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 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 media, 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, there is 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 choose a language which often gives you the opportunity of an extra year abroad. The BA Connect programme in 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, social care, and film and documentary in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT ) have proven popular choices in recent years, each of which leads to a Level 8 honours degree.

Career prospects

There is a common misconception that arts degrees do not make for strong career prospects. Unlike vocational degrees, they are not geared towards a direct qualification such as nursing or primary teaching, hence are considered gateway degrees. The advantage of these degrees is that many students are not yet ready to fully decide on a specific vocation at 17 years of age. Nowadays however it is not that different from studying psychology, law, science, or accounting, as with these degrees, the majority of students go on to complete a postgraduate qualification. In most faculties, it is the postgraduate qualification that gives students the edge in a competitive environment and raises their job prospects. Postgraduate courses are expensive so some students gain valuable work experience, employment, or engage in internships before further investing in their education.

Arts graduates are highly valued by employers. Teaching, journalism, and the civil service are full of arts graduates and generally have an impressive track record of employability in the public and creative arts sectors. It may take them longer to get there, but when they do, they reach senior positions within organisations. Those with languages and IT skills are in high demand. 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.” 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 every 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 an 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 gradireland.com, 40 per cent of all graduate vacancies do not ask for specific degree subjects. Communication, the ability to deal with people, and empathy skills are sought after in many companies regardless of the sale product.

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