In light of recent plans to introduce a new technological university with an emphasis on workplace learning, Sinead O’Brien and Kate Rothwell debate the benefits of career and non-career focused degrees.

To study ‘the Arts’ was once an admirable occupation undertaken by poets, authors and artists of exceptionable calibre. Sadly, such respect has not endured the test of time, for modern-day Arts students have to endure being the butt of other disciplines’ jokes and try not be disillusioned by seeing the words ‘pull here for Arts degree’ scrawled on a toilet roll dispenser.

One thing that has remained constant is the long-term value of these ever-evolving studies. Our economic plight has produced a panic among students who fear (or hope, depending on their discipline) that those who have opted for career-focused degrees in areas such as Law, Business, Engineering or Science will have the upper hand when it comes to securing employment. A closer look at the abilities required in order to earn a good Arts degree, however, shows that students from this broader academic background possess exactly the skills that employers are looking for.

A recent gradireland survey noted that employers were concerned about the writing, communication and time management skills of new graduates, as well as their ability to work independently. Any Arts graduate will tell you that excellent time management is a skill that a high GPA cannot be achieved without; organisation is key when it comes to composing the seemingly endless essays that result in superior writing skills. Such tasks quickly develop a student’s capability of working alone, while numerous group work projects lead to advanced communication skills.

Arts students not only possess essential skills, they also have a wide range of career options to choose from after graduation. Students in career-focused degrees run the risk of realising after three or four years that they don’t want to be a journalist, an architect or a lawyer, or that even if they do, the opportunities to enter their chosen profession are severely limited.

At least with Arts there is often a ‘trial run’ of subjects, so if one area turns out not to be to a student’s liking, it can be dropped in favour of another without any financial penalty. Another benefit of this broader style degree is that graduates are not limited to the options available within one or two professions; they can easily apply to a wide range of internships or postgraduate courses.

Postgraduate qualifications are now becoming almost a necessity for those who want to be sure of a successful career, and Arts students are no exception to this rule. The ability to make a successful conversion from one discipline of study to another, demonstrates a certain set of skills that employers find particularly impressive; add a Masters in IT or Marketing to a high-grade Bachelor in History and Politics, English Literature or Modern Languages and it will be noticed that your talents are strikingly flexible.

The top two sectors of graduate employment in 2009 were accounts and financial management, and IT and telecoms, both areas in which Arts students can find employment if they so choose. This contention is especially valid upon considering how many companies pay to train employees who do not have the relevant qualifications in accounting when hired.

This is not to say that there isn’t any hope for postgraduate studies in the Arts itself. Funding for further study is currently limited in Ireland, as are employment opportunities at any level of the Irish education system, but aspiring graduates can also look further afield to other European universities.

Modern language graduates are increasingly in demand in Ireland, but employment prospects are most likely better abroad, where being a native English speaker who can also speak other languages is a great advantage.

For those who haven’t studied a foreign language, Canada and Australia are not the only options. A large number of university courses across Europe are now offered in English, thanks to students being keen to study through English and their universities being equally eager to attract more foreign students. The research involved in deciding where to apply may be daunting, but only because the opportunities are so abundant; there are Arts-aimed scholarships, funding and jobs to be found in continental Europe, where here they are sorely lacking.

The value of an Arts degree is often underestimated. A wide variety of large-capacity Arts courses mean that the CAO points aren’t on a par with Medicine or Engineering, but while the unmotivated may graduate with a poor result, those who achieve a high GPA should be commended.

Arts students may have minimal scheduled classes to attend, but countless hours spent in the library or at a desk at home easily fill up their timetable. The joy of this timetable however, is its flexibility, which allows those talented few that can strike the ideal work-play balance to participate in extra-curricular activities and further enhance their CV.

The world will always need doctors, lawyers and engineers, but there is much to be said for the students who don’t know from the offset exactly where their studies will take them. A good Arts student is skilled, passionate, hard-working and without a doubt, highly employable.

– Kate Rothwell


There are many reasons why one might appreciate a general arts or science degree. Indeed, such disciplines have been extremely important in the development and understanding of human nature, society and the greater environment. These areas of study are undoubtedly fascinating, and have the propensity to titillate and thrill our intellectual stimuli.

To be able to study such a broad and intriguing range of subjects as part of one’s degree is positively a luxury. But that is the sum of it.

I do not wish to abate the merits of a general Arts or Science degree; however it is difficult to argue that the average degree in zoology or history will reap many awards for such a graduate. Many such qualifications simply lead those burdened by them into a life of public servitude or (even worse) into the teaching profession. And with our public finances in shackles, such positions are no longer an option.

There is much to be said in favour of career-specific degrees, particularly those that are oriented towards a professional qualification. Such degrees as Medicine, Pharmacy, Engineering, Architecture, Law, Nursing and so on, come highly regarded as they involve a high level of training and one might say a significant amount of drudgery, so that the student thus acquires a string of cogent and marketable skills.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”.

Any Arts student studying Yeats might appreciate the insertion of this quote. They might even attempt to use it to advance their argument that such career-focused disciplines only teach a student the requisite skills necessary to pass a professional exam and do not offer a student a broad and enlightened education.

I would respond to such reasoning firstly by pointing out that professional skills include, aside from the particular intricacies of the given profession; the ability to analyse information, the ability to think critically and autonomously and most importantly, students endeavouring on a career-focused degree are educated in the commands of independent learning.

And while career-focused students possess these seemingly basic yet imperative skills, there is nothing to stop them from learning of their own volition about other areas that are of interest to them. The argument exists that in coming from a highly educated background, students embarking on a career-focused path are hungry to learn more and have the brains and the fire to do so.

Certainly, we can all appreciate the works of James Joyce, read up on the fall of the Roman Empire, and teach ourselves C++ (although admittedly the latter might prove to be a formidable task for most of us) in our own time.

And to further this argument, it might be worth pointing out how unnecessary it seems to go to University simply to study a foreign language when one can take classes in an extra-curricular capacity; or better yet, when one can immerse themselves in the language and culture of choice. That is, after all, how most of us learned how to speak English.

And if you are not yet convinced that the world will not miss those students of the general sort, I would point to such accomplished figures as TS Eliot (a bank clerk before he was a poet), Antony van Leeuwenhoek (the man credited for discovering sperm cells was a tradesman with no higher education and no University degree) and John Grisham (lawyer-turned-author), to name but a few examples of people with actual skills, who through profound curiosity and creativity sought to advance their understanding of the world and to pursue their latent passions.

Career-focused courses tend to be more competitive. Entry-level requirements are higher and it is therefore no surprise that the academic capabilities of those students are intensified. Students from career-specific backgrounds are more likely to be vigorous in their studies than those students coming from general degree backgrounds. As a result, a high honours degree from a career-oriented course might be said to carry more weight than a high honours degree from the class of general degrees.

Admittedly, there will always be exceptions to the rule, and I understand that it is unfair to label general degree students (namely of the Arts category) as being an undisciplined and lackadaisical mob.

And likewise, students pursuing a degree in a professional/career-focused discipline are not always studious or even curious about other disciplines.

However, this is the general perception that is publicly emanated, and in this case, such perceptions will speak louder than the letters on your diploma.

– Sinead O’Brien