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Articles > Student Life November, 01, 2007

BA degrees – the fast track to the temping office

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Did you know just how useless your degree was going to be?  Undergraduates are always told to carefully pick their degree course because of its employment prospects, but maybe the advice should be more along the lines of ‘make sure you choose something you like, it’s the last thing you’ll be able to enjoy doing before you get that job at your dad’s insurance firm’.

We need to change our attitude to what the real purpose of non-vocational degrees is. Rather than expecting them to provide a relevant and worthwhile career afterward, degrees in social sciences and humanities should be viewed as a purely intellectual pursuit of a subject one finds interesting, a very expensive hobby that lasts for three or so years.

Up and down the country, ex BA degree students are seeking permanent employment after graduating with a humanities or social sciences degree this summer. The skills they will have learnt whilst at University, including good communication, team work and presentation skills (not to mention surviving on a weekly food budget of approximately £4.62), will bolster their CVs no doubt, but what about their knowledge of the particular subject they studied at degree level?

I ask this question because in recent weeks I have noticed a large number of my graduate friends are all gaining employment in very similar offices doing very similar things in spite of doing degrees ranging from English Literature to Geography to Psychology to Art History. The premise of all these graduate jobs is essentially data entry or light administration, with little reference to any of the three years of study just gone; maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I doubt organising a filing system for an electronics company will need much expertise on the poetry of Lord Tennyson.

The sheer irrelevance of these types of degree becomes even more obvious if we look at other options; no medic with a first class degree will end up in a temping office, whilst a vocational diploma in plumbing is just that – almost a guarantee of a job once study is complete.

Why do so many of us decide to undertake these impractical subjects to pursue at University? More often than not people enjoyed it A-Level, or felt that nothing else was really a viable option, plus who would want to turn down three years of sheer hedonism and socialising (on a very small budget of course)? There is nothing wrong with these reasons, but the expectations we have for the future after our study are probably erroneous. Very few humanities degree holders will end up in a job that properly utilises their study, unless they have always had a talent for writing novels or philosophising, regardless of taking a degree or not.

The amount of applications Universities receive is still rising, even after the recent top-up fees have made the prospect of study an even more expensive one than before; perhaps a better way to cope with the influx of college leavers would be to be more truthful about post graduation employability, and thus quell the demand for University places somewhat. Instead of insisting a creative writing course is just the thing if you’re an aspiring author, the record should be set straight – chances are, you’ll end up like the rest of us, in an office somewhere in a room full of other graduates who thought they’d have published that journal by now or started producing their first film and haven’t.

The truth is you may as well leave college at eighteen and start working in an office immediately if financial solvency is what you’re after – a degree in the arts or social sciences is bound to be one of the most satisfying and fun experiences of your life and I do not wish to detract from that, but I do not wish to pretend it is the fast track to a good job either. A BA degree is nothing less than a stimulating quest for knowledge by the more curious among us who wish to make sense of our society and culture – but we must recognise that it is nothing more than that as well.

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  1. Cat

    As a mature student (35yrs) coming back to finish the third year of a degree I started 15years ago as an HND in Hospitality Management, I agree not all degrees are vocationally linked. I want to teach and a degree is a fundamental requirement so I am studying something I know I will not pursue just for the piece of paper. Some note a degree shows perseverance and dedication, a quality not oft found in industry. The author Kate Webber shares her view through her university eyes and rightly so. Through my eyes with 9 years of office life as a personal assistant to directors in several industry sectors, I can explain why students are set to do data entry and paperwork. It may appear all her friends are doing the same job and for the first 6 months I can confirm they are. There is a business behaviour culture which students dont have. There is office protocol which students dont have. There is a corporate social expectation to act, say and do in a certain way which students find a steep and often painful learning curve in the first month of office life (in general terms). In answer to Kate’s observation of “all these graduate jobs are essentially data entry or light administration, with little reference to any of the three years of study just gone” graduates are being groomed for an inital period. What they bring to the job with their rested astute and innovative minds usually threatens those tired, older, routine minds methodically doing the work grind month after month. Rest assured, once the ‘office programming’ period is over, the student will have outshone the laziest in the office and carved their niche for management to see clearly where to promote them. Data entry yes, do you merely do what your told or question the figures you are entering. Light administration do you follow instructions or suggest a quicker timesaving more efficient way of working. Fresh student minds tend to shine in an office, ONCE they ‘fit’ in. Be different, be a bachelor, be successful. Best wishes to you all and your studies.

