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 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 sub-optimal or where a degree is not likely to distinguish you from non-graduates.
So, without further ado, these are the 20 most useless degrees in the world.
1. Culinary arts
Budding chefs may have previously 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 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 favor graduates who have majored in more specialized 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 specialization 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 specialized skills. It doesn’t particularly help that a lot of media forms are dying out, either, due to the increase in the use 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 generalization, 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 of a 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 — you need natural 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 theater 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.
11. Ethnic studies
Upon first glance, it might seem like a prudent decision to enroll in an ethnic studies degree program, mainly because of corporations' desires to be more culturally sensitive. But experts note that a single degree that concentrates on ethnicities and civilizations might not lead to a fruitful career.
This is why career guidance professionals suggest double majoring in another area to ensure greater odds of attaining a job.
The print newspaper is dying. Online publications are competing heavily with bloggers, specialized writers and even social media. Therefore, becoming a journalist can be a challenging field to pursue, as the supply of graduates far exceeds that of available positions.
Indeed, you would be better off learning how to write and attaining a degree in a select area (economics, law or political science, for example) and report about that particular subject or niche.
Let's be honest: Philosophy is a compelling subject. You can spend hours discussing the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Aristotle and the myriad of philosophical heavyweights. But as a career choice? This is not the wisest decision you can make, since it will be an impossible feat to locate a stable job and income related to philosophy.
Perhaps this liberal arts specialty can be great as a standalone course, or maybe you can double major, but philosophy as a solo degree is not the wisest decision to make due to the lack of career prospects following graduation.
14. Travel and tourism
Yes, a degree in travel and tourism might seem like the perfect education choice if you want a job that takes you to every corner of the planet. If life were only like that. Unfortunately, the reality is that it is harder to come across an employment opportunity that offers reasonable compensation, especially in this present environment.
Of course, there is always the possibility of becoming an influential vlogger or Instagram traveler, but even this is no guarantee.
In the world of search engine optimization (SEO), virtual and augmented reality, and big data, is advertising a lost art form? For now, advertising is not what it used to be because of the immense advancement in digital marketing technology.
While advertising could be a complementary course, it cannot lead to a successful career as a single degree. Data analysis can be a better alternative than a post-secondary degree in advertising.
16. International studies
International studies programs have grown in popularity amid globalization. With more people moving all over the world, international studies assesses the connections between global and regional issues, with a focus on language and public affairs. But while this might expose students to issues of the day, it is not something that can lead to a lucrative career unless you are employed by the United Nations or enjoy a foreign policy position in academia or government.
17. Film video production
If you have seen how advanced today's cameras are, you might wonder how anyone can enroll in a film video production program. Whether it is a professional digital camera or the camera on your smartphone, the images recorded are high quality and can mirror that of a box office motion picture or broadcast news segment.
Film video experts are not in demand as they used to be, particularly when considering that even journalists will produce an entire piece on their iPhones for the 9pm prime-time newscast. As long as you have a basic or medium understanding of how cameras function, you may not need to spend thousands of dollars on tuition.
18. Criminal justice
Many experts consider a criminal justice degree useless because of costs and a paucity of decent employment opportunities. While law enforcement is always a job option, it is recommended that students enroll in a more broad-based educational program, like law school or political science. This way, you can find a plethora of positions within this realm and not be tied down to one or two specific occupations.
19. Computer science
Yes, everyone purports that you should study computer science in college or university. It has become the de facto degree for anyone unsure what to do with their lives after high school. It can certainly be a great subject to study, but the chief problem is that the market has become oversaturated. This means that there are more graduates with computer science degrees than there are jobs available.
Another aspect that many industry professionals point out is that the computer science textbooks handed out at places of higher learning are obsolete pretty much as soon as they are published, due to the ever-evolving nature of the field.
20. Child and family studies
Let's be honest: Family studies seems like a degree program stuck in the 1950s. With fewer people having children and starting families, and the paucity of employment opportunities that explore complex family dynamics, this can be a lackluster subject to learn or even major. The jobs are limited to social work, school counselor or school psychologist. It might be better to study psychology and then proceed to hone in on child development.
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.
Join the discussion! 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 is an updated version of an article originally published on 3 September 2020 and contains contributions by Andrew Moran.