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Science Or Humanities Degrees – Which Wins in the Modern Job Market?

It’s an age-old war. Libraries or laboratories? Monographs or MATLAB? Books or textbooks?

Whichever you chose at university, no doubt you feel stuck with it – in your knowledge base, in your social circles and in your job. And the war between science and humanities is nowhere more noticeable than in the struggle for graduate employment.

But which is more effective? Who does better in the jobs market – the scientists, or the bookworms?

The history

In 1959, the research scientist, novelist and civil servant C. P. Snow wrote of his experiences as both a scientist and literatus:

“I felt I was moving among two groups – comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all.”

Not much has changed in 50 years. All arts students will know that classic scientist refrain, “But what’s the point of [insert library-centric discipline here]?”

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects have no such issue. Maths has an application. Engineering has an application. Science – well! What vocation could be greater than challenging humanity’s technological horizons?

And, similarly, we all know those thespians who turn up their nose at the computer scientist’s introductions – the linguists who would rather sell their kidney than spend a day with a group of physicists.

How did we reach this juncture? Where were these choices, that define our very world-view, first encountered? At school, of course, and, by extension, university. For many grad students, their university degree is the number one card they have to play with a potential employer.

The landscape

So who wins out? How far can your degree take you? Were the STEM-men right when they called your degree a $15,000-per-year library card? Let’s look at some figures.

In 2012, 60% of UK business and political leaders boasted humanities degrees, with only 15% coming from STEM backgrounds and 7% from vocational education. In 2015, the British Council compared the educational backgrounds of a group of international leaders, finding that 55% had a humanities or social sciences background. Interestingly, leaders surveyed from Asian countries – which tend to encourage technological subjects – did not necessarily study STEM disciplines.

Combine this with the dominance of Oxford’s P.P.E. degree (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) in business and banking sectors, and we have to ask the question: Do the humanity disciplines make better leaders? It’s possible; these are degrees which teach you to think, to connect, to analyze and embrace grey areas as a necessity.

But this doesn’t leave its competitor in the dust. In 2011, an American study concluded that STEM occupations show “direct ties to innovation, economic productivity, even though they will only be 5% of all jobs in the United States economy by 2018.” Internationally, investment banks work hard to find graduates with the numerical and analytical skills typical to a mathematical or science background.

The earning potential of engineering and computer science degrees is consistently estimated as higher than those of your average English or history student. STEM skills are demanded not only in your typical research positions but in manufacturing, utilities, mining and transportation – even sales and management.

The bigger picture

“So if I want a bigger pay cheque… I should have studied computer science?” Perhaps. But is that extra figure on your salary all you’re looking for in the jobs market?

Chances are that, when you chose your degree, you went for something you liked – that you felt you could excel in. Assuming you haven’t fallen completely out of love with your field of study, your grad field should be an extension of that. Forget the numbers; do what you’re good at, whether that’s research or banking or media, and the rest will follow after.

The American psychologist Frederick Herzberg, a famous name in business management, suggested that salary did play a factor in job satisfaction – but only to a point. Once candidates earned enough, extra money counted for very little and interest in the job became much more important. It has even been suggested by UK psychologists that too much money makes you less happy in the long term.

So don’t go mourning that $15,000 library card just yet, classicists. Chances are, it’ll make you happy in the long run. And if not? You can always retrain as a lab rat.

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