Climbing The Ladder

7 People On How They Bounced Back From Their “Useless” College Degree

By | Wednesday, August 31, 2016


When we were children, many of us believed that college was the necessary step in being a successful adult. College, we were told, would set us up for the career of our choice. And while choosing a major was difficult for some, we thought that if we followed our passions, we’d be rewarded with a career that matched our interests.

However, for many post-grads, the actual college experience was somewhat different. Putting aside the fact that 43.3 million Americans currently have student loan debt, it is not uncommon for young adults to look back on their college career with some element of regret. The “real world” is not kind in reminding us that sometimes our passions and our jobs are not one and the same, and that there might be some college degrees to avoid.

Personally speaking, I know the feeling of graduating with confusion and a strange sense of regret. As a theater major, I felt like I was propelled into the real world with little understanding of how to even market myself as an actor, let alone anything else. I spent four years reading Shakespeare, crawling around on the floor in acting classes, and “interpreting” text, but couldn’t tell you the first thing about putting together a resume. In a lot of ways, I felt doomed.

However, I quickly learned that there was a lot I had to offer precisely because of that theater degree. I’m pretty awesome at public speaking and giving presentations, thanks to all those monologues I had to do in Intro to Acting. I’m quick on my feet because as an actress, I had to be. I had to keep my sh*t together when a costar forgot his lines, or when a scene partner left me onstage alone because he missed his cue. For that reason, problem-solving is my specialty, and I don’t freak out in a crisis. And when it comes to time management, I’m a freaking girl boss. I memorized lines in the blink of an eye while juggling research papers, dance rehearsals, opera classes (always in Italian), and an actual social life. So, as an adult, I’m excellent at balancing my time. Even though I may not be on Broadway, I’m still using a ton of skills that I learned throughout my time at college.

We talked to six post-grads, all in their twenties and thirties, who came to the conclusion, at one point or another, that their college degree was pretty much worthless (from a job-scoring, wage-earning, financial stability standpoint). Their majors ranged from art to music to European studies –- and we even spoke with one former collegiate athlete. We also asked these twenty and thirty-somethings what they did to bounce back from the harsh wake-up call. After talking with them, we’ve learned that it’s not always as hopeless as it seems. Here’s what they had to say about having worthless college degrees:

1. “I was a visual art major, so…cue all jokes about art majors. I think the moment I realized that my degree might be a waste of time was during my senior year. All of my (non-art major) friends were sending off job applications or looking for internships, and I felt really lost. Like, what was I going to do? Sell my art? Open a studio with the $100k of student debt I had racked up? I ended up taking courses after I graduated in graphic design. I realized that my artistic abilities could lend themselves to technology -– which is a much more lucrative, growing, in-demand field of work. Lesson learned: companies will hire you to design stuff on the computer. They will not hire you to make an oil painting.” –- Sofia 

2. “At first, as a music major, I felt that my degree had very few assets that would lend itself to a career. The options seemed limited: you will teach, or you will perform. Those are your avenues; if you don’t fit the categories, there will be no future for you. This idea of one-or-the-other was constantly presented to me throughout my collegiate career, and it became very daunting to me. However, as time went on, I realized that the opportunities to use the knowledge and teachings presented in music were endless.

Through music, I was able to understand how the human voice resembles different instruments, and how my own voice’s expressive capacity can aid me in my customer service skills. I also realized that although the two largest avenues of music careers (music education and performance) were always present as larger career paths, there were other outlets and options within those two larger paths that I could explore: private lessons, music directing, and music therapy, to name a few. All of these fields have become very intriguing to me, and I have begun to experiment with them now in my young life. I never felt that my music degree was utterly ‘useless,’ but rather that it was a far more difficult major to achieve success and financial solvency in as a post-grad professional.” –- Brad

3. “I have a degree in European Studies from the University of South Carolina. When I was there, the Euro Studies program was so small that there were only nine students involved, and there was no set curriculum. While it was great to be able to take a ton of electives, just a touch of guidance would have gone a long way in helping to give the program some focus. The whole thing felt extremely scattered and pointless. By the time I graduated, the department head was telling me about how European Studies was likely to be absorbed by their International Studies degree (and I do hope that is what ultimately happened). Basically, I graduated with $40k in student loan debt for a piece of paper that confirms I took some classes that one can argue may somehow relate to a vague concept of ‘Europe.’

