As a liberal arts student, the most common question I’m forced to field from family, friends, prospective students, and others is the question of profession, career, and inevitably – salary. Sources, both legitimate and illegitimate are cited illustrating the growth of STEM fields, business, medicine, and more as prime money makers and job allocators – while the liberal arts and humanities are held with deep suspicion.
What are you going to do with that? But you won’t be able to make much money with that degree, will you?
Well, there are two things I want to say in response to these albeit warranted questions – one of the two I want to stress over the other.
The first is that, yes, as far as starting salary goes, business and engineering students will on average earn more than those majoring in something like English or Philosophy. A quick Google search can confirm this and it’s probably been hammered into your head since before high school even started. But when you look ten years down the line – ten years after graduation – the income gap between STEM or business related majors and liberal arts majors shrinks to the point of inconsequentiality. Why?
It returns to the genuine triumph of critical thinking and versatility. A Finance major is going to know much more of the nitty-gritty in terms of, well, Finance, than a History major. But a History major grasps the inner workings and developments of economics, politics, race, gender, war, business, and industry that the Finance major usually hasn’t even had a taste of. Combine this background and versatility with the fact that you learn most of your job during training after you’ve already been hired, and it’s easy to see why liberal arts majors catch up to the curve quickly. So once again, as far as the salary argument goes, it’s only relevant for the first few years after graduation (and to be honest, I think it’s beneficial to begin your professional life on the lower ends of the totem pole).
But point one isn’t the point I want to hammer home. The point I want to hammer home is that – maybe as liberal arts majors know and realize more often than their business and STEM counterparts – it isn’t all about salary and job stock.
I know the competitive, career-driven high school to college to career machine which emphasizes unadulterated economic growth over life itself has probably taught you differently – but it’s a worldview that a growing number of people share.
You spend a significant portion of your waking hours at your job. It serves you well to actually enjoy the work you have to do on a daily basis. Some people like Accounting – and Accounting is good for those people. Some people don’t – but they still feel the need to get a behind-the-desk corporate job for the sake of higher wages. Sometimes I feel like the income gap between STEM/business and liberal arts can be at least partly explained by an idea that is more often than not held by liberal arts graduates – that you should live a life you don’t need a vacation from.
It doesn’t take much in the form of material wealth and economic well-being to live a fulfilling and happy life. I won’t go so far as to say money doesn’t matter at all (I wish it didn’t, but that’s another story) – but it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we’ve been told. Even the studies that show happiness ceases to increase with salary after $75,000 for a family fail to express the relative insignificance of money since they go about the study wrong. You don’t quantify happiness. It’s an active lifestyle – one that can be attained perhaps more easily when you enjoy your job and have more free time throughout the week to go hiking or watch your kid’s soccer game.
So maybe liberal arts students don’t make as much as others in terms of starting salary, and maybe they make just as much down the road – or maybe, as shocking of a notion as it may be, it just doesn’t matter all that much.