Can You Blame Art, Education, or Literature Majors?

by JT McGee

There are more than a handful of completely practical degrees that lead to careers with low unemployment, relatively high pay, and good job satisfaction.

You can imagine that many are in health care, the sciences, engineering, technology, and business. Then there are countless others that are included in the list of untouchables – degrees you should chase safely by chasing them inexpensively.

How much choice do you have?

Anti-college debt rants are common in the personal finance blogosphere. Despite being the most straightforward way to borrow money ever (seriously), student loans seem to lead people into the most trouble. Of course, selling something to an excited 18 year old who won’t realize the true cost 10 years from now is probably the easiest job in the world. And so the hatred then filters into colleges, college choice, and of course the choice of a major.

We mostly hear from:

  1. People who went to school to study something that both interested them and offered opportunities for a successful career.
  2. People who went to school to study something that interested them but did not offer opportunities for a successful career.

Interestingly, we don’t hear too much from people who went to college to study something they weren’t interested in solely for the almighty greenback. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who went off to college to major in something they weren’t interested in to get a degree that would land them a good paying job.

I got lucky

In many ways I got lucky – I’m interested in something that potentially leads to good paying jobs. I wasn’t ever much for the arts, or the idea of teaching youngsters, so I’m also lucky in that way. I never had to face the difficult decision of going to school for something I didn’t really care about all for the sake of making more money later. Worst case scenario is that I get paid too much money to do Excel work that people can’t stand doing. That’s not that bad of a worst case scenario.

In many other ways, all the doctors, engineers, accountants, etc. of the world also got lucky. Their first choice was a good choice – a choice that provided real economic returns on capital.

But I can’t imagine being someone interested in art and choosing to study medicine, engineering, or the boring business of accounting for every last penny in a billion-dollar business. I can’t imagine how painful that might be.

And although it’s easy to give people a hard time for choosing “bad” subjects to study, maybe we should at least recognize that for us – the people who had a “good” choice as a first choice – had an easy advantage.

I’m curious – do you know anyone who studied something they didn’t find interesting solely for the money? Anyone care to admit they absolutely hated their studies and what they do for a living but do it only for the money?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Revanche November 28, 2012 at 14:20

I know a few people who went after the degree they “should” get without thinking about whether they really wanted it. I didn’t know them very well, or very many of them, but the few I did know seemed to break down part way through and flounder the rest of the way. No clue if anyone ever really “made it” as far as that goes. I don’t suppose that’s a formula that lasts anymore…?
Just as an interesting aside: I do know a number of doctors who are highly dissatisfied with their chosen profession because they didn’t choose the “right” branch of medicine to make all that much money in relation to the debt they took on, but they’re still neck deep in debt. Some of them definitely were in it for the prestige and money and feel cheated.
Others who went into with some sense of duty also feel cheated of their purpose. They’re often trapped in bureaucracy and feel like they’re in a system where they can’t actually help people – they’re just in and out of rooms all day and spending more time with paperwork than with patients.
That was a sobering revelation. I’m glad there are still people who choose to become doctors, and good ones, as opposed to being in it just for the money but it’s sad to know there are as many doctors who feel staked out in the sun as they do. There are certainly a lot who chose it for the money and chose more carefully. I think they’re doing relatively fine.

Personally, I started out intending to be a hard science major, changed to take a degree in one of those useless majors, though with absolutely no intent to teach because I hated the idea of being in front of a classroom. Eventually, of course, I realized that if I were doing this, I’d better create a useful career somehow. It took active management but several years after college I’m making nearly as much as my comp sci major friends, a stone’s throw away from six figures. Degrees are, in a lot of ways, like many things, what you make of them.


JT McGee November 29, 2012 at 13:16

Becoming a doctor is a sucker’s bet, seriously. If you go general practice, you’re screwed, really. I mean, you have all the debt in the world, plus a sizable income so large that you lose the advantages of a high debt load in that it’s not tax deductible. I’d go for nurse practitioner or physical therapy before being a family doc.

