The Catch-22 of Employment and Postgraduate Studies as a Humanities Undergraduate

I think it’s fair to say that most young people fear for their future. With the job market filled to the brim with qualified applicants and the housing market as expensive as ever (especially where I am from), the prospect of graduating from university is a terrifying one. And rather than be helpful or give any form of advice, many adults (especially once they find out you’re a humanities student) seem to feel obliged to tell you about how your degree is worthless and you’re bound to become a teacher or work in McDonald’s. Thanks for that, Sharon.

At a time where most of my friends are approaching graduation -my four-year degree means I am clinging on for another year- I’m beginning to feel the pressure. What field do I really want to work in? Contrary to the belief of many out-of-touch science folk who believe all you can do with a humanities degree is teach, I’d rather string my innards out across the room like fairy lights than face schoolchildren every day. Are there feasible graduate jobs in the field to jump into once I get my degree? I’d definitely take a job in publishing, or media, or journalism. I wouldn’t baulk at certain marketing positions either. The problem that I am often reaching is the dreaded two words that sound the death knell to many young persons’ career aspirations: unpaid experience.

In more and more positions frequented by humanities graduates, the word ‘experience’ is finding its way into more and more ‘entry’ level job descriptions, from media to marketing to journalism to publishing to the dreaded basic admin job. The problem with this is, for many working-class graduates, the graduate job represents their first foray into such fields. That is not to say that these students did not work during their degree – far from it. The problem for many when facing these fields is that the ‘experience’ that these entry level jobs request often comes in the form of the unpaid internship.

If, like me, you’ve needed to work in paid employment throughout your degree to supplement your loans, support a family or save for an education-related reason (PSA: year abroads are extortionate, and I’m saying that as a lucky scholarship recipient…) then rarely do you have the opportunity to choose related, unpaid work experience over a well-paid barmaid job with flexible hours and bosses who understand the restraints of being a full-time student. Even if, like me, you live close to London, oftentimes when you are faced with the prospect of paying TfL travel costs out-of-pocket and the need to earn money to get by, the ability to take an unpaid placement whittles away before your eyes. All of this goes without pointing out the obvious immoral inequalities created by unpaid placements, both in the case of its refusal to reward or even truly acknowledge one’s labour, and in its ability to unfairly serve those who already have advantages of wealth (and quite possibly helpful ties) in order to retain a status quo. So, months later, when you join the queue of graduates with degrees in hand to face a reel of job descriptions asking freshly-freed 21-year-olds for prior experience, you’re screwed.

There has long been a myth that if you don’t know what job to enter after graduating, you may as well stick around for a master’s degree. Flicking through education forums on the internet, many people (once again, sciences and business folk, I’m looking at you) who like to post disparaging things about the worth and ability of humanities students on the internet seem to once again aim a flurry of hate at anyone considering a humanities MA. It is true to an extent that a humanities MA will rarely be a prerequisite for a job that prefers years of experience that, as covered, often only appears at entry-level unpaid. However, in the instance of that well-used argument of teaching for example, it is being reported that increasing numbers being accepted onto PGCE teacher training now carry a master’s degree, despite the basic requirements being a bachelor’s. The competition at every level is increasing, and an MA, whilst not necessary, is undeniably being used as a tool to distinguish applicants. Furthermore, a large portion of  humanities master’s applicants – soon-to-be myself included – choose to take on postgraduate study in order to chase the hope of future work in research and lecturing, the minimum standard often required to do so being a PhD. This number is now so high that there will never be positions for them all.

