'Useless' Degree, Awesome Job

CNBC

Summer is here, and along with high temperatures, shorts and flip-flops, another seasonal phenomenon is taking place — college students are graduating, and they’re taking their newly minted degrees into the real world in the hopes of landing a job. But what are their chances of finding work in their fields, or even finding jobs that don’t require them to ask if you want fries with that?

Job seekers between ages 16 to 24 who are not enrolled in school and have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher face an unemployment rate of 6.8 percent, according to May 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While this is below the national average, it still indicates that recent graduates face an uphill climb when finding their place in the job market, and it suggests that they should play it safe when choosing a major.

According to a study conducted at Georgetown University, recent arts-degree graduates in faced an average jobless rate of 11.1 percent and an average starting salary of $30,000. With numbers like these, an arts degree probably seems "useless" to many people. But the fact remains that many people have gone on to great success after earning degrees in fields that many people dismiss as “useless.”

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This doesn’t just apply to those who graduated with master’s degrees in ancient Babylonian astrology and abandoned them to become hedge fund managers. Many people with degrees in music, literature, sculpture and more have taken what they learned in those disciplines and applied it to careers that are rewarding, engaging and, yes, high-paying.

Read ahead to learn about professionals who earned degrees thought by some to be “useless” and found themselves in amazing careers.

Think Tank Director
Degree: Popular Culture

Margaret J. King, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank in Philadelphia. According to King, the graduate degree in popular culture that she earned in 1972 from Bowling Green State University was the first to be awarded. “Those were the days when studying comic books, gaming, fashion and film was considered an oddity — not a very useful one,” she told CNBC.com in an e-mail.

After stints in publishing, teaching and writing, she found her niche in her current position. “I have parlayed my degree into a career as a think-tank director and cultural analyst for major corporations, theme parks, and NASA, using my interests and building models that make this work on the ground as audience analysis. I have greatly enjoyed taking what is considered marginal and turning it into a serious study of culture,” she told CNBC.com. She said that although her salary varies, “my opportunities to earn are far higher than they might be as a professor.”

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Financial Analyst

Degree: Epic Renaissance Literature

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Photo: Lexion Capital Management

How do you take a degree in epic Renaissance literature and turn it into a career as a financial analyst? For Elle Kaplan, CEO of Lexion Capital Management, it was easy. “I had to read with a skeptical eye,” she said. “I use the same skills when looking over Wall Street research," she told CNBC.com. This critical eye has been key in making smart investment choices.”

Her major has also helped her in her consultations with clients. “In older literature you really have to examine word choice and intention, and when working with clients on matters as personal as wealth I have to be careful about my word choice,” she said.

In addition to her literature major, she also had a minor in chemistry, which she insists has come in handy as well. “There’s an entire science to investing,” she said. “These things behave in definable patterns, like a science experiment. It’s not based on crystal ball gazing. There’s a scientific approach to risk and reward, and that’s how you make money. I ignore the marketing spin and focus on the data.”


Communications Director

Degrees: French and German

When Christina Zila graduated from Marquette University in 1999, she left with not one but two majors, both of which she describes as “useless” — French and German. “My family was a little surprised and confused that I chose to major in languages,” she said. Her studies helped her earn a six-month internship at a German cigar factory, and she ended up staying in the country for six years.

The overseas experience led to her current position as director of communications for Textbroker.com, a German-owned online content creation company based in the U.S. “I put ‘German’ into Monster.com and Textbroker came up,” she said. ”The founder is German, and he was expanding the company into the U.S., so they were sourcing English content and they needed someone in the U.S. to take customer calls, client calls and help it grow.” She described her position as “absolutely the best job I’ve ever had,” and although she wouldn’t disclose her salary, she did say, “I am making the most money now that I have ever made.”

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Prop Builder
Degree: Sculpture

Nick Poyner graduated from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2009, and he was on course to become a starving artist from the moment the dean put a diploma in his hand. “I was making money doing medical studies,” he told CNBC.com. “I paid my rent by using that money.” But Nick dreamed of becoming more than a mere human guinea pig. He wanted to create special effects for horror movies. “Ever since elementary school, I was messing around with video cameras and blood,” he said.

After moving to New York and taking a job canvassing for politician Anthony Weiner for $12 an hour, he began working for free on movie sets to get a foot in the door. The gambit worked, and a makeup artist he met on set arranged for him to interview with The Specialists Ltd., a fabrication service that creates props for movies and television shows. Poyner now receives a steady paycheck and medical insurance, and his work can be seen in such blockbuster films as “Men in Black III” and “The Bourne Legacy.”

Talent Acquisition Manager
Degree: Music

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Photo: Todd Stringer

David Gaspin graduated in 1996 from the Hartt School of Music, the conservatory affiliated with the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He left with a music degree and a focus in musical theater, and he moved to New York to become a Broadway performer.

“Over the six years that I pursued that dream, there were times, I’m proud to say, that I actually made a living as an actor,” he told CNBC.com in an e-mail. “But most of the time I was earning my keep doing something else.” While “something else” often meant telemarketing, waiting tables and tending bar, it also meant a temp assignment filling in for an HR assistant at a media company.

“When they asked me to stay long-term, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” he said “From there, it was an upward trajectory. A few promotions, some job changes, and an eventual MBA in HR Management from CUNY-Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business, and I found myself at TheLadders, the job-matching service for professionals, and I couldn’t be happier.” The irony of his situation is not lost on him. “If I was hiring for the job that got me started in HR, there’s no way I would have even gotten an interview.”

IT Consultant
Degree: Psychology

Most of the time, a degree in psychology is anything but “useless.” However, it becomes useless if, like Greg Miliates, you don’t finish graduate school. “I received my B.S. in psychology in 1990 from Michigan State University,” he told CNBC.com in an e-mail. “I attended grad school for two years, but decided to withdraw before I completed my master's thesis.”

After working at a nature center outside of Chicago and developing its website, he moved to Albuquerque and worked for eight years at a company that sold software to law firms. He then started his own IT consulting business.

“It took a few months to start getting clients, but after I got my first paycheck for consulting, I was hooked,” he said. “About a year after I formed my business, I realized that the time spent at my day job was getting in the way of how much I could earn consulting, and then went part-time at my day job for a few months before quitting it completely to consult full-time.” The risk paid off, and Miliates said that in 2011 he earned over $177,000.

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