There is an academic department at Arizona State University that may surprise many people: More than 90% of undergraduates that do a local internship are employed when they graduate.The department? Not business or computer science, as many people may initially guess.English.It turns out that your parents were wrong. English majors – and others in humanities fields often seen as even less “marketable,” like philosophy and film studies – can get great jobs right out of college.
“The reason why our humanities interns are wanted is because they have research and writing skills,” says Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Those skills serve companies well.”
Nationally, the number of humanities majors remained flat between 2015 and 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. But at some U.S. colleges, the number is increasing – and by a lot. At the University of California, Berkeley, the number of undergraduates declaring a major in the arts or humanities has gone up by more than 70% since 2013.
And when it comes to job satisfaction, workers with undergraduate humanities degrees are just as happy with their careers as engineering and business majors, according to a Gallup Alumni Survey.
“There is very little question that humanities majors have more or less the same career opportunities as most other majors,” says Sara Guyer, dean of arts and humanities at Berkeley. When it comes to addressing complex issues such as a pandemic, science alone isn’t enough, she says.
The humanities – which include English, philosophy, film studies, history and languages – are the study of human culture. Students who study these disciplines can expect to do a lot of writing, critical thinking, close reading and discussion. All of these are skills, Guyer says, that foster a person’s ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives and communicate persuasively.
“We could not have gotten through the pandemic without a vaccine, but we needed to socialize that vaccine,” she says. “We need people who have thought deeply about human communication about how we address hesitation and how we build trust.”
Humanities as Preparation for Law School
For some careers, an undergraduate degree in the humanities is a clear advantage.
Billy Dunaway, associate professor and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, says his students pursue careers in many fields, including business, public policy, insurance and computer science. Courses in logic and ethics are relevant for many of these jobs.
But for students planning to apply to law school, doing undergraduate work in philosophy may be the best preparation, he says. The way philosophy is taught – through the Socratic method – prepares students well for law school. In this method, the professor leads with a question, which develops into a back-and-forth discussion and sometimes debate. For undergraduates, this kind of close interaction with their professor can help set them up not just for law school instruction but for work settings.
“The small seminar model is an extraordinary preparation for working in teams,” Guyer says. “We expect undergraduates to make arguments and defend them amongst their peers, in relationship to their professor. This prepares them to develop themselves in the workplace.”
The pathway from a major in philosophy to law school has well-documented benefits. Philosophy majors score better on the Law School Admission Test than other majors, according to the council that administers the test. This may be because the LSAT is essentially a logic test, says Dunaway. Many classes in law school are taught using the same Socratic method, he adds.
“Philosophy students have experience talking about complex things,” Dunaway says. “Building on previous ideas and having argumentative dialogue – they see that in law school but it will be familiar already.”
Guyer takes this a step further, arguing that in this age of burgeoning artificial intelligence, learning how to use language precisely is essential to forming the best queries.
“The role of philosophy is practical to understanding consequences and meaning,” she says.
Misunderstandings About Humanities
Before Cohen took over as dean of humanities at ASU in 2018, he taught English at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for a decade. Coming from a private research university to a public university with twice the student population, Cohen was aware that he was taking on leadership of a division in decline. The number of humanities majors was sliding and had been for five years.
With help from a local marketing firm, Cohen undertook a challenge: Convince undergraduates at ASU that majoring in the humanities can lead to a good job.
First the school polled students to see what the impediments were. Why weren’t students choosing the humanities?
“The word ‘humanities’ meant nothing to undergrads,” he says. The poll revealed that students did not associate humanities majors with careers aside from teaching and, surprisingly, human resources, Cohen recalls. “Because it has the word ‘human’ in it.”
The university embarked on a campaign. It invited creative writing alumni who had made careers as authors to talk on campus, developed more interdisciplinary research opportunities focused on social issues and added a course on how to make a career with a humanities major. The number of humanities majors increased 17% from 2017 to 2019.
Humanities students at ASU are as diverse as the overall student population, Cohen says. Of the 4,200 humanities majors at ASU, 40% are the first in their families to attend college and 30% are Latino or Indigenous.
“It makes me happy that we’ve been able to convince a population that represents the U.S. that the humanities matter,” Cohen says.“They are the future of the humanities.”
One of the most persuasive new programs, he adds, connects students to paid internships. Offered through the English department, the internships help students explore careers in local businesses, agencies and nonprofits while being paid through a philanthropic fund. Most students who participate are offered a job upon graduation.
“It surprises me how many opportunities there are,” Cohen says. “Employers are looking for the skills that humanities majors are bringing to the job.”