Humanities degrees have been the source of much parental hand-wringing. Sure, there’s inherent value in pondering the deep questions of life in a philosophy class or delving into great works of literature for an English degree, but in today’s tight job market, will your kid ever get a decent paying job if all they can do is write papers on Shakespeare or Plato?
It’s unlikely a single study will end the worries of practical families about the value of a humanities degree, but a new analysis from pay-data website Emolument suggests that they should at least turn down the anxiety dial a bit. When you do a head-to-head financial comparison of how humanities versus science grads do financially, that English degree doesn’t fare nearly as badly as many concerned parents fear.
Science grads start out ahead…
The site looked at data from both the U.S. and U.K., comparing salaries of those with science versus humanities degrees over time. Straight out of the school, what they discovered will surprise exactly no one. In a job market that’s hungry for tech and quantitative skills, science grads initially have the advantage.
In the US, for instance, five years after graduation, a young person with a science degree typically outearns one with a humanities degrees by $15,000. Ten years out the gap is bigger still — on average science grads are taking home about $38,000 a year more. But parents don’t stop reading here. Then the tide turns.
… but humanities majors win over the long-haul.
By the time workers are more than ten years into their career, American humanities grads are making about $15,000 a year more than those who studied science. In Britain, a similar pattern holds but it takes less time for humanities grads to start out-earning those with science-based degrees.
What explains the findings? While there’s a voracious appetite for those with tech and quantitative skills straight out of school, which inevitably leads to higher salaries for science grads, “later on, the highest salaries go to managers and strategists: positions where technical knowledge is less crucial, and seeing the big picture is more important,” explains Emolument.
So, what’s the takeaway? The most basic lesson here for both parents and students might be to keep calm and carry on. A humanities degree is no cause for ugly Thanksgiving fights or high anxiety. In the long-run there’s every chance it will pay off, but it will probably take awhile. You can avoid stress by factoring that into your expectations and trying to relax in the short and medium term. If you come out of school with solid reasoning and communication skills (as well as a willingness to persevere and a bit of luck, of course), over time those abilities will become more valuable.
But should this analysis sway would-be biologists or computer scientists to develop a sudden passion for literature and the like? I don’t think anyone would go that far. If you have an established interest in a subject, pursuing that is probably going to pay off more than any cold-hearted calculation about what degree will earn you what salary in a decade’s time. This analysis is simply a corrective to all the highly charged calls for more students to study science and tech. Those are great subjects with good job prospects straight out of school, but if you’re interests pull you another way, there’s no need for you or your parents to freak out that you’ll end up living in their basement until you’re 45.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.