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It is said that a student at Plato's Academy once asked in frustration "but how is any of this useful?". Plato expelled the student, but first gave him a copper coin so he could say he gained something from his education.
Wow, you took that degree? Ha! Well, first your peers will laugh at you for partying instead of studying for a real degree, then you'll find it's completely worthless and work at Burger Fool for the rest of your life. Or commit suicide rather than that. Of course, if you're lucky you can become a mad scientist's experiment or something and at least make a name for yourself there.
In short, this is a college degree in a subject that is worth less than the paper it's printed on, and much less than the cash you paid for it. A common use is to have the guy describe his achievements: "Yeah, graduated top three of my class, BA in Arts, my professors predicting me an easy future and all that. Would you like fries with that?".
Just being a low-earning degree in some way is kind of broad so if you push the trope there are subtleties to its use. A humanities degree like History, Theology, English etc. is supposed to be "above" marketability, so prestigious but useless ("novelty"). "Mickey Mouse degrees" like Communications or Media Studies don't even get any academic respect (but the former at least could get one a job). Natural Sciences are usually exempt from this, but sometimes those with extra Mathematics (and of course straight Mathematics itself) are candidates, because Everybody Hates Mathematics. Similarly, a vocational degree will be tied to the respect given to the work — so Law, Business Studies, or Accounting are usually safe, but Journalism majors are always Acceptable Targets. Indeed there seems to be a strange meme—mostly in the USA—that colleges teach traditional willow-work crafts (A few do, actually-).
Sometimes averted in real life, at least for people who get humanities degrees from respected schools, but still Truth in Television- statistically speaking, these degrees are a lot less likely to get you a job (especially a good one) than most other ones.. Writers of fiction, however, tend to ignore the fact that such a thing is possible, depicting anybody who didn't choose a "safe" major as a penniless loser, despite how many fiction writers actually had a degree in "useless". Self-Deprecation perhaps?
This is for cataloguing such examples in fiction. Please do not add real life examples to this page.
- In Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Bruce tells his girlfriend and future wife that he is majoring in philosophy. When asked what he plans to do with his degree, he replies, "Think long, deep thoughts about unemployment."
- Perhaps the cruellest application of this trope is a New Yorker cartoon showing two English majors whose occupation is standing as scarecrows in a field.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire the Citadel mostly considers the study of magic to qualify, because one of the major lessons is this: magic doesn't work. It's implied that the Citadel is trying to suppress magic, so even at the start of the series this is less true than they claim.
- In Felidae (the book), Gustav is an egyptologist, can't find a job, and noone wants to buy his books, so he has to write pornography for cheap magazines to make a living. In later books, he became more successful.
- Jules Verne's Paris in The Twentieth Century has a scathing deconstruction of this attitude, more than a century before it became prevalent. Michel Dufrénoy, the protagonist, is one of the last students of the humanities graduating from his university, which is a cause for shame for his family and endless misery and failure for him throughout the story due to society's seeming abandonment of creative and artistic pursuits (those that don't involve the Lowest Common Denominator, at least) in favor of an obsessive focus on science and rationality, which have created an emotionally cold world to live in.
- In Hitch Hikers Guide to The Galaxy, Trillian explains that she decided to go into space with Zaphod because, with her degrees in Mathematics and Astrophysics, it was either that or back to the dole line.
Live Action TV
- How I Met Your Mother has a discussion on long relationships and how when they're over, both have a huge amount of knowledge they will never use. "It's the emotional equivalent of an English degree."
- This is a common gag on The Weakest Link when a contestant lists having a maths degree as his greatest achievement.
- One act on Extreme Gong was a guy eating his film school degree.
- Buster Bluth from Arrested Development used his family's wealth to become a "professional" graduate student. By the start of the series he has done coursework in cartography, Native American tribal ceremonies, 18th century agrarian business principles, and archaeology.
- Community, being set in a struggling community college, has more than a few jokes about this kind of degree: Britta at one point asks "How many schools would let you get a degree in Theoretical Phys-Ed?"
- "Weird Al" Yankovic, in his song Skipper Dan, about a theatre prodigy working on a Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride:
I should've listened when my grandfather said
"Why don't you major in business instead?"
- Kanye West references this trope in his song All Falls Down:
I promise, she's so self-concious
She's got no idea what she's doing in college
The major she's majoring in don't make no money
But she won't drop out, her parents'll look at her funny
- In one Dilbert strip, it was mentioned that problems with blackouts are due to the lights being cued to motion detectors, and the office workers weren't active enough to keep them on. Thus, an intern was hired to walk around flapping his arms all day: "Another journalism major enters the workforce."
- A Prairie Home Companion has a whole weekly skit devoted to mock advertisements for the Professional Organization of English Majors, in which things happen and only an English major can stop them. He always gets the girl in the end of the advertisement. So this trope is at least 25 years old...
- Avenue Q's song "What Do You Do with a BA in English?" Reprised at the end when it turns out what you do with a BA in English is help run a monster school.
- In The Sims 2 (with the University expansion pack), each university major gives a boost in several career tracks. The career tracks tied to the English degree include "Slacker" and "Criminal".
- Wil from Questionable Content has a Liberal Arts degree. Previously an aspiring poet, he eventually got a job as a barkeep in order to keep his girlfriend, Penelope. He even composed a poem about the situation, titled "The Rime of the English Major".
It is a McDonald's cashier,
and he stoppeth one of three.
"By thy patchy beard and glittering eye,
wherefore earn'st thou a Liberal Arts degree?"
- According to this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip, the best way to make a theologian angry is to ask, "Could God make a degree so useless, even he couldn't get a real job?"
- One of the doomsday cultists in Eight Bit Theater reveals that he's a philosophy major.
- Not so much a Useless Degree as an Absurdly Narrow One, Bob in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob has a degree in newsstand management.
- Similarly, Tycho apparently has a degree in pig waxing (the real-life Tycho didn't attend college).
- In Xkcd, every single figure in the strip who doesn't/didn't study Engineering, Mathematics, Physics (string theorists still get slammed though), Chemistry, or Computer Science falls into this. The author has yet to comment on Business or vocational majors, though.
-Alt Text: Someday I'll be the first to get a Ph.D. in Undeclared.
Mike (as a guard): "I shouldn't have majored in Sociology."
- In Bite Me, Greg's marketing degree has gotten him a job spinning signs on the street.
- In The Simpsons episode "Faith Off," Dr. Hibbert tells injured star football player Lubchenko that his playing days are over:
Hibbert: But you can always fall back on your degree in... (reads chart) Communications?! Oh, dear Lord!
Lubchenko: I know! Is phony major. Lubchenko learn nothing. Nothing!
- In the Futurama episode "Crimes Of The Hot", a civil defense van is calling all scientists to a global warming conference:
Homeopathic Doctor: I have a degree in homeopathic medicine.
Civil Defense Van: You've got a degree in baloney! [Hoses down doctor]
- Actually, there are enough gullible fools that believe in homeopathy to make that kind of degree useful. More a case of Hard on Pseudo-science.
- Dr. Orpheus from The Venture Bros has a degree in Communications with a minor in Women's Studies, both from a community college. As for his "doctorate", he claims it was given to him by "a higher power".