Telling someone you are currently a humanities major is just another way of saying you don't mind being unemployed for the rest of your life.
But that's not the case, and it's time to give up the myth that studying humanities is a waste of time or a hindrance in the job market. The economic reality is much more complicated but still favorable for humanities majors, especially in an ever-changing and fickle job landscape.
Jeffrey Cohen, the dean of humanities at the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said that part of why humanities aren't taken seriously by students is that they're hard to define, making it difficult to assess their value.
"Students don't always know what the humanities consist of," Cohen said. "I always think of the humanities as being the study of the human adventure across time, culture and place. It's also (about) what makes us human and pushes us toward what makes us humane."
Cohen said this theme across humanities studies – which include disciplines like linguistics, philosophy, history, literature and English – makes students critically think about the past in order to create a better future.
This grueling process of close reading, digesting centuries of intellectual expression and then learning to critique it is key to humanities majors' academic success.
But it also instills a combination of skills that entice employers.
"There is a cluster of skills that, when you bring them together, are humanities-aligned skills," Cohen said. "That's what makes people strong job candidates because it is that combination of creativity with great writing and great research and global citizenship that can really well-position you for a career."
Data shows that STEM-based degree holders from ASU initially earn a higher starting salary than their humanities counterparts.
However, the median salaries for ASU humanities majors range from $43,342 to $53,732 five years after graduation, with the number increasing to $52,573 to $70,000 after 10 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For reference, the national yearly median income in 2022 was around $40,000.
The economic reality isn't all rainbows and butterflies for humanities majors. But if the humanities is something students feel passionate about, it can still reap rewards.
Dennis Hoffman, the director of the L. William Seidman Research Institute at the W. P. Carey School of Business, said that while humanities majors start off with lower salaries than their STEM peers, there is still room for growth.
"If your passion is in the humanities, you don't have to feel like there's no jobs for you when you get out," Hoffman said. "You just have to be flexible. Employers want to hire smart people that can solve problems for them."
Hoffman's daughter, who went to ASU, opted to take economics through the liberal arts school rather than through the business school and used this academic background to land a senior HR position at Indeed – an example of how transferable humanities-aligned skills can be.
"So leveraging off that kind of skill set, problem-solving and presenting yourself as you have historical context, I think it's a very valuable tool," Hoffman said. "I'm quite a bull on humanities education."
Risha Das, a senior studying mathematics and mechanical engineering, said that being involved in humanities through Model UN balances her STEM-heavy education with needed perspective.
"I think our current standard for engineering education across universities and communities can be really isolated in its training and focus too much on how to innovate rather than what innovation can do for those in need," Das said in an emailed statement. "But Model UN and its focus on the humanities has helped me grasp the moral implications and intersectionality of engineering ... and the responsibility we have as engineers to ensure that impact is for the better."
Das said this experience helps her and other students foster empathy and connections with the global community. Taking in the humanities through Model UN helped her "problem solve for a better future," the same trait that Cohen mentioned being important for companies looking to hire.
The humanities can enrich ASU students' skill sets, making them higher-quality candidates in a highly competitive job market scene. As layoffs become the norm and employers can be fickle about whom they hire, it's more important than ever for students to build skills that they can easily transfer to any job.
Whether it's picking up an extra philosophy class or adding on a minor, it's time to appreciate the humanities for what they can offer us.
Edited by Jasmine Kabiri, Sadie Buggle and Angelina Steel.
Editor's note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.