrees, you also need a postgraduate qualification and relevant work experience in order to qualify in your chosen profession. Even students of business and commerce degrees nowadays find that as they progress, it is their postgraduate qualification that gives them the edge in a competitive environment. Postgraduate courses however are expensive so some students gain valuable work experience, employment, or engage in internships before further investment in their education.

Arts graduates are highly valued by employers. Teaching, journalism, and the civil service are full of arts graduates which generally have an impressive track record of employability in the public and creative arts sectors. The main areas that are difficult or impossible to access from arts degrees are engineering and science, as the bulk of the foundations of technical expertise form part of the undergraduate degree.

To do or not to do?

The single worst piece of advice I have heard given in relation to arts degrees is, “If you don’t know what to do, do an arts course.” How anyone could say this about a course where you are potentially investing the guts of €3,000 a year beggars belief. It is this type of nonsensical guidance that gives the area of arts the woolly reputation it does not deserve. On the contrary, if you choose an arts degree, be fully informed about all your options, as with any degree, or it could well be a waste of time. It is not worthless if you have realistic expectations about what you can do with it afterwards. Again, on the topic of points snobbery, if you have interest and passion for a subject or area, go in that direction, regardless of whether you have over 500 points or not, but be fully informed on progession routes. According to the graduate careers site gradireland, 40 per cent of all graduate vacancies do not ask for specific degree subjects, which is encouraging news for those who decide to follow their hearts regardless.

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