OK confession time: I have a B.A. in a field that is widely mocked as a “useless” one in terms of finding employment -- Women’s and Gender Studies.
I also have a recently-acquired Master’s in the same field, from the period of time where I thought I wanted to get a PhD, but decided to just get my M.A. and get out since the program I was in made me want to never so much as glance at the words “feminist theory” again. (However, that’s a story for another article!)
I fully acknowledge that some of the talk about WGS being “weird” or “impractical” is not so off-base, but for an odd reason: People seriously have no idea what to do with you once you tell them what your major was. Even more perplexing is your M.A. in the same subject. After all, people wonder, how could you choose to get a degree in something so useless?
And then there are the questions and bizarre statements from people who know pretty much nothing about the field: “Why?” “Isn’t that an easy major?”
My “why” was a rather circuitous one: I began my undergrad education as an English major, but fell hard for Women’s and Gender Studies after I took two classes on it (Feminist Philosophy and Fundamentals of WGS, respectively) during my first quarter. Yes, I know -- making a decision about my field of study based on two classes was maybe not the “smartest” thing I could have done.
But what attracted me to the discipline during my undergraduate years was the sheer variety of perspectives and intersections with other fields -- I was particularly taken with how Gender Studies analyses incorporated stuff like philosophy, critical theory, literature, film studies, psychology, disability studies, cultural and media studies, sociology, ethnic studies, and history, and wound up looking to me like the "Katamari Damarcy" of academic majors, except with a big feminist symbol stuck to it. Most importantly, one could pretty much look at anything through a rigorous Gender Studies lens and still have that process be challenging and intellectually rewarding.
That part about “challenging” myself is not just something I say to make myself sound cool or anything; sure, with minimal effort, you could make C’s in WGS if you wanted to, but what’s the fun in that? My senior thesis -- which was optional, and which I decided to do primarily because it WAS difficult -- was a 65-page behemoth on the Heaven’s Gate cult (the one whose members committed mass suicide in 1997 because they thought that the Hale-Bopp comet hid a spaceship that was going to pick them up), masculinity and the news media’s reaction to the cult members’ practices of castration and overall muting of their sexuality.
Women’s Studies is easy, you say? OK, you try working on a thesis for a year -- which pretty much involves reading hundreds of articles, writing until your fingers feel like they are going to fall off, and maintaining enthusiasm throughout the sometimes-grueling process of revising your chapters (even when you think it will NEVER END). There were parts that were really fun, but like most academic things, writing this huge paper was also hard work.
Interestingly, when people hear about my undergrad thesis -- or my M.A. thesis, for which I wrote and illustrated a lengthy autobiographical cartoon on disability and chronic pain -- they tend to either have a ton of questions, or get really weirded out and silent. When I want to suck the air out of a room conversationally and make things extremely awkward, this is one of the tricks that I pull.
But convincing people -- especially people significantly older than I am, and who have jobs -- that completing these projects, and having expertise in this odd field of study, is a useful thing is not as easy.
MY MAJOR IS USELESS, YOU SAY?
One thing that some people who majored in more “traditional” fields may not realize is that being in niche fields, and having experience in completing projects where the benefits are not immediately obvious, can teach you many important skills and life lessons that you can later use in the workplace. Such as: Huge projects cannot be done in a day. Expertise, knowledge, and all of that is based less on pursuit of a profit margin than on hard (intellectual) work, and luck.
Problem-solving is something that you can’t really do until a problem actually comes up. It’s easy to talk about your grand plans (don’t we all have that friend who is planning to write a novel but never actually writes?), but it is much tougher to actually buckle down and get them done. Beyond the “You want fries with that?” jokes, being in a “weird” field can do wonders for your accountability, initiative, motivation, and communication skills -- all things that are extremely useful in the workplace. But, no, too many people just want to be disgusted with us for not having STEM degrees, I guess.
In this tough market, where many people with jobs are so eager to tell you, unemployed person, what you are doing WRONG, a weird field like Women’s and Gender Studies can be an even harder sell. Degrees in “soft” fields -- no matter how rigorous your program was, how hard you’ve worked in the past and are willing to as an employee, and how much you’ve hustled to find a job -- are an easy variable to point to when looking to blame people for their own lack of work, or absence of prestige in their current jobs.
The economy is arguably a larger influence on who gets jobs in which fields than, say, what people pick for their undergraduate major, but despite this, there is no shortage of a steady stream of Internet know-it-alls who descend upon the comments fields of online news features and first-person pieces about unemployment, wagging their well-off fingers at strangers who have been kicked in the ass by the economy: “Why didn’t you major in a STEM field instead of getting a useless degree in Communications? I majored in Electrical Engineering, and I’ve never had any trouble finding work!”
In an era where there are no guarantees, even those in so-called "in demand" fields can have trouble finding work. This feature from the March 2012 issue of Esquire (dude-centric as it may be) profiles one unemployed recent MBA graduate. The stories that make up news/gossip heavyweight Gawker's Unemployment Stories series feature first-person contributions from people in a huge variety of fields -- yes, even from supposedly "secure" industries.
Yes, because all of us who are un(der)employed -- which many, many people are right now -- had a crystal ball back in our college days and could see that the “useless” subjects we love simply weren’t what the market would want (ya know, what with that pesky recession and all)…and then chose to get useless degrees anyway. It is TOTALLY our fault for getting degrees in fields that we were actually pretty good at.
It’s not like inequality is growing across the board (and across all education levels) since a select few Scrooge McDucks control most of the resources in the U.S., or anything -- no, we are un(der)employed because we made the horrible, unforgivable mistake of “following our dreams” and “studying what we love” like so many of us had been told.
No, we should have all majored in Economics, or Business, or some other field that comes with a guarantee of a job right out of school -- and that, coincidentally enough, will make a ton of money because that specialization is WHAT COMPANIES WANT.
Never mind that WHAT COMPANIES WANT can be so nebulous as to be unpredictable depending on the industry, and not every company is the same. But, no, we should have had the foresight to mold ourselves into perfect worker bees for what the market demands. It’s just common sense, right? I mean, what could there possibly be that’s holding you back?
THE COLD TRUTH
What so many of the swipes aimed at “useless” degrees miss is that a college education is not only supposed to be job training; qualities like critical thinking, writing, communicating with people, and being able to problem-solve in the workplace and daily life are also important. To think of a degree as only a means to an end on either side -- as only good for getting a job, or as only a means for “finding yourself” as New Agers like to say -- reduces its value significantly.