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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 (at least, financially speaking) 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?". Of course, people go to college/university for far more reasons than getting a bigger paycheque at the end of it; in terms of personal fulfillment a person may gain much from their liberal arts degree.
There are numerous subtleties to this trope depending on the degree that you're attempting to ridicule; English, Theology, Philosophy, History and other classical Arts-related intellectual subjects tend to be academically respected and prestigious but financially weak, and dismissed by the lower classes as purely-intellectual leisure for aristocratic emokids with a lot of time and money to spare
, unless when these courses are do used as a preparation course for a vocational degree (e.g. Philosophy as pre-Law course). Less traditional degrees such as Sociology, Media Studies, Leisure Studies etc are ridiculed for both their uselessness in employability and the lack of intellectual scope in their subject matter. Vocational degrees tend to be the subject of ridicule mostly based on how respected and "realistic/concrete" the profession is; Natural Sciences (e.g. Engineering) and Architecture graduates are generally off limits, but Journalism, Political Science, Law
and purely abstract Mathematics
are fair game
Unfortunately Truth in Television
in some cases- statistically speaking, these degrees are a lot less likely to get you a job (especially a good one) than most other ones, but is still is possible. Sometimes averted in real life, at least for people who get humanities degrees from respected schools
. It's not really surprising that world-changing historical figures who spread revolutionary philosophical ideas attend well, Philosophy. Writers of fiction, however, tend to ignore the fact that such a thing is possible, depicting anybody who didn't choose a highly-profitable and/or Business-related major as a penniless loser, despite how many fiction writers actually had a degree in "useless". Self-Deprecation
By the way: In medieval times, alumni of the University of Paris, France got an official license to beg after they finished their studies. So this trope seems to be Older Than Print
See Hard On Soft Science
for when scientists invoke this on other scientists. Related to Classically Trained Extra
This is for cataloguing such examples in fiction. Please do not add real life examples to this page.
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- Empowered has a degree in suprahuman studies (she always was a superhero Fangirl).
- 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."
- This conversation in Lost in Translation:
Bob: What did you study?
Bob: Yeah, there's a good buck in that racket.
- In PCU, Droz has the following conversation with students to whom he's selling papers:
Droz: What's your major?
Sanskrit Major: Sanskrit.
Droz: Sanskrit? You are majoring in a 5000-year-old dead language?
- Alluded to in The Addams Family movie when Morticia is at the employment office. When she tells her case worker that her major was "spells and hexes", the worker nods knowingly and answers, "Liberal Arts."
- 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.
- MAD once featured a parody of Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, one panel of which featured Marty Feldman doing just that. The caption read, "We found him doing odd jobs...and boy, do we mean odd!"
- 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 The Hitchhiker's 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.
- This trope features in several stories by German author Heinrich Böll. One of them works at the railroad announcing the station, the other one starts a fruit business after the object of his studies (a Pacific islander people) turns out to be quite different (less romantic) than in his books. Both of them have a PhD at least.
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?"
- In the Kitten With A Whip episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of the characters on the screen says, "I majored in poli sci. That's political science." Mike, speaking as the main character, retorts, "Oh, so you're unemployed."
- "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."
- 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.
- 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 8-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.
: Someday I'll be the first to get a Ph.D. in Undeclared.
- In The Dragon Doctors, Elka reveals that the reason she became an assassin was to pay off the abnormally large debts she accumulated when she got four useless degrees, one after another, and realized none of them could pay the bills.
- A minor character in Schlock Mercenary apparently studied "comparitive Gal-West lit, with an emphasis on memetic Terranism" before she started working fast food. Thanks to a complicated series of events she eventually becomes cook's assistant in the protagonists' mercenary company, which is probably a step up.
- In the Rifftrax for Jurassic Park, during the opening scene, Mike comes out with this gem:
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.
- To cement the difference between The Nostalgia Chick and Lindsay (her smarter and nicer actress), the former obliviously holds up a certificate that actually says "Extortion University awards you a useless degree in film".
- In Season 2 Episode 4 of Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl, J has an Imagine Spot about if she accepts a job offer to be a sales associate at Walmart. In the fantasy, an old college friends sees her and tells her child, "This is where people who major in African-American studies end up."
- The Cracked article "4 Important Lessons You Learn as a Birthday Party Mascot", which begins with the assumption that being a birthday party mascot is one of the few plausible choices that Liberal Arts graduates who took Creative Writing as their major could take.
There comes a time in every man's life when he finds he's lost his way, or maybe he just never had much of a grasp on it in the first place, because he is a 22-year-old liberal arts graduate and no one is immediately handing him a job for some reason.
- 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]
- Dr. Orpheus from The Venture Brothers 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".