History: practical, sensible, and likely to be in the curriculum in another 50 years

Hey, all of you history professors, grad students, and majors, The Daily Beast has some good news:  History is nowhere to be found among their rating and ranking of the “20 most useless degrees!” 

In fact, what struck me as I clicked through their gallery of majors is that there are only two “traditional” liberal arts or natural science majors in the top ten (music and chemistry?)–the rest fall into the category of majors associated with specific trades, like Journalism (they’re number one!), Horticulture (2), Agriculture (3), Advertising (4), Fashion design (5), Child/Family Studies (6), Mechanical Engineering technology (8), and Nutrition (10).  The liberal arts come up more frequently after the top 10:  Theater (12), Art History (13), Photography (14), Literature (15), Art (16), Fine Arts (17), Psychology (18), and English (19).

Who ever would have thought that Art History was a more practical choice of majors than “Mechanical Engineering Technology?”  (And didn’t that used to be called just mechanical engineering, or is that another major altogether?)  To be sure, there are serious limitations to the methodology, which (this being the United States of Kiss My A$$) is all about the Benjamins:

To find the most useless degrees college students can get with their four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, we wanted to know which majors offer not only the fewest job opportunities, but those that tend to pay the least. The Daily Beast considered the following data points, weighted equally, with each degree’s numbers compared to the average for each category, to achieve a categorical comparison that accounts for differentiation from the mean. Data are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale:

• Starting and mid-career salary levels, using the profession most associated with the degree.
• The expected change in the total number of jobs from 2008-2018.
• The expected percentage change in available jobs from 2008-2018.

Of course, this list of the worst majors will change when the United States finally commits the resources it should to the responsible production of food (as opposed to commodities), acknowledges and pays for the real value of early childhood education, and revises its free-trade laws to return factories from China, Mexico, and the Honduras.  (And then the rapture will surely be nigh!)

Oh well.  At least those of us who were constantly asked in college What are you going to do with thatTeach???” with derisive contempt can have the last laugh.  For now.  Enjoy, all of you Political Scientists, Economists, Sociologists, Anthropologists, Philosophers, Historians, Foreign Language majors, and scientists other than chemists or psychologists!  We’re not number one!  We’re not number one!

0 thoughts on “History: practical, sensible, and likely to be in the curriculum in another 50 years

  1. I teach history and I’m seeing more and more history majors. Many want to teach and some want to go to law school. I’m very glad to see this.


  2. I’ve had a number of student-refugees specifically from journalism in the past few years. To be clear: this is not the fault of journalism departments in universities (so far as I can tell, anyway). Rather, it’s the fault of the traditional media, who got used to fantastic profits for their magazines and newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s, and who didn’t have a plan to deal with the internets.

    Newspapers are still profitable, even without firing all of their good reporters and columnists. They just don’t have a license to print money any longer.


  3. there are a whole class of majors with technology appended to them: civil engineering technology, mechanical engineering technology, etc. They’re Engineering Lite- you get enough education to read a technical schematic and do some of the manufacturing, but not do any design work. It’s the sort of thing that used to be on the job training before companies realized it was stupid to train their employees when they can farm it out to the local community college.


  4. the best field to major in is the one that holds your interest long enough for you to graduate in four years.

    And… if you think that some dolts on the internet can tell you what your career choices are in 2018…

    drop by my office! I have a time machine that will let you travel into the future to see what the career of tomorrow is… today!

    My fees for time travel are modest… plus I accept canned goods, gold bullion and checks payable to “CASH”


  5. We’ve basically been dinosaurs since before there were dinosaurs, so no room to fall, and no media percentage in predicting or diagnosing the fall. Ob-sooo-leeete is the new relevant. Seriously, though, our majors roster has been growing for well over a decade. What can you “do” with that? Read.


  6. Okay. What is the difference btw Art and Fine Art?

    And I love the increase in jobs in the field of photography. It may be more dead than journalism, the low end and middle of the market is gone, everyone has a digital camera.


  7. Sorry to see English in at number 19. I did find out that In-State tuition at my state flagship institution will go up by 5 percent or so, next year, and will soon be pushing 6000.00 per year (that’s six thousand, not sixty thousand). The article’s focus on educations costing “hundreds of thousands of dollars” replicates what you’ve noted many times, Historiann: a wacky perspective on what “college” is, based on the experience (or expenses) of folks at elite institutions.


  8. jack’s question is a good one. Also, why is “Literature” separate from “English?” (And what about the dreaded “Comp Lit,” which stands second only to “Art History” as the synechdoche of choice for “most useless major EVAH?”)

