Postgraduate degrees: pursue your passion, as well as your ambition

Despite difficult financial times, academics and professionals continue to recognise the worth of studying the humanities

Against a backdrop of falling applications, fewer degree programmes on offer and funding cuts to arts organisations, it would be easy for aspiring humanities students to toss aside the poetry in search of something more vocational. Yet there are many benefits to investing time, and inevitably money, in a humanities course such as history, English literature, media studies or art. Graduates can expect to leave with valuable professional skills, as well as a broad education.

"The humanities provide a rich source of personal development, informing and expanding the mind, enhancing its powers of thought and understanding and giving the individual a perceptive, educated insight into the human condition," says Professor A C Grayling, who is master of the New College of the Humanities in London. "This gives great advantages in practical ways, not least in respect of careers."

Those practical advantages are clear to prospective employers, says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "Humanities degrees are worthwhile as they help students develop critical thinking skills, which are valued by employers," he explains. Studying something you enjoy isn't a death knell for your prospects, either. "There is still something to be said for students studying a subject that they find fascinating and informative in-depth," he says.

Matthew Green would agree. A third-year music student at Cardiff University, his priority was getting a place on a good course at a good university, doing something he enjoyed. "The career path didn't really come into it. But I think humanities subjects give you flexibility through a wide range of skills such as research, teamwork and management, which are useful in a range of jobs."

That was certainly the experience of Jesse Quinones. The London Metropolitan University graduate completed a BA in theatre studies and an MA in audio-visual production before setting up an independent production company. "There are a lot of ways that you can apply a humanities degree to everyday life," says Quinones. "You learn to communicate, to write efficiently, to think outside of the box – all skills that will benefit you."

However, while Quinones went on to work in a field related to his programme of study, humanities graduates also enjoy a certain degree of flexibility in terms of where they go on to work that graduates from other disciplines might not share, suggests Professor Martin Kayman, head of the Cardiff School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. "Humanities courses have long been regarded as a valuable preparation for a wide range of professions and occupations, and remain so in comparison with courses in subject areas that are directly tied to particular professions, which can be more vulnerable to the fluctuations of the job market," he says.

Working in an unrelated field doesn't mean your humanities degree wasn't worthwhile, argues Professor David Morley, a trained zoologist who is now the director of the writing programme at the University of Warwick, which offers a degree in English literature and creative writing. "Ambition in creativity can take many forms in the world," he says. "The reality is most students of creative writing do not go on to become writers, just as most students of, say, biology, physics or mathematics do not become research leaders in their fields. That does not mean those graduates are not flourishing or fulfilled."

In Morley's view there's no such thing as an unrelated field. "The world is not about 'fields', it is far more complex. Everything connects to everything else." He says creative writing students gain commercial acumen in learning about business, publishing and building communities and audiences. People on the writing programme are encouraged to move across disciplines and expand their understanding, developing what Morley calls a "worldly-wise profile" of qualifications.

Looking beyond the confines of their course is an idea all humanities students can embrace to add value to their degrees, suggests Gilleard. "Many graduate jobs do not require a specific degree, so it is important that students also focus on developing work skills through extra-curricular activities. When employers are recruiting people today, it's not just a good degree that they are looking for, it is also the breadth of experience and transferable skills that candidates are able to bring to the role."

Ollie Todd, a history graduate from the University of York now studying for the graduate diploma in law, believes choosing their preferred subject and getting involved outside the lecture hall will also help students enjoy their studies. "You get more than a degree from university. It's about engaging with university life, doing extra-curricular stuff. Don't put yourself on a course that you feel you should do. I know people who have done that and they've switched courses... It becomes a lot more expensive. If you're on the right course you'll get more out of it."

It is also possible to find humanities courses with professional skills built in, so students can study the subject they love with an additional vocational boost. New College of Humanities graduates are offered a professional skills programme, while language students at the University of Surrey can opt for Bachelors degrees in French, Spanish or German that include a year working abroad, rather than studying in an overseas institution. "A degree with a professional focus is definitely a benefit," says senior placement tutor Marga Menéndez-López. "Students who have never worked before mature over the course of a placement. It's going to make them attractive to employers."

However, while this is ideal for some students, it doesn't follow that courses without a programmed professional element should be overlooked. "We're well aware that creative disciplines such as art, media and design are often dismissed by some commentators as soft options or, at worst, a waste of time," says Michael Upton, academic leader at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design at London Metropolitan University. He points out that the creative industries account for 10 per cent of the UK's exports and that, in the future, the industry will need trained practitioners who "understand the global, social and ethical context, and the responsibilities that go with that". He adds: "More generally, creative people are needed in all sorts of organisations to stimulate innovation and growth in the economy or become entrepreneurs."

Stephen Isherwood, head of graduate recruitment at Ernst & Young, agrees. "We find that many humanities graduates have inquisitive, problem-solving minds and their people skills make them very successful in our organisation," he explains. "It's important to us that our graduates have been taught how to think, not what to think."

It's perhaps this last quality – the focus on nurturing an enquiring mind, whether that mind goes on to write a Nobel prize-winning novel or work in an investment bank – that gives humanities courses their continuing relevance. Humanities degrees can give students an education that prepares them for careers as diverse as law, politics, media or financial services and beyond, says Grayling, with the bonus, defiantly unfashionable in the current climate, of "being deeply enriching for individuals". Graduates are adaptable, retrainable and ready for new developments, he says, because they are "equipped with the one great skill that meets every eventuality: the ability to think".

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