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Arts Graduates and the Dark Night of the Soul

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Upon graduation, one can be forgiven for anticipating the opening bars of the Hallelujah Chorus to break out. The reality can be somewhat more underwhelming. Instead, you find yourself faced with the barren trumpet blast of adulthood. You can’t go into a course of further study simply because you don’t know what else to do. You can’t afford to pick up driving and not follow it through, or extracurriculars without any hope of immediate recompense. 

Being hurled into the jobs market can make even the most successful of graduates question their future. Exactly What You Want From Life is one dilemma. How to Derive an Applicable Skill From an Arts Degree is another.

This is especially the case for those, myself included, in possession of more ‘generalist’ degrees, such as arts and humanities qualifications. Heck, there’s even a song about the predicament facing arts graduates, the Arts Graduate Unemployment Song (see below). 

Ironically, this is one existential crisis we are not going to philosophise our way out of.

For, while arts degrees were noble and good some years ago when degree status guaranteed a job – or circa the 5th through 4th centuries BC when philosophising was a fabulously legitimate life path – the value of certain modes of higher study are undergoing serious inquiry.

Misconceptions about the arts and humanities, and university students themselves, play no small part in this difficulty; that the entire field of History is irrelevant; that Art majors have been on an heroic jolly for the past three years, or that English Literature Students spend their academic career indulging the ‘luxury’ of reading fiction.

And, while reading and writing necessitate empathy, observational skills and a wide and varied network of friends and experiences to draw upon, I’ve found myself partially concealing my more ‘bookish’ aspects from subsequent applications. Because, chances are, in securing that first job, your employer may well have hailed from a time when men were men and it was possible to advance to god-like status simply by virtue of sticking around long enough, and not only might they have limited knowledge of what your degree entails, but they simply won’t care.

Underpinning all of this is the woefully widespread assumption that university students are so intellectually marshmallowed within their ‘ivory towers’ as to be impractical. That the sheer effort that goes into achieving any degree at all demonstrates, crucially, that one not only knows how to, but is willing to learn has become irrelevant.

Certainly, the possible solution of garnishing one’s CV with an artfully selected array of work experience, volunteer work and extra-curriculars is strongly advisable for any student. But the sad truth is that internships and work experience are rarely enough to specialise an arts/humanities degree for a job in a related field – media, teaching and librarianship vocations all require job-specific credentials. The most likely job outcome lies in less specialised roles, such as PA, secretarial and administrative work, and good luck fighting off every other disgruntled arts graduate who has come to the same realisation.

More than likely, you’re looking at putting some serious hours into further training – training that you could have just, you know, gone into in the first place. A university education is, in many cases, no more fundamental to securing a job than key skills and relevant work experience. At best, many degrees can be viewed as little more than a preliminary stage in the professional careers screening process.

The sad truth is that those assertions from careers advisors of the virtues of the transferability of arts and humanities skills are a crock. The jobs market is flooded with equally able candidates for the most menial of roles, and when the bulk of your qualities are transferable and your competitor has readily applicable skills, you simply won’t make the grade. No matter how ‘transferable’ your superhuman ability to juggle seven essays due in the same week, you can bet your sweet bippy a sales employer looking for experience of working to targets will go for the person educated to GCSE level with specific experience of achieving sales targets, even if you gave the interview of your livelong life.

One of the key drivers behind this conundrum might be seen as an indiscriminate governmental push towards academic modes of study, causing degree inflation. Many are left deluded about what to expect from their degree and subsequently short-changed. Employers have recognised that some vocational courses are in fact more practical and intensive than their academic counterparts, the latter of which the Guardian has termed ‘professional overkill’, with questionable degrees existing in careers formerly confined to on-the-job training, such as Mortuary science and Policing.

Many graduates are trapped in an uncomfortable limbo – as if the indeterminacy of adolescence wasn’t painful enough – in which their degree is neither practical enough for gaining a toehold on the careers ladder or specialised enough for a professional career with actual prospects. And by this point, many are too cash-strapped to go into further training. The head of my local secondary English department worked as a bin man for a year before beginning teacher training. Had he not had the latter to go into, he might have been in a very ‘sticky’ situation indeed.

Poor puns aside, the pressure of finding work is a great one, not least due a sense that every month one is out of work post-graduation, one’s value depreciates, like a first generation iPod. Reaching the point where your back breaks and you’re weighing up the pros and cons of prostitution against panhandling is no enviable situation.

And, while it can only get better, surely, and as much as I continue to believe that learning for learning’s sake is a noble ambition, is it all still worth it? I’m tens of thousands of pounds in debt and facing the prospect of doing that halfway desk job. Every. Single. Day.

Ultimately, I know that I couldn’t not have studied the arts. I’m a writer, and I love knowledge. And knowledge is priceless, whether or not the arts are justly valued by society. The other big asset offered by a degree is insurance – that, no matter what path you do eventually take, you know you won’t be short one degree. And, in an unstable economic climate, that’s an invaluable thing to have. But I was led to believe it was the only path worth taking, and I was wrong. The answer needn’t lie in the degreeification of whatever it is you want to do. And I fear that a large slice of the student body are there due to a perceived lack of options. 

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