    Tom: I can’t believe there’s an institution that’s cheaper than Baa Ram U., although your state would have to be in the running for general poverty reasons. (After all, BRU is no flagship, but then again, we’re not shuttering our Journalism program either.)


  9. “Why not just major in mechanical engineering?”

    At some four year schools, mechanical engineering technology is often a stop on the way down to whatever the university’s gut major is. Because majoring in mechanical engineering would require spending less time smoking dope in order to get passing grades (according to one of our daycare teachers whose husband is going back to school in the field and is less than impressed with his younger classmates… why he’s not in straight engineering I don’t know).

    Some junior colleges have 2-3 year technology degrees but don’t have the engineering degree proper.


  10. There’s a surprising hierarchy of engineering degrees; all sorts of certificates, a technology degree, a BS degree, a masters of engineering (MS coursework with no thesis), MS, PhD… and also “Professional Engineer” and “Licensed Engineer” certifications (which are generally required/preferred in Civil Engineering). Typically this just ends up being a difference in how much you make as a starting salary, which explains how it pops so far up in this study.

    But hey, congrats on being part of a now-less-useless profession, Historiann! 😀


  11. Why not just major in Mechanical Engineering? Well, because it’s hard, and a lot of students don’t like to do hard things. History can be hard too (notably, it involves a lot of reading and writing), but an Engineering major is tough in some ways that History isn’t:

    1) There is very little choice in selection of courses; the total number of required courses, if you include the ones that are actually in Engineering and the ones in math and science departments that are also required, can be quite large. For example, at my institution a History major has to take a total of 120 credits to graduate, but only 6 are in required courses (capstone and senior paper); for all the rest, including distribution requirements within and outside the major, the student has some choice. A Mechanical Engineering major has to take 128 credits to graduate of which 81 are in required courses.

    2) It is very sequential. If you take a History course and don’t take it seriously and get a C-, that doesn’t prevent you from buckling down the next semester and working hard and doing better–most of our courses don’t have prerequisites, and while it is true that earlier courses can help you build skills for later ones, a smart kid can play catch-up. Much less so in many of the STEM fields. Don’t take your beginning course seriously and you will be completely at sea when you take a more advanced one.

    Major programs in engineering are accredited by a professional organization with very strict requirements, so instead of loosening up their requirements schools tend to add alternative majors that are called something else. Some places have “Engineering Studies” majors or minors, which are aimed at students who don’t necessarily want to be professional engineers but are interested in the field in the context of a broad liberal arts education, much the same way that students who major in History don’t want to be professional historians.


  12. Never seen the word technology added to engineering neither did MIT or Stanford.

    When unemployment is around 15%, college is nearly useless; graduates simply don’t find jobs. Since Paul Ryan’s budget plan will be a major influence on the country in the next 20 years, unemployment will probably rise to 30% (I am such as optimist). No one will need college.

    Other than that prediction of this sort are stupid, baseless and Mechanical Engineering Hi-Tech will be the hottest degree in the solar system (and beyond).


  13. Holy smokes, my field *and* my husband’s field are in the top ten. My field was expected, but not his.

    @koshem Bos Unemployment is closer to 10%, and unemployment for college graduates is less than that (I think it’s 8%). While I might agree with the sentiment behind much of what you said, the statistics are not the reason why.


  14. Bluto? That’s Fratguy!

    Wini & koshem bos–last I saw, the unemployment rate for those with college degrees was half that of folks w/o degrees, so I’d say that college is still a worthy investment of time & money. (Although to be sure, I wish the state & U.S. governments were investing more of their money into higher ed than they have been for the past 30 years.)

    From what Ruth, Retrochef, Nicole, and koshem bos say, it sounds like “technology” programs (as opposed to straight engineering majors) are add-ons that universities invented to give students the illusion of value for their degrees. That’s too bad. What can I say? They should have majored in History, obviously.


  15. Agriculture! Yes, food is so f-in useless. So yesterday. And there couldn’t possibly be any challenges to food production in the near future for which we might need some expertise. Like global climate change or supervirulent wheat rusts….


  16. Hey! Where is Philosophy? Are so few schools offering majors now that they didn’t even consider it? When I was an undergrad in the 90s it was a perennial on these lists.

    “So, what are you going to do with a degree in Philosophy? Sit under a tree and think big thoughts?”