  2. Kayleigh

    I agree with the commments stating that you cannot expect guarunteed employment in a specific area at the end of a degree that is non vocational when the degree is obviously non-specific. The employers will be looking to employ people with experiance relative and specific to their relative field. I muself, couldn’t dream of studying for a degree in a non vocational subject, what is the goal at the end of it? Too many people assume that they can graduate with a degree in maths or english and be able to hop straight out of university into well paid, respectable job. You still have to make your way up the ladder, just as anyone would when not experianced in that specific field, whether they have a degree or not.

  3. Thomas Oxtoby

    I feel that if you have used your time wisely at University and gained the proper work experience you should be able to stand a good of chance as anyone who has graduated

  4. Mel

    I agree to the extent that it is more difficult to be employed with a humanities degree rather than a Bachelor of Science or other kinds of degrees, however I entirely disagree with the implication that employability and getting a job, and getting money has more significance than the pursuit of knowledge and of a subject someone is passionate about. It’s made to sound as if this degree is just a small thing to satisfy curiosity or a bit of fun, but to follow a subject you are passionate about, which you enjoy and understand the complexities of and could contribute ideas to and further is far from just that. Granted you need an amount of money to survive, but money and a job position is not everything in life and no degree or event or action in which you gain knowledge is pointless. It’s entirely subjective and wrong to declare that some degrees are more useful than others, unless the quality of teaching or of the curriculum is different. I also don’t agree that humanities degrees don’t help people get where they want to be; they do, they help develop the skills and knowledge-sets of writers, geographers, historians, and many many others.

  5. Sonya

    Take a person with a BA in Sociology and very little life/work experience for example, and yes, I’d say that the chances of them graduating into a job which requires a degree, let alone a degree in their specific subject, are minimal. However, it is important not to forget the opportunities made available to students whilst studying at university. For example if you want to be an art journalist, one way to do might be to do a degree in Art History and get heavily involved in the student newspaper. Or if you want to become a radio presenter but with a fall back qualification, going to university simply to get involved with their student radio (and get a degree) might not be such a bad idea.

  6. wafa

    I think that most if not all undergraduates degrees today are just a steppingstone to further education and development.An undergraduate degree used to mean a job within ones’ field, but with the huge number of people holding a Bachelor’s degree today, that is not the case anymore. Some majors are effected by this more than others, but overall one should check his or her priorities and research job opportunities before joining a program.

  7. Beth

    I agree- final year in Criminal Justice Studies. It’s totally pointless. I am currently applying to the Police as if i get in, its a £20k+ wage. If i don’t i’m going to get my TEFL. So much for the BA. I may as well have set fire to £15k and type up the certificate myself.

  8. Katherine

    Regardless of whether or not an arts subject can lead to a job directly related to said subject – there is no point in doing a subject just because you think you’ll get a good job if you do it. You will simply drop out or end up with a poor degree at the end. There is little point in someone who loves English Literature doing a hated Maths course because they think it’s more employable, because they’ll just waste 3 years. As has been mentioned, a degree is practically a necessity on a CV today. What I suspect is that this is more a case of “graduatitis” (a term my sister coined when working at an employment agency) which essentially means graduates who feel that just because they have a degree they deserve £30k salaries. It just isn’t the case; in vocational courses you’re taught to do a particular job, in academic subjects you’re taught how to think. If you do a purely academic subject then you have to start at the bottom as far as the actual job is concerned.

  9. Rose

    I agree with the comments made by cjr! I am a second year History student and was so disappointed to turn up at Cambridge University to find the same sort of attitude displayed on the forum. I chose to do History because I have loved it since I was a small child, and the thought to being able to study it all day, everyday was a fantastic prospect. I saddens me to think that people are at university just to pass the time between leaving school and seeking a high-paying job. I am not doing my degree because the skills that I am acquiring will be well-suited to an office job in the City, nor am I studying it because it was the best of a bad bunch at A-level. I hope to put my degree, and both the skills and content to good use after I graduate by pursuing a career in the Heritage Industry – where I can continue to do History everyday! If it is the case that university degrees do not provide sufficient skills for the allusive ‘graduate job’, and people do not want to put their degrees into good use by doing a job related to their degree, I don’t understand why most people are at university to be honest. University should be a place for training in various disciplines, not a springboard to certain jobs, which have no relation to the degree you will have invested you time, money and hopefully interest in.

  10. maiher

    i think the trouble stems from graduates expecting too much from their degree. by which i mean they expect that because they have a degree they can start a job at a higher level than someone who hasnt. this isnt always the case. if you a a non-specific career degree (law and medicine have career aims) like english lit then you will need to be trained and this means starting from the bottom. if more graduates realised that this is not a bad thing and just the natural order of things then i honestly believe there wouldnt be such a fuss about temping and office work. the new person has also, still does and allways will have to be the one to make the tea in the office. the difference a degree brings is more potential to progress through graduate schemes as it shows the employer that you are willing, and clever enough to learn.

