'Soft' degree gives serious serious skill edge

By Margie Elley-Brown

Lauren Barnes used her arts degree to develop her leadership role as an assistant bank manager. Photo / Ted Baghurst.
Lauren Barnes used her arts degree to develop her leadership role as an assistant bank manager. Photo / Ted Baghurst.

You know the old joke: "An engineering graduate asks how that works. A science graduate asks why that works. So what does an arts graduate ask?" The answer: "Would you like fries with that?"

There has always been something depressing about this joke. It perpetrates a view that young people must abandon their passion for the arts in order to "succeed", and that to study the humanities, social sciences and languages is an impractical indulgence. But this view may be changing, says University of Auckland Dean of Arts, Jan Crosthwaite.

"Many people today see an arts degree as a vital qualification. It proves the graduate has learned to think and to challenge accepted ideas," Associate Professor Crosthwaite says.

"More employers recognise that the skills gained from an arts degree are adaptable to many different jobs.

"Specific vocational training can sometimes be restrictive, and can quickly lose currency. The transferable skills of learning and thinking gained from a bachelor of arts can provide more flexibility and opportunity in today's workforce."

There are a number of reasons why studying for an arts degree is a vital and viable option. First, it's flexible. With such a large selection of subjects to choose from (the University of Auckland offers 41 majors) you can pick subjects that are closely related for a specialised degree, or major in one subject that suits your ambitions while keeping your passions alive with study in other areas.

Lauren Barnes graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in communications and marketing, from the University of Otago in 2009.

"I've always had wide-ranging interests: from law and politics to music, communication and the arts," says Barnes. "I enrolled in an arts degree and decided to major in both communication studies and marketing. That way I had the best of both worlds, with a degree which incorporated both a creative edge and a business focus."

Such degrees can open career paths in a range of fields: BA graduates are employed in almost every part of the workforce, in areas such as tourism, the news media, government agencies, museums, libraries, banking, publishing and teaching.

"The career opportunities are incredibly broad," says Dr Crosthwaite. "Our graduates go on to become publicists, journalists, archaeologists, art curators, management consultants, even prime ministers and leaders of the opposition.

"They are particularly prominent in New Zealand's film, media, tourism, government, education and advertising industries."

Barnes is now assistant manager at the Bank of New Zealand in Newmarket. "While I was studying, I didn't imagine I would work in banking," she says. "Because my degree was broad, and taught me skills and strategies that I can use in any environment, it turned out I was really suited to such a role."

A BA equips students with many important life skills, such as the ability to communicate clearly and to solve problems in a range of domains.

Daniel Savage graduated this year with a BA honours in politics, philosophy and economics. Savage plans to study towards a masters degree, with the intention of eventually working in the area of international human rights.

"An arts degree has been invaluable because it has taught me that sometimes there are several right answers and sometimes there isn't a right one at all. I have learnt how to structure arguments and to constantly question the status quo," he says.

Arts graduates learn to think critically and creatively and can make excellent leaders. In our knowledge-based economy, the most valuable employees are critical, adaptable and creative thinkers.

Arts graduates, who spend three or more years confronting new and unsettling ideas, can think like this to offer creative solutions to problems. This ability is useful in leadership.

Barnes' career trajectory confirms this. She says: "In the past two years, I have been in four roles, each one a challenge and learning curve. I have worked in customer service, operations and communications, and now for the past year in leadership.

"My current position is comprehensive and covers staff coaching and training, managing risk, operations, business development, plus customer relations. The communications aspect of my degree helps me daily; it has taught me how to strategically communicate with influence."

Dr Crosthwaite says: "Because arts students are taught to be creative and independent thinkers - traits highly valued in today's workforce - they often progress quickly into more senior roles and better salaries."

And there is a fifth reason why the BA is so popular internationally: it caters to our innate curiosity about who we are and where we come from - the big questions.

"The core BA subjects give students an understanding of themselves, the history and values of their own society, other societies and people," says Dr Crosthwaite. "This kind of understanding underpins the maturity, tolerance and wisdom needed for a stable and integrated society.

"Business leaders praise our graduates for the imagination and thirst for knowledge they bring to their companies. Plus, many CEOs have arts degrees under their belts."

- NZ Herald

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