  17. Do you what’s a bit whack about some of those most useless degrees- it is that the number of the jobs in the fields are actually increasing. Even horticulture at number 2, has only a predicted decline of less than 2%, which in a large enough field, should still mean plenty of jobs. Jobs for English grads are predicted to rise 10%.

    So, really what’s bringing all these degrees down in the stats appears to be poor pay. Now, being paid badly sucks, but better to be in a field with expanding opps in a market with high unemployment! And, it does seem, at least on face value, that the model doesn’t really take account of the size of the job market- so it may well be that some of the higher-ranking degrees are in job markets where there are 2 very high-earning people and nobody else, and next year there will be 3 jobs, so the job market will increase by 30%, but your chances of getting that job still suck. (Let’s not go into the highly-interesting assumption that people get jobs that reflect their degree subject!).


  18. I wouldn’t call a technology degree worthless — I just hope students aren’t usually told employers consider it equivalent to a BS in ME.

    Actually, the majority of engineering jobs only use a small subset of the material you learn in a BS program. (It’s wise to still have a good grasp of all the fundamentals regardless of career, but a “mechanical engineer” encapsulates a huge range of disciplines. You can, for example, be really bad at thermodynamics but really good at product design, and still be just fine as a mech-e.) If a student is really concerned about financing college, I’d tell them to go for the technology degree or similar certification.

    Heck, one of the PhD guys who just graduated from our program did his undergrad work at DeVry. Just because you start at a place (or program) that sometimes gets sneered at doesn’t mean you aren’t bright, you don’t have potential, or you’re unemployable.


  19. Historiann– It’s not quite that. They are practical degrees for which there are jobs, it’s just that they’re a mix between a junior college degree and a four year degree (similar to many nursing degrees, which can be offered at junior colleges and 4 year universities). Their graduates tend to work for engineers. They don’t design, they implement. There’s less theory in the major, and for someone interested in doing hands-on work without quite so much math, they’re a good fit. If someone discovers they love engineering at community college, it may take less time for a credit or time-constrained student to graduate as well since they wouldn’t have to do most of the 4 years from scratch like they might have to for an engineering degree.

    But it’s also a big destination for failed engineering majors (and it makes sense– if it only takes 2-3 years to get the required courses for the major, someone who flunked out of an engineering degree can complete the degree without starting as a freshman). Unfortunately, if the reason they failed engineering was because of something like study habits, then they are going to fail out of the technology version of the degree too.

    So no, I wouldn’t say it’s a scam.

    BTW, while the BLS is great for salary information, the other thing they use to get salaries is really unrepresentative (both selected and small sample size).


  20. “Also, why is “Literature” separate from “English?””

    Lit is separate from “English” because “English” includes the fields of linguistics, rhet/comp, professional writing, creative writing, and English education. So English is the catch-all while a degree in English *literature* is something more specific. And I think English/Literature are in the top 20 in part because of the fact that they evaluated not only the ability to get a job with the degree (this is actually not that difficult for people who major in English – whatever their emphasis, interestingly) but also the wage-earning potential. English majors can get jobs, but they tend to be at the lower end of the pay scale. This is why many English majors ultimately go on to get advanced degrees (I’m assuming that they were only evaluating employability based on BA alone, and that they left people with grad degrees out of the mix?)


  21. From a former engineering major, the engineering tech program at my alma mater already has me o_O at starting with precalculus in their plan of study. Weenies! So, I would assume this is aimed at students who lack a strong STEM preparation before coming to university.

    That said, I sucked at MechEng (one of the reasons I finally settled on history as a major). But I think that their list of useless majors is pretty useless. I know places where people can go far with such degrees or ones in hort or ag. You just might not do so well wherever the Daily Beast’s people hang out, I guess.


  22. I don’t think the relationship between the career and the degree was ‘scientifically calculated’ as they said ‘using the profession most associated with the degree’. So in other words, they looked at a list of careers and decided what degree was most associated with that field, and then slated the degree based on the success of that field.

    Do people really tend to end up in careers so closely associated with their u/grad degree, especially at mid-career level? How many people change careers many times before that stage? I think vocational degrees might be one of the only places where this relationship is statistically true.


  23. Feminist Avatar: I think you’re right that the methodology here was designed to select for vocational degrees. Very few history majors become professional historians (or even history teachers at the 7-12 level). If History majors were measured against those numbers, it would unquestionably have one of the poorest showings (esp. re: job growth! But that’s nothing new in the past 40 years in higher ed. . . )

    And, Dr. Crazy: I realize that English departments are essentially multidisciplinary. My comment was more along the lines of “why did the Daily Beast separate Lit from the other English concentrations,” as in the case of Art/Art History/Fine Arts degrees. They seem to be making a distinction without a tremendous difference.

