Moving beyond the science/humanities dichotomy

No matter who you are and what your background may be, every college student will face the question that will haunt them throughout their undergraduate experience: Did I choose the right major given the increasingly competitive and cutthroat job market of the real world? While people sometimes joke about how screwed they are after graduation or how the next step in their illustrious career path is living in a cardboard box for the rest of their life, the fathomless, pitch-black uncertainty that surrounds life after college generates so much terrifying fear and anxiety for students that most will structure their four years in college with the sole purpose of minimizing that uncertainty as much as possible.

Thus, it is inevitable to hear both students and adults discuss fervently about which major is the most financially secure or which has the greatest likelihood of success. And within these discussions, the most vocal opinion is that majoring in the hard sciences like computer science, economics and math will obviously lead to more financial stability and employment offers than majoring in something “impractical” like philosophy, art history or English. After all, in today’s digital, market-driven society, everyone knows that STEM majors are “more valuable” than humanities majors.

Speaking as someone who absolutely loves the sciences and strives to convince others of its awe-inspiring brilliance, this laughably wretched sentiment is one of the most deceitful claims I have ever heard.

Unsurprisingly, the counterarguments are many and quite intimidating at first. According to a recent salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Class of 2016 college graduates who majored in STEM are expected to receive the highest starting salaries, with majors in engineering and computer science expected to earn an average of over $60,000 per year (The New York Times, “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding,” 02.21.2016). In contrast, the average salary for new graduates who majored in the humanities is projected to be around $46,000.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also compiled a list of the top “most valuable” college majors in 2012 based on median salary rate, job growth projections through 2020 and wealth of job opportunities available and ranked biomedical engineering at the top followed by biochemistry, computer science, software engineering and civil engineering (Forbes, “The 15 Most Valuable College Majors,” 05.15.2012). On top of all that, countless politicians (both Republicans and members of the Obama administration) have pushed to distribute education funding based on post-college performance and student earnings after graduation in order to combat the shortage of STEM workers, placing the humanities departments in serious jeopardy (The New York Times).

However, I want to point out that just because certain STEM jobs have astronomically high salary rates doesn’t mean that majoring in STEM will guarantee you an easier or more financially stable life with a higher chance of employment.

In truth, the idea that there is this crisis-level shortage of scientists and engineers in the United States is largely baseless. Studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation and the Urban Institute have all been unable to find any compelling evidence indicating the presence of some widespread labor market shortage or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelor’s degrees or higher (The Atlantic, “The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage,” 03.19.2014). Not only that, the overall consensus was that the United States produces too many science and engineering graduates every year and not enough STEM job openings. The only disagreement among the studies was whether there are 100 percent more STEM graduates than job openings or 200 percent more.

That’s right: the unemployment rate is shockingly high among scientists and engineers, especially for recent graduates and PhDs (The Atlantic). This includes graduates who majored in engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent). Of course, this doesn’t even factor in other problems such as unstable careers, slow-growing wages, high risk of jobs moving offshore and the impossibility of landing a tenure-track academic position. Most depressing of all, a recent survey of 3.5 million homes from the U.S. Census Bureau found that almost 75 percent of the people who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline don’t even work at a STEM job (Dice, “Why Aren’t Graduates Using Their STEM Degrees?,” 07.31.2014).

Given this bleak situation, does that mean majoring in the humanities is a far better choice for students than majoring in STEM? After all, those who stand against the STEM hype have often argued that the humanities bring a sort of “richness” and “complexity” to society that science cannot replicate. Nope, because that is also wrong. While claims that the humanities teach students about critical thinking and communication skills are valid, they aren’t nearly convincing enough to sway the minds of students worried about their substantial college debt.

If neither STEM nor the humanities are objectively better than the other, then what should financially conscious college students major in? Surely, the answer isn’t something sappy and unhelpful like “pursue your dreams.” No, what I’m proposing is that students create an integrated curriculum that combines elements from both the humanities and STEM to introduce a new perspective to a pre-existing discipline.

But what does that mean? Am I suggesting that low-income students double or triple major in contrasting subjects? Quite the opposite: Students should combine subjects and pursue a path that sheds light on a certain STEM path using elements of a specific humanities discipline or that sheds light on a certain humanities path using elements of a specific STEM discipline. In other words, stray from the “pure” science or “pure” humanities.

Celebrated geniuses of the past were successful not because of they were the master of a single discipline but because they were creative enough to pull inspiration from a wide range of sources and view conventional ideas in radically different ways. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci used his mastery in painting, writing, engineering and biology to study the anatomy of the human body (The Washington Post, “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training,” 02.18.2015). By choosing to explore the human body in the context of both art and science, da Vinci produced his famous drawings of the human figure that revolutionized the entire world.

Rather than focus solely on philosophy or solely on neuroscience, try to find a new approach by combining the two, like award-winning cognitive scientist David Chalmers, who came up with the concept of naturalistic dualism to explain the nature of consciousness. Instead of majoring in pure physics or pure history, discover a more creative and integrated career path like the famous physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn, who was arguably one of the most influential historian of science in the world. Employers are not looking for college graduates with conventional majors and a onetrack mind; they are looking for people who seek new perspective and are willing to explore new territory. If you want success after college, make full use of all the courses that are available and pursue combinations that no one has tried before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *