“Haha yup, I’ll live in a cardboard box.” As a humanities major, you’re all too familiar with this obnoxious but tension-breaking joke. If your field is art or music, no doubt you’ll end up desperately attempting to sell paintings or obtain a gig to make rent. If you study philosophy — don’t even go there. But really, a cardboard box is about the last place you’ll find yourself. Choosing to major in the humanities doesn’t shut down your options—it opens them up.
“I just wanted to do something I love—to be constantly immersed in stories told by a wide range of people, in different styles, and from different perspectives. I was becoming a much better writer in the process, which I knew was an invaluable skill regardless of the path I ultimately chose,” said 2014 Middlebury grad Brandt Silver-Korn. Silver-Korn’s goal coming into college simply revolved around reading and writing about good books.
Now in law school, Silver-Korn feels the comfort with writing he developed as a creative writing major. His major gave him an edge and will definitely help him as a practicing lawyer. Say what now? Bet you never thought creative writing would lead to becoming the next Annalise Keating.
Still not convinced? Harvard Academic Advisor Tom Batchelder majored in English Literature and African Studies. He thought he’d follow that old cliché and become an English teacher. Instead, after nine years doing reference work in Harvard’s fine arts library, he became an academic advisor for the art history department. Just like Silver-Korn, he started with one path and followed another. Do you see the pattern?
As humanities majors, we find ourselves up against the dominating notion that our undergrad field of study should lead us straight-forwardly into a predetermined career. But in reality, we all spend four years studying something and forget the details pretty quickly. Your STEM major friends probably won’t remember those chemical equations after the final exam, let alone after they graduate. And does it matter? No. You won’t use the specifics in your future career. Instead, it’s really all about the skills you’ll gain.
Did you know art history was about more than just, well, art? Batchelder said, “Once students get into it and realize it’s studying cultural identity, cultural representation through image, and the legacy of art through history, it’s huge what they can talk about, what they can get into.” According to Batchelder, humanities majors graduate with great strengths in analyzing, making connections and arguments, and writing well—AKA marketable skills in any area.
For instance, many Harvard art history students study what they love in college and then go on to become orthopedic surgeons or lawyers, cookbook writers or fashion designers. One student of Batchelder’s said photos her art history class studied of asylum inmates and the destitute sparked her interest in the disenfranchised and led her to become a psychiatrist.
Like Batchelder, Ruth Hutton, a graduate of Williams College, also entered school thinking she knew what her career would be. She majored in theater, dead-set on becoming an actress. Yet her career path became anything but straight and narrow. She eventually found her passion teaching, eventually becoming a professional photographer as well.
Now Hutton lives in Amherst and teaches beginning English to adult immigrants and refugees. “I like what I do because social justice has become increasingly important to me over the years,” Hutton said. Even cooler? Theater still makes a difference in her career. Hutton said, “Theatre helped me to be able to inhabit another, and that’s what I have to do in both my current jobs, which require considerable empathy.”
That’s right—your English or history classes actually help you become more emphatic. “I think that English majors and in particular, creative writing majors, are unusually empathetic. I certainly believe that reading and analyzing good books and writing stories of your own helps you understand contrasting perspectives. My sense is that being a great lawyer as opposed to simply a good lawyer demands this,” Silver-Korn said.
History and English majors aren’t the only humanities students whose futures can be surprising. When it comes to studying languages, people tend to view your career options as limited if you don’t plan on teaching or shipping off abroad anytime soon.
But as 2014 Middlebury grad Caroline Nutt discovered, there’s a lot out there for language nerds. While she majored in political science, Nutt’s Arabic minor played a key role in landing her a job at Dataminr, a company that turns social media into real-time alerts. “When I discovered that the company would let me explore the intersection between social media and counterterrorism/Middle Eastern affairs, I knew I’d found my niche,” Nutt said. Now, she uses her Arabic skills on a daily basis.
As Batchelder said, “What you study in college doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize you to only be valid for only one field, nor does it mean that if you study X you can’t have career Y. College is sort of the first and last opportunity to do whatever you want, and so it’s sad not to follow your heart and do what you really want to do because getting smart at college, that’s a skill set that will serve you well on any career path.” Just think: Ten years down the road while your co-workers complain about classes that bored them to tears, you’ll reminisce about splatter-painting canvases and writing poetry. Who’s really got it made?