  11. cjr

    apologies for any spelling errors in the above. Turns out i truely was a fool to feel a sense of ‘acomplishment’ after ‘finshing’ my GCSCs. Strip me of my qualifications I am off to eat beans on toast.

  12. cjr

    I’m currently in my first year at university working towards a BA in English. Reading your article made my heart sink, not due to a lack in faith in my own skills as a student and my future work prospects, but the total lack of enthusiasm and excitement found here. As my first term draws to an end I am so happy to be where i am, studying a subject i love in the aim to gain a degree which i have complete faith that will excell me towards my future career path. I am tired with this constant melancholy attitude projected towards people who just want to become more educated and in turn gain a marginally better life, first GCSEs were too easy (of course! what a fool i was for feeling any sense of acomplishment after finshing them) then we are expected to sail through the wonder that is A-Levels. Funny i seemed to miss out on the enjoyment that was A-Levels, i was somewhere buried under piles of notes desperately trying to cram enough into my brain so that i could end up here. And here i am, finally. Please in future spare a thought for the ever optimistic English student who although has not slept since Saturday afternoon due to essay deadlines still has faith in the university system, and her future degree, which she will cherish (and most probably frame above a fire place somewhere.

  13. jade

    i agree with this article too. i am one of the few people in Scotland who are lucky enough to be studying a Biomedical science degree that dose not require you to do further study afterwords. my university offers great placements and work experience in local hospitals. but without this placement your degree is useless becuase you dont have the techniques you need to make it in a real hospital. and lets face it, we all know that employers evrywere favour thoes with experience.

  14. Jennifer

    I do agree with this piece as me and most of my friends finished our degrees in varying subjects in may/june this year. Not one of us has landed with a graduate job even though we have all carried out work experience and other training whilst at uni and not just the subject course. I myself am working in an office environment as it is clear to me when graduates are career hunting, ‘it’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know.

  15. laura

    i agree with what has been said, for some students they dont look futher than the title of the degree, or many of them, dont actually know what they want to do with themselves.I do however think that a Ba isnt totally useless, to employment, especially not english as you do have many jobs which involve the use of englsih, such as journalism. To conclude employment,this day and age is very competative and a dregree, will make you stand out, whatever degree you do x 🙂

  16. Cat

    p.s.! 1. Research skills are fundamental to life in general and extremely useful to employers, enabling quick access to sometimes life saving information. 2. I read a statistic somewhere that those who are more educated are less likely to suffer longterm illness 3. The process of intensive learning creates complex neural networks in the brain, a comprehensive infrastructure which easily transfers to other subjects 4. There are many adults around the world who would love to be given access to books, classrooms, computers, it is a luxury item which is not to be forgotten. 🙂

  17. Sophie

    I’m not sure that just the choice of degree you pick is the sole cause for people getting desk jobs that go no where. I do medicine myself but i would think that it would be a logical step if you were doing a non-vocational degree to maybe couple it with extra training/courses/job experiences that is more vocation specific before heading for the career that you would want (e.g. like said previously about the english student who wrote in student mags etc). I believe it’s a case really of how much you want it, I mean, in medicine it doesn’t take just 5 years, it takes up pretty much your whole life.

  18. Dan

    Im currently doing an audio technology degree and hope that it will allow me to pursue a career in the industry i love, but I think that if you do something at uni that isnt particularly specific to a career path then you are less likely to get a decent job at the end. What can someone with an english degree do after uni? Teach english? Write? If you want to write for publications there are more specific degrees and courses ect. I think nowadays people need to really think about why they are going to university and what they want to do afterwards, rather than just choose a general subject area they feel comfortable with, or all their mates are doing. Kate says all her friends are working in admin jobs, maybe that is a result of lazy career planning and lack of drive to try and find something better? If you have a dream career in mind then you are really going to have to fight for it because there will be thousands of others with the same qualifications in the same boat as you!

  19. Steven

    Having recently graduated with an English degree myself, I do share some of Kate’s perceptions of a job market that could be awash with naive BA students. However, I feel compelled to disagree with those who will simply sit back and criticise the BA as some kind of “useless” course; the fact remains that, no matter what your degree, you are never “guaranteed” a career at the end of your studies.

  20. kieran

    I think that in our highly competetive job market, a degree is not a feature that makes a person stand out, but a necessity. anyone who takes a BA degree should be told that it alone will not secure them employment in their chosen field, as thousands of others have the same qualification. And lets face it, whilst a BA in a humanity or social science means that you (hopefully) know something about your subject, it does train you to do a job in that area!

  21. Kayleigh Reading uni studying agriculture

    (At Reading uni studying agriculture) I think your article is proof that you have learned very employable skills, your articale was very readable and imformatve. I do think though its up to the individual to go for the jobs they want an english degree lend its self to many careers, jouralism, teaching, the list is endless but nothing makes up for actual experiance, and starting off in a dead end job makes you strive for better.

