Is an arts degree worth taking?

James Robinson

Every arts and humanities student knows the struggle of being told your degree is useless for your future. We know how it feels to have people pitting us against the science, math and commerce disciplines and asking: “What skills do you actually have?” This can get really frustrating and you may find yourself worrying if pursuing your interests is even worthwhile. And on top of all your lectures, tutorials and deadlines, no one needs that added stress!

If you’re an arts person and you find yourself in this position, I feel you! And I hope the depressing comparisons don’t leave you in a rut. After all, the arts, sciences, maths (and so on) are obviously different — they exist to serve different purposes in society. What you need to know about your arts degree is how it can shape you with lifelong skills and attitudes for your future.

1. Creativity


Jonathan Gross

In the arts, we get to exercise the right side of our brains, and this trains us to think and solve problems more creatively. Of course, the amount of creativity you develop varies across different arts degrees and majors. For example, visual arts and design majors let you express your creativity almost all of the time. On the other hand, humanities majors may not always place importance on creativity. However, you’re still very likely to be exposed to creative material and people, and having to think of creative ideas when doing projects and assignments.

Our creativity adds value to the ordinary tasks we perform and gives us more ways to solve problems. If you think creativity only goes to work in an artist’s studio, think again. What about when you have to present research findings, or give a speech? Perhaps some ways down the road, you might be pitching a new marketing idea, or producing a report on public policies. These tasks can be brought from start to finish without creative input, but think how different they would be with it. Injecting creativity could make your work more engaging, impactful and memorable than someone else’s.

Plus, the demand for creativity in new employees has been endorsed by our ministers. Not only is it recognised that soft skills like creativity and teamwork are rated above mere theoretical training, but also that new emerging creative industries could raise the premium on creativity above other skills in comparison.

2. Critical thinking and questioning


Michael Bentley

While our endless essays make us cry out for help, they actually teach us to go deeper than the surface and think critically. Developing our own arguments — lots and lots of them — gets us used to going beyond saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a topic, but thinking ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Critical thinking and problem solving are some reasons why arts grads are valuable to employers.

Also dreaded are the piles of theoretical readings. I’ll admit I can’t put myself through every single reading either, but some theorists and writers have very insightful thoughts that can mould the way you think and ask questions. So tap on the brains of those who have gone before us!

We learn in an environment that emphasises subjectivity, teaches us to search for constructed meanings and ideas, and continually put them to question rather than accepting them on surface value. Now, you may find this tedious when you’re doing it just for your assignments’ sake. However, when you’re out in the workforce in a world that is constantly changing, these critical questioning skills will keep you tough and well equipped to navigate uncertainty and adapt to changes.

3. Communication

Arts degrees tend to hold us to a high standard of effective communication. This includes both writing and speaking, which means we develop good language skills as well as confidence to get our ideas across. During your time in the arts you’ll realise that good communication is not made by stellar grammar and flowery words alone, but by the understanding of how to reason and persuade as well. The ability to develop and articulate strong, reasoned arguments is prized in the arts, and this makes us more experienced and prepared to translate our thoughts into words and make views heard.

Since communication involves people, we learn to be aware of who’s listening and who else is speaking. Apart from our lecturers, we also communicate to and with our peers especially when we work together. Strong communication and interpersonal skills are not to be underestimated as they are ranked number 1 in STJobs’ list of skills employers look for.

4. Social sensitivity


Justin Carinci

Social and cultural studies don’t fall far from the arts. You will find you’re in just the right place to learn about other cultures and be exposed to conversations about social issues like feminism, racial equality and LGBTQ rights. This builds your character as a culturally aware individual, understanding that people of different backgrounds may have different levels of privilege and different battles to fight. With issues on diversity and equality more actively discussed than ever, it is important that we are able to work well with people of all cultures and identities.

Beyond awareness, this social sensitivity teaches us to recognise societal problems and the need for equality. The exposure equips us well for situations where we may need to argue for our own rights or those of our friends and family. Be it on a large or small scale, we may even be able to contribute to a more democratic society because of our background in the arts.

Like the rest of the skills, sensitivity is something that will stay even after we’ve forgotten all the knowledge we crammed for exams. When you’re a graduate ready to enter the workforce, showcasing your ability to perform these skills will impress employers and show them you’re not just all books.

But will you get a job? The “your arts degree is useless” lecture usually stems from that concern. Well, the overall employment rates of fresh arts grads can assure you. For example, 88.4% of NUS arts graduates are employed by 6 months after their final exams. So are 85.1% of NTU communication grads and 89.1% of SIT communication design grads. Let the naysayers say what they will, because that’s pretty on par with some of the engineering and science graduates too!

Singapore has been growing in arts and culture, and they’re becoming more valued because they’re contributing more to the economy. As MCCY reported, the arts and culture sector’s value has gone up from $922 million in 2003 to almost $1.7 billion in 2014. Even PM Lee supports our value in Singapore.

People’s attitudes towards arts graduates are changing for the better. We’re not just wanted in our specialised industries for the specific skills we have in media, design, or sociology. We’re also appreciated for our soft skills and thinking that we can take to other industries. Even banks in Asia — yup, banks! — are investing in arts graduates for their communication skills and creativity.

With all of that said, your future isn’t looking too bad is it? I hope you feel a lot more assured that you as an art student have a place in society, and that your degree is going to make you a useful individual. So if you’re in this for your passion and interests, keep your chin up and make the most of your degree!


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