The main benefit of my degree was that I studied what I wanted to study. I didn’t go into European Studies with any particular career goal in mind, and the open-endedness of the program did give me the flexibility to interpret my studies however I wanted to. On paper, there are many ways I can adapt my studies to professional qualifications, so I think that’s a plus. Presently, I’m working remotely for a small travel company; my primary responsibilities involve putting together proposals for high-end travel programs in a few different European countries. I guess I’m technically using my degree, though it was really my prior work experience in project management and business development (and my personal love for travel) that landed me the job. As with everything, I think my ‘useless’ degree is what I make of it. While I regret the debt I got into because of it, and I do wish my university had offered more support for the program, I don’t regret the choice to study something that was genuinely interesting to me. ” –- Summer

4. “My situation is slightly different, but I think along the lines of what you’re asking. I went to school on a football scholarship. I didn’t give a sh*t about my academic performance; as long as I stayed above a certain grade point average, I was fine. I lived and breathed football and was convinced that I’d make it to the NFL right after graduation –- or even earlier. But then I f*cked up my knee at the end of sophomore year. There was no way I was going to join the NFL; I couldn’t even play for my school’s team anymore.

And suddenly, I felt like my whole college experience was a complete waste of time. I didn’t know why I had even bothered to attend. Football was the only thing I had ever imagined myself doing professionally, and the thing is, no one told me to think otherwise. My parents pushed me to play all throughout my childhood, and they told me I would play for any team I wanted. I don’t blame them for wanting to make me feel good, but I do blame them for making me have such an unrealistic outlook. Anyway, I work as an assistant coach now for a boys’ team in my hometown. I think eventually I want to work as a sports therapist, but I will have to go back to school for that.” –-Michael

5. “In my opinion, most college degrees are pretty useless. Like, obviously, there are exceptions –- we wouldn’t want a doctor who hadn’t gone to school to slice us open -– but in general, I feel like life experience and practicality almost always outweigh what you learn from university. I realized that my theater degree was utterly useless when I stepped back and saw that, generally speaking, no Hollywood actor went to college, and most people on Broadway either went to a drama conservatory for the ‘name,’ or just because they had enough money to do it. Did I learn things that I still apply to my everyday life? Absolutely. But I don’t think I learned them because of a classroom. I picked those skills up just because they’re what you learn by being immersed in a creative industry –- at the educational level and beyond.

How did I bounce back? I didn’t, really. I went to college to have the college experience; I went to get out of my hometown and learn about myself, and I did that. Do I feel like my drama degree was a waste of money? In some ways, sure. But I wouldn’t be who I am today, or where I am today, if I hadn’t gone to college.” –- Kendra

6. “As an anthropology major, I had grand ideas about where my degree would take me. I pictured traveling all around the world, becoming a wizard of culture, and publishing no less than 10 books in the first few years after graduating. But then, 2008 happened. I couldn’t get a job. No one wanted a kid with a snobby anthropology degree from a liberal arts school because there were literally no jobs. I eventually settled for a job at one of those outdoor living museums as a tour guide. I started adding my own information that I remembered from my senior project research, and decided to be the best damn tour guide that place has ever seen. I guess if you can’t have your dream job, you make the job you have into the dream.” — Jackie

7. “In high school, English was my favorite subject. I was in Honors classes all four years, and I aced the AP English exam when I was a senior. I was obsessed with books like The Heart of Darkness and Jane Eyre, so I figured that it only made sense to become a literature major in college. I attended a small liberal arts school and took all the literature courses I could find. My choice of my college major was based solely on my interests; I didn’t think about future career options at all.

It wasn’t until one family Thanksgiving dinner when my uncle asked (in that way that only a nosey family member can ask): ‘What are you going to do with that literature degree?’ Aaaand as I struggled to respond…I realized I hadn’t really thought about it. I ended up working as a copyeditor right out of school and hated it. But now, I work for a publishing company, and I feel like I’ve gone back to my roots, in a way. I wish I had time to read more books, though, like I did in college.” –- Emily

De is a New Yorker turned Bostonian and a lover of all things theatrical. In addition to writing, she is an actress/singer/dancer/teacher and owner of the fluffiest cat imaginable. She is on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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