So, with more people turning to postgraduate study than there are places on said courses, how do we narrow them down? Not – it seems – by the best applicants, rather, by who can pay the fees. And consider that, unlike undergraduate fees, universities can charge what they like for postgraduate study. While the creation of yet another student finance loan for those undertaking masters study and willing to sign over more of themselves to the Student Loans Company provides 10k to potential masters students, you’ll be hard-pressed to find fees at a top university that fall below that amount. Want to take History at University College London (yes please)? That’ll be £10,440. Good luck if you want to take Marketing (or indeed pretty much anything) at the London School of Economics, as you’re looking at £28,056. And that’s just the tuition – no living costs included. As fees increase for master’s degrees, funding from research councils is declining, ploughing more into doctorate study (for which in many instances you will need a master’s) rather than into master’s degrees themselves. This cut means that master’s scholarships (especially in underfunded fields which, yes, include humanities) seem to be like breadcrumbs, and the institutions that are able to offer up a few extra ones out of their comparatively-overflowing coffers (read: Oxford and Cambridge) have such intense competition that you better be a secret genius to get your hands on one. If you dream of working in academia and you can’t self-fund your master’s degree necessary for the all-important PhD, then you’re once again back to square one.

Of course, the best way self-fund or even to gain your living costs that the government loan definitely will not cover is to work during undergrad, or before applying for master’s. This is already a sticky situation if you’re having to work to support yourself or your family through undergraduate study already. Furthermore, upon graduation, we reach the same impossible task of needing to get a relevant job that will bolster your master’s application but does not require ‘experience’. The long and short of it seems to be that if you are a working-class or otherwise limited person, it doesn’t matter how good you are in your field, as your lack of ties and your ability to provide labour for free when you have alternate, less relevant but paid jobs lined up seem to grind prospects of employment or academic progression to a halt. It is, as my dad described it to me when I was mid-rant, a catch-22 situation: If you don’t have the money to get the experience, you can’t get the experience to get the money.

So why am I drawing attention to the misery of this catch-22 situation? Yes, it is – in part – to vent: this is my blog to air my personal views and problems to the world, so to speak, so I will have a bit of a whine if I want to. It is also a personal act of acknowledging that, yes, as a humanities student, I’ve chosen a pathway which is difficult both in employment prospects and in further education. I know that, as you can see. Unfortunately, me pointing out its unjust nature doesn’t change it. However, I’m primarily writing this post to vocalise that, despite this seemingly uphill struggle, I’m not going to just accept that the odds aren’t ever in my favour, regret my choices and drop my dreams. Rather, in the face of this mess, I’m going to properly vocalise those dreams for the first time in written form (not including the odd late night text message, of course).

I took a humanities degree, not because it was in any way desired by employers, but because I enjoy it. I made the decision to prioritise my own personal development over my economic development, a decision I will never regret. Furthermore, I study what I am good at: enjoyment and success often come hand-in-hand. I’ve seen way too many people struggle, fail or generally have a terrible time because they pursued the presumed profitable, rather than following their talents. I’d much rather leave university with a first (hopefully) in a humanities subject than a third in engineering or biochemistry or the like. So, where do I want to go from here? What do I say when the sixty-something year-old woman at the store asks me if I want to become a teacher? Rather than my go-to answer of ‘I don’t really know yet’ or ‘I’m working it out, but probably just journalism or something,’ I’m going to let her know that despite having a pretty messy start in life (and getting some pretty crap A Levels as a consequence), I have no intention of letting my inability to produce 10k from nowhere or have some strings pulled to get me a paid entry level job stop me from chasing what I really love, which is researching history. The chances may be slim, but I’ll fight tooth and nail to scramble together the money to take on one of the history master’s programmes I have in mind, that I would need to take me further down the brutal road of academia. If that means prioritising my bar work and all those other jobs people like to brand as less desirable but that I actually find tolerable and pay a decent wage, as opposed to cushy-and-often-intolerable-seeming placements that will look great on a CV but treat their interns as if having that mere name on their resume is justifiable means to have them slog away for free, then so be it. After all, the one way to guarantee that I won’t succeed in the path that I want to succeed in, is to not bother. So, to the Sharons of the world: I may not have the means to get to what you think of as a worthwhile job just yet, but just because it would be easier to cave in, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.


Thank your for coming to my TED talk. I have the flu and am fever-rambling, but I wanted to get it off of my chest (unlike this horrible cough that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere). Back to regular service and coherent posts in the next week or two.

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