What can you do with a HUMANITIES degree?

"Are you going to be a humanitarian, or what?"

I’ve been asked this question many times since graduating from college. In the first few years, as I was proofreading petroleum-industry directories and typing catalog cards, I asked it frequently (and disparagingly) myself. But over my years in the workforce, I’ve discovered that the benefits of a humanities degree can be pretty significant.

For one thing, a degree that includes advanced classes in English, foreign language, journalism, theater, art, religion, and philosophy gives you a lot of arcane knowledge that is vital if you want to succeed at playing trivia games in bars. It’s also a great foundation for a graduate degree in library science (especially since library school students are prone to spending their leisure time playing trivia games in bars—or at least they were in the early 1990s). Besides all of that, however, the humanities degree taught me some things that have been invaluable in the work world. Specifically:

Creativity under a deadline

From classes like Basic Drawing, Costume Design, and Advertising Copy and Layout, I learned to develop creative ideas and implement them, using specific parameters, under a deadline. Those classes also taught the value of learning from people who know more than I do: nearly every project I did in any of those classes was improved in some way by a suggestion from somebody else, often the instructor.


Because the humanities degree had relatively few required classes, I was able to participate in many extracurricular activities, such as jazz band, orchestra, choir, and yearbook. Musical ensembles make great teams: they basically consist of large numbers of people doing different tasks that somehow all come together with the appropriate project (composition) and leadership (director).

But one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with was my college yearbook staff. Each person on the staff had a specialty: writing, editing, photography, layout, vendor relations—but could also pinch-hit in everything else. From my yearbook experience I got the idea that it’s actually fun to spend ridiculous amounts of time working hard on a project you know is worthwhile (even if nobody else does) with people you’d probably be spending ridiculous amounts of time with anyway.

Note: Science and Engineering Node Services at the University at Buffalo functioned the same way, and I loved working there because of it.

The value of writing skills

I don’t remember ever taking a multiple-choice test in college. Everything was an essay or a project. Learning how to plan a project or write an essay has been much more useful in the real world than learning to guess which of five answers is the right one. I have learned a few things since college also; many of them are on my Work page or my Projects page. The reason for this page is that I rarely get the chance to explain what a humanities B.A. is and how, more than 30 years after graduation, I’m still applying what I learned. How many people with any kind of a degree can say that?