There was once a time when having any sort of degree would set you apart from the crowd, highlighting your intellectual prowess and opening up a veritable sweet shop of potential employment opportunities. But with times changing and the graduate market becoming hugely saturated, school leavers are under increasing pressure to make the right subject choices. After all, with a lifetime’s worth of debt to repay, nobody wants to graduate without a prospective return on their investment.
Therefore, it’s important to avoid useless degrees – a list, of course, that will likely be very subjective. For example, many people would deem golf management to be a ridiculous option, but if you want to manage golf resorts for a living, then it’s an absolute requisite. Instead, this list focuses more on courses where subsequent employment and salary rates are suboptimal or where a degree is not likely to distinguish you from non-graduates.
So, without further ado, these are the 10 most useless degrees in the world.
1. Culinary arts
Budding chefs may previously have thought that culinary college is a no-brainer, but recent statistics actually suggest otherwise. With tuition costs rising out of line with wages, the returns of an expensive degree simply aren’t there anymore – and neither is the requirement, with graduate chefs making just 2% to 11% more than their school leaver counterparts.
This is because although some restauranteurs view culinary college as an indispensable career step, most are of the persuasion that academic credentials are inferior to raw talent and experience. Therefore, your time and money may be better spent in a kitchen rather than the classroom.
2. Fashion design
On the surface, a degree in fashion design isn’t necessarily a lost cause. Indeed, in an industry where who you know is just as important as what you know, the chance to build some contacts within the industry is actually quite useful.
The primary issue is that similar to many design-based subjects, fashion design requires an innate artistic ability and a strong aptitude for creativity – things that no school in the world can teach. When you consider that competition for jobs in the fashion industry is notoriously fierce, with demand heavily outweighing supply, developing a strong portfolio and a robust personality may well be a more fruitful use of your efforts.
3. Art history
Art history is something of an easy target on lists like this, but there’s a compelling reason for it: it’s a high niche subject that, unfortunately, isn’t translatable unless you want to pursue fleeting and increasingly insecure curatorial or academic roles.
Which would be fine, of course, except when you’re paying upwards of $50,000 (£37,450) to distinguish your Monet from your Manet; you need some kind of verifiable return. Unfortunately, this often presents itself as a choice between working random jobs to pay back those loans or starting afresh in a different field – complete with the extra debt that comes with it.
Ask any successful musician how they made it in the music industry and they’re likely to attribute their success to a wide combination of factors: luck, hard work, stage experience and, of course, those fabled 10,000 hours of practice. The one thing they won’t have relied on is an expensive music degree.
Of course, there are exceptions. Classical musicians, in particular, require theory-heavy tuition and practice. But unless you’ve been offered a place in one of the most prestigious performance schools in the world, such as Juilliard, Thornton or Berklee, you’ll be more likely to end up teaching music than performing it for a living. You may want to spend the money on equipment – or an alternative student experience – instead.
Biology is an important subject that tends to be a prerequisite for numerous other degrees, including pharmaceutical sciences and medicine. However, as biology degrees mostly focus on theory rather than practice and research, the skills and knowledge you gain as a biology undergrad will leave you with limited options and a pretty bleak career outlook.
That is not to say that a biology degree is useless, per se, but rather that it can only be used as a steppingstone to further studies in order to build a successful career. So, unless you pursue postgraduate education and further training, unfortunately, you’ll find that there are only a few limited opportunities both within and outside this field.
Employers also tend to favour graduates who have majored in more specialised areas such as computational biology, biochemistry and biotechnology. So, if this is an area you’re passionate about, make sure to hone your skills by focusing on a specialisation instead.
Communications is a strangely vague degree, in that it is applicable to almost any form of media, visual arts or broadcasting. At the same time, though, it’s not focused enough to render you with specialised skills. It doesn’t particularly help that a lot of media forms are dying out, either, with the traditional definition of journalism changing rapidly with the advent of social media.
As a result, communications is often seen as the go-to course for those who are unsure of what their career interests are. While this may be a tongue-in-cheek generalisation, it’s certainly true that becoming an effective communicator does not require four expensive years at university, and your time could undoubtedly be better spent.
7. Liberal arts
Although liberal arts may be the go-to punch bag for all those ‘dumbest degree’ barbs, this might be a little unfair. After all, it encourages the development of critical thinking and other various soft skills that a university education is supposed to arm you with.
The problem is that’s all it does. In a STEM-driven economy, employers may be reluctant to recruit liberal arts graduates due to their lack of vocational skills or work experience. Unless you’re willing to rack up even more debt chasing additional qualifications in order to bridge the gap, you’re unlikely to find much return on your investment. After all, all college degrees develop cognitive skills – you might as well pursue one with job prospects at the end of it.
8. Studio arts and fine art
Arguably, the idea of studying studio arts is not necessarily stupid, as no painter, sculptor or performer has ever gone out into the world expecting to get rich (the term ‘starving artist’ wasn’t coined by accident, after all). What is silly, however, is spending thousands of dollars to pursue something that you can do anywhere, and in which your success is totally dependent upon the subjective opinion and taste of others.
It might be a far more practical idea to freelance your creative talents on top of a more secure income source. If photography is your passion, for example, commercial gigs such as photographing weddings could pay the bills while you work on developing a more creative portfolio on the side. You could even turn your artistic talents into a viable business further down the line.
9. Performing arts
Many budding actors take the plunge into drama school, but like all of the creative professions on this list, the key ingredient to success isn’t taught in any course curriculum: talent. Although some famous actors have followed this path, many haven’t – the only constant is that an expensive college degree is not a requirement to be able to act, sing or dance.
Instead, the best way to break into such a notoriously ruthless industry is by constantly attending auditions, learning to develop a thick skin and volunteering on film and theatre sets in the hope of making a few contacts. While the 1% may earn the big bucks, the harsh reality is that acting is a poorly paid, unrewarding job; an existence tough enough as it is, without the additional burden of crippling debt.
10. Anthropology and archaeology
At first glance, the study of either anthropology or archaeology are both attractive propositions. They develop sought-after cognitive and analytical skills, are both genuinely interesting subjects and, well, who doesn’t want to be Indiana Jones?
The only slight hitch is that neither offers a realistic career path. Indeed, to achieve anything within either field requires at least a doctorate, and even then – with all that debt, time and effort – there is no guarantee of a viable career. Unless your sole intention is simply to satisfy your own personal interest in the subject, then it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever find a practical use for your degree.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason the only archaeologists you know are fictional – in the real world, they are simply too few and far between.
Although the unemployment rates and graduate salaries for these degrees are among the worst, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be put off by them. As in all walks of life, your motivation, experience and aptitude will always be of more interest to employers than a piece of paper.
While STEM subjects may be more in demand, not everyone wants to be an engineer, doctor or scientist. And that’s fine – just make sure you’re seriously aware of the implications of your major before you start.
What do you think of our list? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you're wondering what you should study instead, check out our list of the best university courses!
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 2 February 2018.