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Blog Insight & Commentary

In Defense of Studying the Humanities

The money isn’t as bad as it seems, and it’s about so much more than that.

I always knew I would study English in college. Of course, that ended up not being enough, so I broadened my horizons and added history on as a second major. My family was skeptical, but tentatively supportive of my decision. The assumption was made that I’d become a teacher eventually, especially when writing didn’t work out. I can still hear my mother sigh, “I can’t tell you what to study, Alyssa, but I really wish you would consider a degree that might do more for you.”

Of course, at face value, it’s hard to know exactly what a humanities degree is worth. Many people assume there’s little money in the humanities, and that if you don’t end up teaching, writing, or just staying in school forever, then you likely won’t have much of a career. People assume there’s an automatic cap on your success when you study the humanities. They assume you’ll only make it so far — and never as far as your counterparts in STEM.

The reality of the situation

A 2014 study for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) tells a different story. Not only does the study explain that those who study the humanities achieve success (albeit, a bit later in life), but also that on average, they are more financially successful than individuals in other fields.

“At peak earnings ages (56-60 years), workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields,” the press release said. AACU defines professional or pre-professional fields as areas like business or education.

Of course, it takes some time to get there. A 2015 report for Georgetown University explained that at the start of their careers, in their early 20s, those who major in the humanities tend to see lower median annual wages. While those who studied STEM see annual wages at a median of $43,000, those who studied humanities see significantly less right off the bat, at a median annual wage of $29,000.

The Georgetown report showed how salaries grow for those in the humanities, though it’s not as promising as the AACU report. Between the ages of 25 and 59, those who studied the humanities only just creep up above educators and still sit below all of those who studied other majors.

One important thing that the authors note in the Georgetown report is that “the economic value of majors plays a role in students’ choice of major, but students’ abilities, academic preparation, interests, and values are also important.”

Let me repeat that last part: “students’ abilities, academic preparation, interests, and values are also important.”

What that means for people in STEM

Students who study STEM might earn more. However, a student who studies STEM but isn’t good at it and doesn’t have the abilities necessary for a career in STEM might end up totally failing.

A student who studies accounting might earn more. A student who studies accounting and is good at it might earn even more than average. But if that same student hates accounting, they’re going to end up in a financially fruitful career that makes them miserable.

Here’s why I’m happy with my decisions

My major helped me begin to define my interests and values so that when I graduated, I knew what I wanted out of a career and what I hoped to contribute to the world through my work. Despite having bad days throughout my career to this point, I still find joy in a great deal of the work I’m doing. As I follow this path, I am fine-tuning where I want to end up and redirecting as necessary. I began my career as a writer and editor. I now work on websites, sometimes writing and editing, sometimes coding (you can learn new skills you love after studying in the humanities, folks!) for a nonprofit with a mission I’m passionate about.

I don’t go to work every day and plug numbers. Sure, maybe I would have been a great businesswoman and made a ton of money, but I wouldn’t have gained any personal satisfaction from my work. Money is important. I have enough student loans to know that’s a plain and simple fact of life. But all the money in the world can't make you happy if you spend eight hours a day, five days a week at a job you don’t enjoy.

No matter what field you choose, you can achieve success and happiness as long as the workplace you end up in is female-friendly. Browse InHerSight’s database of female-friendly jobs or check out company ratings submitted by working women!

By Alyssa Huntley

Alyssa Huntley lives and works in Washington, D.C. She has written about a range of topics, from technology to real estate to women's issues. Find her on Twitter @alyssajhuntley or check out her website, www.alyssajhuntley.com.

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