  22. Gigglingfish

    I have just started an Ancient History BA at B’ham, and after battling through a-levels and applying, I have high hopes that I will not necessarily become successful in terms of authoring a book etc, but that I will be content with the career that I will have painfully carved for myself. I have intentions of either going into teaching and putting my degree to use to teach the subject at a-level, or to go into museum and curatorial work, of which i have organised an internship to work at the british museum. In my opinion, it’s not the type or subject of a degree that is worthless, but those students, upon graduation who come to expect that they are entitled to a six figure pay salary without having put through all the things in motion to acheive so. It’s a competitive world out there, we must ensure that as students, we’re doing all the right things to make us one employable and two, individual.

  23. Rachel

    There is also the group of people who do degrees while they’re waiting for banks to decide that they are old enough to get the loan they need to start their first business. When it comes to using a non-vocational degree to get a job you have to look at what else they were doing with their time as well. Most journalists did english degrees but wrote for student papers etc. to give them a start.

  24. Immy

    There is another issue here; as it has become more and more popular for people to go to university, even with top up fees etc, there is now an assumption from employers that CV’s should include one. I think one of the main advantages of having a degree -in any subject- is that it is proof that you can apply yourself. The university experience itself is also socially educational.

  25. samantha

    I am now lucky to be undertaking a social work degree, with obvious guaranteed employment when I complete the course. I do however believe that during careers classes at school, young people should be armed with all the facts, including that some degree courses are indeed pointless when it comes to finding a skilled job. This certainly would have enabled me to make an informed choice many years ago when I did my psychology degree!

  26. Alan

    I personally don’t know of anyone studying History or English Lit who believes they’ll go on to present the next series of Time Team or become a world renowned author. Maybe it’d be wise not to generalise when discussing people who do these type of degrees, I’m reasonably sure the vast majority know that their degree merely proves they were able to put in enough work to earn a degree and then move out into the big bad world to look for employment.

  27. Elgin_McQueen

    I think the main point that needs to be regarded here is the universities responsibility to help you into a job afterwards. After all, if nobody completing a degree can find a job related to it afterwards, the university inself will suffer, eventually having to halt that course as no one will be interested in taking it. The center itself on peoples final year should guide or at least attempt to make relationships within the working sector so that they have a knowledge of possible openings for their students to pursue after their education there is completed. (Kinda kept going on there for a bit I think)

  28. Kilian

    The problem I think, with the courses, are that people don’t look further than the title of the subject when choosing what to study in University. An English degree proves nothing unless you follow it up with, say, a PCGE or a Masters, as it won’t make you stand out any differently from the other 90 students who graduated with you, or the thousands across the country. At the end of the day, the University course only is a footing, nothing more in a sense, and the quicker the student population see this, the quicker they can try and reassess their goals, rather than ease through their degree and find themselves walking from their graduation to a desk they’ll be working at for the following 40 years.

  29. Matt

    I think some fair points are made here, although the question that must be asked is: how do people at 18 years of age not know that the majority of BAs (not esoterically reasoned maths) are useless for employment? If they actually wanted to do a serious job after university, they would no doubt have been driven to study the relevant subject. If they were not, then maybe they merely lacked ambition.

  30. Sean Ralph

    I am currently in the first year of a Radiotherapy degree, at the end of which I am guaranteed a job. After taking two years out after my A-Levels and working in a call centre for one of the major banks the prospect of doing a none-vocational degree for three years and then probably ending up back in a call centre or something similar would be completely soul destroying. Personally I really do not know how people can do none-vocational degrees. The absence of a specific aim or goal at the end of a three year degree would be such a demotivating factor for me that I would never finish the degree. I think it would be a good idea for people who have just finished their A-Levels to do what I done and take some time out to go and live in the real world and get a boring 9-5 office job. It really does change your attitude towards education and makes you reassess what you want to get out of a degree.

  31. Rohan Oliver Kandasamy

    Not all BAs are pointless. A Maths 3-year course at Oxford University is a BA, for esoteric reasons, and that is most certainly not a pointless degree, opening up careers in finance with huge salaries.

  32. Hannah

    I seriously can’t believe the way that people think they all have to do degrees in maths or english or an ‘academic’ degree just so they get a suitable job. Personally I have always been a great believer in doing something that you want to in life even if it doesn’t mean getting paid quite as much at the end of the day a full time job takes up a lot of hrs and if you don’t enjoy it whats the point? I am studying in a fashion degree and although a lot of people might look down their noses as it not being a ‘proper’ degree I totally disagree and am looking forward to getting a job in something that I really enjoy.