Arts for art’s sake – but what about a career?

Emily Howard had an English degree and great expectations. Now jobless, she wonders if prospective students are given the whole truth

May 22, 2014

I wish there had been better information. The ‘employability statistics’ in course pamphlets are not as sound as they seem

Throughout my three years of undergraduate study, I consistently rejected the half-joking jibes of friends and fellow students that my course – English – was a “soft option”, a “Mickey Mouse course” and a bit of a waste of time and money. I maintained that I had chosen a traditional academic degree subject that I was passionate about, and I was confident that if I emerged with a good result, the possibilities would be endless.

But despite hugely enjoying my studies and graduating last summer with first-class honours from a Russell Group university, I find myself unemployed and inclined to agree with the sceptics.

Although a considerable number of the large graduate recruitment schemes suggest that they are open to candidates from all academic backgrounds, I am finding that mine doesn’t seem to be what they are looking for. The schemes typically state that they seek students or graduates with demonstrable analytical ability, creativity and communication skills. I am confident that my degree has enabled me to develop these, and that I could demonstrate them effectively to a potential employer. However, every company also asks for business acumen and a commercial focus and, inevitably, this is difficult to exhibit based on literary study.

I appreciate that relevant work experience is also important (despite, again, many companies suggesting that it is not a prerequisite). But the multiple week-long stints I have put in at various organisations still don’t constitute enough experience, I am continually told. Recently I was interviewed for a three-month unpaid placement at a local marketing agency with four other graduates – each one of us more than fulfilling the job description. My heart sank when I realised that I was the only one who had not done a marketing degree. As an agency looking to gain the most from their interns, realistically, who are they going to choose? An English graduate with very limited marketing experience, or a marketing graduate, who, despite coming from a lower-ranking university, has enough ready knowledge to make a painless start?

When companies employ interns, they are understandably looking for someone who can increase profitability in a short space of time, and although it may hurt my pride to admit it, that person was probably not me. Considering how hard it is even to obtain an unpaid placement, it is no wonder that getting on to a national graduate scheme seems a near-impossible feat.

It is difficult to assign any blame for the situation facing graduates with English and other arts and humanities degrees. I chose the subject myself, and the list of skills that are most profitable in today’s society can’t be changed. However, I do wish there had been more relevant information available four or so years ago when I chose my degree subject. The “employability statistics” that are printed in course pamphlets are not as sound as they seem. I should know; I was recently called by a third-party researcher who attempted to class my temporary, part-time retail job in the “finding employment within six months” category.

My sixth form positively encouraged me to read a core subject at university, stating that this would leave open multiple career paths. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that this is an outdated view. At a time when graduate prospects are particularly poor, it is more important than ever that schools and parents are aware of what the best options actually are. The traditional notion of what a “good” university degree looks like must be reconsidered, and sixth-formers must learn to disregard ingrained snobbery about modern specialist courses.

As for universities, even Russell Group institutions must take greater care that the courses they offer provide genuine routes into employment if their graduates are not to feel seriously short-changed on their £9,000 fees.

If that means fewer English professors and more marketing lecturers, then so be it. And if that closes off even the academy as a potential career option for this formerly high-flying literature enthusiast, just add it to the list.

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Reader's comments (1)

I graduated in Philosophy from another Russell Group university in 2012, and although I now have a good job (with that same university) I still have the half-joking jibes about the practical use of my degree that the author describes. I do not agree with the assertion, however, that my university "must take greater care that the courses they offer provide genuine routes into employment." I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I chose to study because I loved the subject. If my university had less lectures on Marx and more on marketing, I probably still would have gone to the lectures on Marx. Then again, my degree only cost £3,000 a year so perhaps I simply had lower expectations?

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