Seems like you’re doing well with what you studied. I 100% agree it’s what you make of it.


Mo' Money Mo' Houses November 28, 2012 at 16:39

Everyone I know studied subjects they were interested, though now most of those people have chosen different careers than their degrees. My parents always told me to follow my passions and I’m so glad they did because I couldn’t imagine studying something I hate just because it might lead to a good paying job.


JT McGee November 29, 2012 at 13:17

I can’t imagine being in a position to take a gamble on a degree, or studying something I hated. I’m thankful everyday of the week that, for whatever reason, people don’t like the idea of studying finance even though it’s relatively easy compared to other studies.


Sam November 28, 2012 at 17:00

It’s hard to make a lot of money at something you hate. I majored in Economics bc I found it relatively interesting and easy so I could get as close to a 4.0 as possible. I could have majored in a language instead, as I love languages, but thought it unwise.



JT McGee November 29, 2012 at 13:19

Everything you really need to learn in life you learn in micro. 😉

Economics is definitely “sexier” today given the rise of pop economics, but it’s still one of those majors that I think few people will choose without any tangible interest in it. Did you like it in high school or something? Did you go to school knowing you’d pick econ?


krantcents November 28, 2012 at 17:17

I knew someone who earns his degree for his father. Imagine a bright young man who graduated from Stanford with a degree in engineering and a computer science degree from MIT and unhappy. He was my colleague years ago at a Fortune 100 company. He bailed me out of a few infinite loops in my programming mishaps. I can’t imagine doing something you don’t enjoy just to please someone else.


JT McGee November 29, 2012 at 13:20

Whoa, that’s a serious academic resume. Did he love the money? Presumably, he did quite well, no?


Scott November 30, 2012 at 10:10

Awesome article JT! I ended up going the route of what I was passionate about and best at, an arts degree. Going back in time, no one told me to be realistic and consider who would hire me with that degree. My family, friends, guidance counselor all told me I was in good shape. Graduating right at the height of the Great Recession made me really feel it though. One noticeable difference I have found with arts degrees is that they hardly teach a measurable skill, like you mentioned in Excel Spreadsheets. Yes, I know how to argue, how to research for essays, how to question news sources, etc. However many of these skills are more often assumed of an employer and have so far made little to no ground on a resume for myself or my colleagues.

My recommendation to anyone still in university or college is to consider going for one of those measurable skills, something that trains you for a real world career. Even something as seemingly silly as mechanics, construction, plumbing, masonry, horticulture, etc. and pay comfortable salaries, compared to sitting around and waiting with an arts degree. If you don’t choose a career like a trade or specialist you should consider taking an elective class to learn something marketable or do it in your own time. Part of my saving grace has been an Arabic class I took for fun, which has turned into a great skill and a book on HTML5 that I couldn’t put down. Little things like that can easily be difference makers.

As far as student loans are concerned, I feel for the students who are in there now and it is only going to get worse. I thought I had a high amount but a lot of students now can have almost 100k or more in loans with little effort. The monthly payments are likely to be higher than the cost of their housing, food, utilities and transportation combined. This makes the opportunities to save or invest almost out of the question for many.


Wayne @ Young Family Finance November 30, 2012 at 21:21

I know everyone is different, so it might not be a universal truth, but when I was in college, I found several careers that offered challenges that I sought. I’d find it hard to believe that I couldn’t find a way to combine a true interest into a promising career.


Darwin's Money December 1, 2012 at 17:18

My wife’s parents forced her to start college as a chem major because they wanted her to be a chemist for some reason. She did not do well at all (I was her tutor and that worked out well for me LOL!)… but then she switched to education to be a teacher, which is what she always wanted to be. She ended up absolutely loving the teaching field. She’s home now with the kids but will definitely enjoy going back when they’re older – she loves kids. I think she just assumed she’d marry a guy who made more money and she wouldn’t be the sole breadwinner so teaching would work for her both career-wise and financially. But for someone who plans on supporting a family with a typical education degree, it’s extremely tough, especially if you’re not in a high paying district.


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