We Asked People with Useless-Sounding Degrees If They Regret Their Life Choices
How far can a degree in comparative religions really get you?
So young and full of promise. Photo via Flickr user University of Winnipeg
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
With the youth unemployment rate in Canada sitting at around 13 percent and broke young people moving back into their parents' houses in droves, it's never been more important to have marketable skills.
But is university really the solution? While few people doubt the value of a post-secondary education, it's also probably true that in practical terms, not all degrees are created equal. A business administration degree, for example, would generally be considered more handy when it comes to applying for jobs than a degree is semiotics (whatever the hell that entails).
On top of that, university tuition has gone up 40 percent in the last decade, according to Statistics Canada. If you're gonna be saddled with a bunch of student debt, you eventually want to be able to earn enough of an income to pay it off. VICE caught up with university grads who hold what are considered to be some of the most useless degrees to see how they fared in the real world:
Skyler Oxley, 35
Philosophy at Concordia University
VICE: Why philosophy?
Skylar Oxley: I was 19 years old and full of existential despair; I thought that studying philosophy would both help me understand what life is and that it would also be interesting.
Did that end up being true?
Yes and no. It certainly helped me clarify the questions I had about life and helped me realize that there are many other people out there asking these questions. But it didn't answer the questions; I still felt confused, just less alone, perhaps.
Hmm so what were your biggest questions that you hoped to answer?
I suppose: "Why does all this exist?" and "What, if anything, am I supposed to do while I exist?"
Speaking of, were you ever worried about how you would incorporate your degree into the real world?
Well, not as much as I should have been. My parents kept warning me about that.
What were they saying? Did they pay for your education?
They seemed simultaneously happy that I was studying something I was interested in and worried because they knew how poor the job prospects were. They'd say things like "what are you going to do when you finish?" and "you'd better start thinking about getting some skills." And yes, they had invested in something since I was quite young, so while I did work during university I also did not have to take any loans.
So what did you end up doing?
After I finished philosophy I moved back to Vancouver and worked at Chapters. There seemed to be a lot of people there who had degrees in the liberal arts and who were doing retail. But eventually I did more university and got into a field at McGill, they had a two-year social work program, so I got into that and have been working in the mental health field for the last eight years. I eventually did a masters at the University of Toronto too in counselling psychology.
Wow you did a lot of fucking school.
Yes, I did far too much. I'm actually embarrassed about having three degrees.
Jessica Barrett, 33
Bachelor of Fine Arts focusing on contemporary dance, minor in philosophy Grant MacEwan College/Simon Fraser University
So what made you go into dance?
I had done it my whole life and went to a fine arts junior high and high school. And when I got close to graduating I still had no idea what I was going to do after high school. I wanted to take a gap year but my dad wasn't super keen on the idea, and he would be paying for my post-secondary as per my parents' divorce settlement. Then my high school dance teacher suggested I pursue dance at the college level.
Were you happy?
At university, no. I loved it in college, thrived even. But at university I felt lost. And I really just kept going because I was already halfway to a degree, this piece of paper that I was supposed to have.
How did you feel after you got your degree?
Meh. It was super uneventful. I didn't even go to my convocation. I found university to be impersonal and cold and kind of pointless. Or maybe just no one explained to me how to do it properly. Like how to pick classes and professors that were inspiring and good.
Where'd you end up after?
I taught dance and worked at Lululemon and saved money to travel to South America. And I did some choreography and other performing. About two years after I got my degree I went to Langara College as a "mature" student for journalism. I was 25. I think I realized my degree—and not just mine but most people's—was basically worth nothing from an employment standpoint.
Knowing what you know now about degrees vs diplomas, college vs university, would you do anything differently?
No. I think part of me is a bit sad that I didn't get as much out of university as I could have, because I am super privileged to have been able to go, and have my parents pay for it. I do wish I had pushed harder for a gap year to figure out what I was interested in. And to be a little older. Seventeen is so young to be in that environment and if I hadn't gone to college first I would have drowned in it. Even at 20 I found it overwhelming. Universities to some degree kind of function like daycares for young adults we don't know what else to do with.
Jesse S., 37
Comparative Religions, minor in near and middle eastern civilizations, University of Toronto
So your undergrad sounds fairly ... unique. Why were you interested in that?
I was just following my passions at the time. My uncle is a well-recognized biblical scholar so there was some influence there, even if he never recognized my undergrad efforts. I was, and still am, interested in what makes people tick, and how we see the world around us. I also secretly wanted the degree so I could start a cult. I never got around to it but, at least I'm qualified.
What kind of cult?
