So You Studied Arts. Now What?

The musical Avenue Q includes a song called ‘What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?’ The beginning of the song goes like this:

What do you do with a B.A. in English?

What is my life going to be?

Four years of college and plenty of knowledge

Have earned me this useless degree


I can’t pay the bills yet ’cause I have no skills yet

The world is a big scary place

But somehow I can’t shake the feeling I might make

A difference to the human race


The entirety of the musical, including this song, is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. But like all good comedy, it touches on some uncomfortable truths. And now, as a holder of a B.A. in English myself, it’s probably more pertinent than ever.

When I was seven, I told my parents that when I grew up, I wanted to be a scientist. When I was ten, I narrowed my focus ever so slightly: I wanted to be a neurogeneticist. Eight years later, after working hard through high school and having survived half a science degree, I decided I wanted to be an English literature academic, and changed my degree accordingly. Now, with three university degrees in my obviously overflowing hands, I run a magazine and am a freelance writer, and my parents consistently ask me when I’m going to get a real job.

When I changed degrees, I did so quietly. I wanted to delay the disapproval that I knew was waiting for me, both back at home, and among my group of friends, most of whom were pursuing careers in engineering. There seems to be a growing disdain for the arts in Australia, and this sentiment is reflected in the often passive aggressive comments directed at arts graduates, and those who are currently doing arts degrees at university.


Here is a carefully curated selection of such comments:

Well, you’re just bludging, aren’t you?

            Arts degrees are a cop out

            Arts degrees are a waste of time

            Oh so why are you paying so much money to end up working as a barista or at McDonald’s?

            Why don’t you study something else more useful?

And so on.

I can imagine there would be similar responses to those who want to pick up a trade, as opposed to going to university. Of course, expectations will differ between cultures and families and groups of friends, but there will undoubtedly be some career choice that will be frowned upon. It might even be something as simple as taking a year off to figure out what you want to do, career-wise. I know my parents weren’t exactly pleased when I floated the idea of taking a year off university, even though I never actually took the step of deferring any of my courses.

So, if you find yourself in such a situation, what should you do?

This sounds cheesy, but if you’re loving what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. There is a bizarre expectation that you should be able to plan for the rest of your life in your mid to late teens, and sometimes you don’t really find out what you want to do until you’re much older.

And guess what?

That’s okay.

Let me repeat that again for those in the back: it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do with your career.

It’s taken me quite a while to get to this stage of acceptance. Part of this has come from just jumping into the deep end and blocking out all those niggling doubts. The need for parental approval runs deep, and social approval from your friends may run even deeper, but sometimes, you need to put yourself first. This may be difficult in some circumstances, so if you’re planning on making a drastic change in career or degree, you’ll need to take good care of your mental health. And here are some quick pointers to start off with.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are careers counsellors and student services at schools and universities for a reason.
  • Surround yourself with people who support you and what you want to do. This may, scarily enough, mean venturing out of your normal circle of friends and family, but ultimately, it will be worth it.
  • Remember that it’s okay to take some time off to figure out what you want to do and how you want to get there. This is specifically directed at those of you who, like me, are workaholics and are always trying to do ten things at any given time. It’s okay to slow down.
  • Be patient with yourself and your work. Things may not always work out perfectly, and that is all right. Take some time, and try again.

These pointers have kept me in good stead over the past couple of years, and I’m pretty sure they will stand the test of time. So to those of you currently in the throes of year twelve, know that it’s all right not to know what you want to do. If you want to go to university and try out a whole heap of different courses, go for it. If you want to start your own business making and selling bags in the shape of Pokemon balls, all power to you. The same goes for all of you who are in the middle or at the end of gap years or university degrees, those of you who are worried about what you’re going to do next, or if you’re taking the right steps for your career.

So, at the end of all this, we return to the original question: what do you do with a B.A. in English?

The answer, quite simply, is whatever you damn well want. And if you’re loving what you’re doing, don’t stop doing it just because your friends or family disapprove. Keep at it. Prove them wrong. I can’t wait to see what you all come up with.

Yen-Rong is a Brisbane-based writer. She is the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine for young Asian Australian artists, and has had her work published in The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Feminiartsy, and Brain Mill Press.