Recent analysis has revealed the university degrees that lead to the highest life satisfaction, with Celtic studies and sports science coming out on top. At the bottom? Bad news for those who studied sociology, politics, creative arts or media and communications – these degrees are associated with a negative impact on wellbeing. Turns out all those money-minded parents are right – it’s better to be a rich but artistically thwarted oncologist than a starving artist.
As someone who did three of these subjects (clearly a sucker for punishment), I want to mount a defence of so-called misery degrees. The government would love nothing better than to shovel all young people into a Stem-shaped pipeline that produces exemplary doctors, scientists and engineers, and God knows we badly need all three. But not everybody’s career will line up so exactly with their subject. For every med student who knew they wanted to specialise in cardiology from the age of 13, there’ll be a dreamy 18-year-old who signs up for a design course because they like the idea of drawing for three years.
On graduation, they’re spat out into the world and have to figure out what they actually want to do. That may involve some inner turmoil, but it doesn’t mean they’ve made a bad choice. Some of the unhappiest people I know are also the most creative. Their dissatisfaction has more to do with the precarity of their industry than any misery intrinsic to their job – when things go well, they’re more fulfilled than any corporate lawyer I know. They certainly wouldn’t be better off retraining in mathematics which, according to PwC (which did the analysis), would pay much better and make them only slightly unhappier than a dentist. (Want proof? Ask a room of arts graduates to explain the difference between median and mean figures.)
So what’s going on? “It is important to note that these findings could be a reflection of the career choices of graduates, rather than the merit of the courses,” PwC says. “Creative arts students may choose to work in industries or occupations where earnings are lower on average.” In other words: if you want cheerier artists, try paying them more.
• Zing Tsjeng is an author and freelance journalist
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