Well, it would be a benevolent one, not the malignant kind that takes advantage of followers and requires that they give up all their funds and material possessions to the leader of the group.
So like the pastafarians?
While you were studying did you ever worry about how the stuff you were learning would translate into the real world?
No, not really. I was surrounded by thousands of others of humanities students with not very practical degrees. We were all in it together. Strength in numbers right?
And you were enjoying what you were doing?
Yes, I still value academia. While I came to my sense towards the end of my undergrad and realized that going to study Buddhism on the beach in Hawaii for a master program, (or retreating to live in the caves with Saddhus in India, a boyhood fantasy at the time, which I may revisit one day) may not be the most practical use of my time, my thirst for knowledge is real
Did you pay for your own schooling?
What are you doing now?
I'm currently working as a digital marketing specialist with a focus on social media. In the past I was an arts/culture/lifestyle journalist.
So not really anything related to your degree
It was a cultural degree. I work in culture. It's loosely based on it.
Graham Reeder, 25
Human ecology, College of the Atlantic
What even is human ecology?
My diploma may as well have just said: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Human ecology is an interdisciplinary self designed degree, so I was mostly drawn to the idea of taking liberal arts to the extreme, of fundamentally taking control of my educational trajectory by designing my own course of study.
Sounds interesting, did you enjoy it?
Yeah I loved it. It could get frustrating at times, there were people there who just took a bunch of intro classes and fucked around for four years and got an indistinguishable degree from me which sometimes felt unfair, but I made peace with that. The motivation of knowing that I had to make myself employable on different terms forced me to get off my ass and do cool things, which I did, and ended up with a far more impressive resume at the end of four years than most poli sci undergrads from universities with name recognition.
So you felt like by the time you got your degree you were prepped for the workforce?
Yes and no, I think I had a solid set of skills for the workforce but lacked some of the plush connections that people I know who went to bigger universities had. So I was ready to work but struggled to find it.
Did you pay for school?
I guess that was a large factor as well. I had a full scholarship for all four years there. I was thinking of going to U of T, I had an entrance scholarship and a millennium scholarship, but it was still gonna be too much because of cost of living and the fact that I didn't have much saved up or a wealthy family to support me.
What are you doing these days?
Well, I went back to grad school last year, mostly because I knew the stuff I was doing wasn't what I wanted to do my whole life. I'm studying urban planning at the faculty of environmental studies at York University and my degree will be in environmental studies, so once again another pretty useless on paper degree. Apparently it's a habit for me.
Do you have a particular career in mind? Would you want to be a planner?
Not in a formal sense, I'd like to be a policy advisor for cities and urban regions planning for climate change impacts—a job that doesn't really exist yet in most places, but will as time goes on. Kinda weird banking one's career on our collective failure to stop climate change, but here we are.
James W., 38
English literature and film studies (double major), University of Toronto
How did you settle on that double major?
It just kind of happened. I'd finished high school, had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I signed up for everything. Art history, a biology course, Spanish. At some point I think I had Anglo Saxon in there. Like the dead language. Film and english were the two that stuck. I'm not sure Anglo Saxon would have been significantly less useful.
Did you enjoy it while you were doing it? Film and english—not Anglo Saxon
For sure. They were things I was interested in. To be clear: I didn't learn to make movies. I learned to watch movies. As in: how is the T-800 really Jesus? In what ways is Marilyn Monroe really just a giant talking penis? That kind of thing.
Honestly how did your degree translate into the real world? Did it just make you more annoying to watch movies with?
It made me hate smart movies. There are only so many three hour shots of melting ice cream you can watch before you kind of get your fill. Job wise it wasn't a huge asset. I went back to do my masters in journalism. That actually came in pretty handy.
Interesting. Journalism is pretty frequently cited on those most useless degrees lists—how did it work out for you?
I got in before newspapers went extinct. I did an internship, got a job, later started a company. It's still useful when I want to make people believe I can write.
Did you pay for school?
Yeah. Jobs plus scholarships. I actually came out of undergrad $3,000 ahead. Free ride to U of T, including money for room and board. It was a pretty sweet deal.
Nice, so even though you had kind of a frivolous degree, you wouldn't do anything differently?
It's definitely easier to have a degree than not to have a degree. Or at least some kind of post secondary. I have a friend who stopped at a high school diploma. He's in his late 30's, he's smart, has a ton of work experience and useful skills, and the lack of letters still gives him grief. But if I could do it over again I'd probably do something useful like law or medicine. Would have made my life a lot easier. BAs are straight up stupid. No offense, BAs.
These interviews have been condensed for style and clarity.
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