Think your Major is useless? Why it’s not and how you can apply it

As a first-generation college student eager to excel in political science and law, DePaul alumna Lourdes Contreras did not expect to pursue Italian studies. In a world where STEM majors are a safe bet in terms of job opportunity and pay, with a starting salary almost $20,000 more than liberal arts majors according to Big Economics, liberal arts majors are misunderstood as a bad investment.  

Contreras realized in her fourth year of double-majoring in political science and Italian that she was losing interest in working in government and studying law and was “very disillusioned by it all,” she said.

After graduating from DePaul in 2020, Contreras began her PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, concentrating on ecocriticism, or the connections between literature and the environment. 

Although some deem these majors a bad investment, students that gain skill sets from liberal arts majors like experience, quality mentorship and willpower have the greatest variety of careers and opportunities.  

“I’ve gotten comments like ‘What exactly could you do with your PhD in Italian studies?,’” Contreras said. “You’d be really surprised by the kind of careers you can find in the fields that people consider useless.”

Although Contreras’ family was supportive of her decision to pursue her PhD in Italian, she says that some of her loved ones still hold out hope that she will go to law school. As a result, Contreras sometimes feels conflicted. 

“You do feel some guilt on doing something that perhaps is not in-line with what a first-generation student is expected to do,”Contreras said. 

According to Mark DeLancey, DePaul professor and chair of the art history and architecture department, pushback can be societal in addition to parental.

Starting his academic career in art history and studio art at Oberlin College in Ohio, DeLancey experienced mostly social pushback against his choice that he says has intensified since 2008.

“From the very top, we have had two presidents who’ve used art history as examples of uselessness,” DeLancey said. “Everything is about STEM with the government and the humanities lose out.” 

Students need to think about majors more broadly and consider their interdisciplinary nature, according to DeLancey,.   

“I am not completely sure what I would do [after completing my PhD],”  Contreras said. “I just know I really do enjoy teaching enough to say that I wouldn’t mind getting a position at a university. I am also interested in manuscript study and being a librarian in an archive which is really interesting and something that I’ve had the opportunity to do.”

Ed Childs, DePaul first year and exploration advisor, encourages students to understand that a major is only a piece of the whole package as students search for a career.

Childs sees three pillars to this process: education/major, experience and skills and employers care about all three. 

“40% of employers do have careers that are going to require specific degrees, but it’s more about the research, the writing, and the collaborating, and the stuff that you do in student organizations,”  Childs said. “To employers, a college degree represents well-roundedness and that you have the ability to relate to other folks. That is what the liberal arts piece is about.”

Childs urges students to use LinkedIn Learning and LinkedIn profiles as a resource to learn and market their skills, and to see the variety of jobs that people in their field of study have obtained. 

DeLancey recommends students to “meet with professors and advisors who can suggest to you the breath of possibilities in your useless choice.”

When Contreras was not sure about where her disinterest in political science and law would redirect her, she is very thankful to have had the guidance of Caterina Mongiat Farina, DePaul Italian Program Director.

“I give her all of the credit for helping guide me through the application processes,”  Contreras said. 

Many college students go into practical majors due to outside family and societal pressure to fit into a box of what others want them to be or what will be the most profitable in the long run. 

“It is important to love what you do,” DeLancey said. “If you love what you do, that is worth quite a bit.”