From a young age, we have been told that we need to go to university, study something useful, get a job, work for the next 40 years, and then retire. 

I was always irked by the expectation to study something ‘useful’ because I never understood it — what makes a degree useful? If I am putting in the same four years as someone else studying something different, why is the time I spent on my degree somehow worth less?

What makes a degree ‘useful’

Completing a useful degree is generally considered a stepping stone to many lucrative careers. What defines ‘usefulness’ in the context of a college degree? A common definition is the earnings potential a degree may grant in a given industry, and many students choose programs of study with this in mind.

According to a 2016 Statistics Canada study, professional degrees that prepare students for careers in business or engineering net the highest average postgraduate salaries for their alumni. On the other hand, degrees that focus on fields of ‘passion’ — such as theology or many creative arts — are associated with lower earnings after graduation.

So why do people enter these latter programs of study, knowing that the financial outcomes might not be as good? 

Extracting value from a degree 

A degree does not get you everything, and there are always strategies individuals can use to stand out from peers.

Richard Shuai is completing a specialization in psychology. Shuai emphasized the importance of getting your hands dirty through work experience to truly extract value from your degree. His experience working in the Innovation Hub — a student-led consultancy in the Division of Student Life — enhanced his learning experience, as he learnt more about qualitative research methods. 

Usman Khan is a second-year student majoring in mathematics. He believes in combining something you are passionate about with something that will land you an industry job. According to Khan, a math degree alone probably won’t be very useful for an industry job since it is a very theoretical subject. However, he says that the degree can be made a lot more useful by pairing it with another, more applicable subject. 

Building a network

Moreover, networking with peers and industry professionals is another important way in which people succeed in industries that can be challenging to break into. Understanding the paths that others have taken can help one gain important insights on how to succeed in the industry and the steps one has to take to get there.

Respect and understanding of one’s chosen profession can also help form emotional bonds and achieve growth. Salome Zhang is a student in the Faculty of Music specializing in music composition. Zhang uses her social media account to promote her music, reach out to other musicians, and spread composition-related knowledge to her audience. In recent years, the proliferation of social media has helped individuals to promote themselves without worrying about geographical barriers. 

Passion versus practicality

While choosing passion generally brings one a more fulfilling career, this does not mean that everyone should blindly follow their passion without considering the opportunity cost, which is the cost of foregoing the next best alternative, that comes with pursuing relevant education.

Shuai and Zhang recalled their conversations with their friends, parents, mentors, and even industry professionals regarding whether to pursue their current degrees. It is crucial for one to consult others to make an informed decision. After all, not everyone ends up choosing their passion and practicality is always a legitimate consideration.

In the end, it’s important for people to find a compromise between passion and practicality. There is no such thing as a useless degree, but a degree could become useless if one has not done an adequate amount of self-research and career planning.

If one chooses passion over practicality, then they might have to be a bit more confident in their choice and believe in their ability to obtain the things they want. There are always plenty of opportunities to showcase tangible and intangible skills to employers, whether through clubs, internships, or simply networking with industry professionals.

Students weigh in  

The Varsity spoke with several students enrolled in these types of programs to hear their thoughts on their degree being considered useless. 

Jonathan Fan is a fourth-year student studying kinesiology. The Varsity asked Fan how he would respond to people calling kinesiology a ‘useless’ degree. “They could be right in some sense,” said Fan, citing that the only thing you can do with an undergraduate degree in kinesiology is become a registered kinesiologist. However, Fan also mentioned that a degree in kinesiology can provide a student with flexibility to go into several areas of health care. 

Rebecca Sinner and Rohina Kumar are both studying psychology. According to Kumar, psychology is often considered a useless degree because people often think it is a pseudo science attempting to be a science. “[Psychology is] still in the middle of establishing its credibility and trust among the public,” wrote Kumar in an email to The Varsity. Kumar recognizes the unique role that psychology plays in several fields such as biology, economics, and sports when it comes to understanding how people behave. 

“It really upsets me,” said Sinner  in an interview with The Varsity when asked how she feels about people considering psychology a useless degree. “It’s just a very broad degree… you can go into forensics [or] criminology… I think it opens so many doors,” said Sinner. 

Thus, I believe that there is no truly useless degree as long as one makes an informed decision to pursue it, gains enough experience in the field, utilizes their network, and recognizes the tradeoff between passion and practicality. A degree can open any door — you just need to knock on the right one.