    Originally I thought “well, maybe they’re trying to include Comp Lit and foreign language literature too” in the “Literature” major, but I don’t see any evidence of that. It may be that because of the assaults on foreign language departments lately in the U.S.–along with U.S. hostility/contempt for language study–that the number of Comp Lit/foreign language lit majors is so small as to be irrelevant to the study.


  24. The more logical methodology would have been to look at the average earnings of college grads with particular majors, instead of attributing a major to a career. And there the evidence is clear that English, history, and other disciplines that provide lots of writing provide a strong starting point. By mid-career, English and history majors are earning more than psychology majors.

    Our students are absurdly fond of psychology, though…


  25. H – I didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t get understand English, but there actually are a fair number of departments where “English literature” or “English and American Literature” or some variation of that is the major listed on a transcript, as opposed to “English,” so I didn’t find the separating the two weird at all.


  26. Yeah piping in to agreeing with the others, a “tech” degree is like engineering lite. The only time I would claim it is useless is because occasionally people at universities are fooled into thinking it’s just an easier program that will get them the same job in the end. It won’t, can’t be an engineer with a “tech” degree usually. So you take a lot lower pay over lifetime for maybe the same cost in degree.

    I kind of hate all this “highest paying” or useless stuff. Not that I’d advice anyone to go major in art history. While I still think engineering is incredibly useful (compared to other majors) especially if you enjoy it, it’s still not “the answer” to perfect employment. I see mechanical engineering everywhere and it’s my discipline so I know very well that America just doesn’t make stuff anymore. If i had to advise someone interested in engineering now I’d tell them to do electrical or software. Though software’s getting heavily outsourced, it’s still fairly high in demand. If you work in mechanical you figure out it’s kind of like academia where you may have to go work in the boonies just to have a job because that’s where Bob’s Tractor Designs is based.

    I’m having a tough time this week with a young family member who’s interested in majoring in marine biology. She understands it will probably require her to get her masters at a minimum and likely her PhD. I think it’s great she’s so driven and to go into STEM is fantastic, but are there any jobs in marine biology these days? Ugh! What do you do? Shut my mouth and encourage her to do what she wants? What if it was journalism or something we all agree is suffering horribly?


  27. Nice slam on Psychology there, Susan. I wouldn’t slam the writing and other rigorous education my students get in their English and History classes. Our graduates do a hell of a lot of writing in their Psychology courses (both general papers as well as research articles) and also have a rigorous statistical and methodological training that lands them some pretty well-paying jobs.


  28. This is very interesting. I’m an Australian with an Masters degree in History (not sure what the equivalent is in US – for us, it falls between a bachelors degree and a PhD and involves a dissertation that’s about 75% the length of a PhD). I wonder what a similar study would show in our context?

    Anecdotally, none of my cohort in grad studies (about 60 at my university, half Masters, half PhD) are unemployed, although plenty are underemployed or paid poorly. Very, very few are in academia, though – 3? Maybe 4? The most common career paths that history has disgorged for us have been public service, publishing, school-teaching, college teaching in Asia, and professional (commissioned) history.

    Australia still has a fairly large, well-compensated and liberal-arts-degree friendly public sector, so that’s an obvious destination for lots of history grads. Especially as public servants are far more secure in job tenure and conditions than *any* academics in this country, even the ones who technically have tenure.

    I have a friend (also a history Masters alumni, as it happens) who is senior in the administration of the biggest university in my state, and she tells me that their in-house figures rate the highest unemployment 2 years post graduation in Media Studies, and Arts degrees majoring in Fine Arts, Classics, and Politics. Graduates in medicine, law, engineering and teaching (primary and secondary) have the highest employment rates, close to 100%. We have a shortfall of teachers in Australia ATM so that may explain the practical usefulness of the education degrees. (And indeed, lots of people with Arts degrees in less marketable subjects go on to do a 1 or 2 year bridging course and qualify as teachers).

    My own career trajectory was: part-time work for community not-for-profit publishing group while doing degree; then to larger commercial publishing house on graduation; then public sector publication role with state archives; then policy adviser role with state archives; then senior policy adviser role with large government department. I don’t think history per se got me onto this track (if it can be characterised as a track rather than a series of random hops) but a higher degree in an Arts discipline was definitely favoured.


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