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. From another angle, many students seeking advanced degrees often accumulate classes that will help them get into a good graduate program but not help them in the job market at that point in time. There are a lot of different majors that are subject to such ridicule, being hopelessly specific or too generic to offer you any advancement. See Analysis
tab for more.
See Hard on Soft Science
for when scientists invoke this on other scientists. Related to Classically Trained Extra
. The Worthless Foreign Degree
is when you run into trouble not because of what
you studied, but where
you studied. Compare Not That Kind of Doctor
, where people assume you are a physician when your doctorate was in literature.
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
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 Those Lacking Spines, the High School A.U. persona of Larxene (who happens to be a teacher) graduated from university with a doctorate in Philosophy.
She was supposed to have gone places with that degree! But no, it's only after you're out in the real world that you learn that nobody knows who John Stuart Mill and Aristotle are, and nobody particularly cares, and you're going to be forced into a meager-paying job in education no matter what you'd previously expected.
- 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."
- Art from Monsters University is a New Age philosophy major.
- Mr. & Mrs. Smith:
'John':I never went to MIT. Notre Dame. Art history major.
'John':History! It's reputable.
- In The Brass Teapot Alice’s degree in Art History isn’t exactly helping her find a job.
- Ghostbusters: Parapsychology is by and large a useless degree in-universe, with little if any "practical" application. Part of the movie's lasting appeal comes from seeing three guys with "useless degrees" make good outside of the academic world.
- James of Adventureland runs into financial problems between his lit major as an undergrad and going to Columbia for journalism. When he starts looking for work, he notes that his degree can't even help him with a manual labor job.
- 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 view of the attitudes that produce this trope, 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. Sounds like a straight example at first... except that the story takes his side, with the rest of French society having pretty much abandoned all 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, creating an emotionally cold world to live in. This attitude is treated as a key sign of a dystopia.
- In The Hitchhikers 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 well into his 30s. 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?"
- A Running Gag is that the school's only alums with money to donate are graduates of the HVAC program.
- 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."
- During the short The Home Economics Story, a character in college states that she's majoring in Food and Nutrition, and "I'm going to be a dietrician". Tom Servo comments, "Yeah, right, you're going to be a short-order cook for truckers in two years."
- On Cougar Town, Jules is worried that her son Travis won't get a job with his art degree, so she tries to get him a job at the local coffee shop; and when that failed, she tries to scare him straight using his layabout father Bobby as an example.
- The protagonist of Big Bad World has a Master's Degree in Norse Poetry. The series starts with an Imagine Spot where he is offered a highly paid job where he gets a free car, unlimited funds and is asked by his boss to impregnate his daughter. Cut back to reality, where he is forced to move back in with his parents and finds work on an unpaid graduate programme at his local pub.
- Nodded at in Last Man Standing, Vanessa has a Masters in geology and admits that her career choices are either energy companies or teaching.
- "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
- Useless degrees are actually a recurring theme in Kanye's "College Trilogy" albums. One series of skits focuses on a man who spends his entire life enrolled in school and earning degrees without actually getting a job to earn money, causing his family to fall into poverty.
- 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 minor running joke is that other than the engineers there is no correlation between degree and job. The boss is an art history major, while the secretary has an MBA.
- 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 psychology 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. However, he did spoof this kind of thinking with one strip: Every major's terrible.
: 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.
- One of the mercenaries has a degree in "Xenokillology" he made in a custom major program, bringing in all sorts of biology and anthropology courses. He realized after he got his job that all he really needed to know was "shoot it a lot."
- Though he does put it to use, sort of, when the company desperately needs a xenobiologist and he's the closest they have.
- 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."
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.
- One of the entries in "6 Half-Assed Ways Scientists Made Mind Blowing Discoveries" is about a newly discovered jellyfish that "can't swim, they can't sting, and their anus is wrapped around their brain. Genetically it's a jellyfish, but physically it's a disappointment, so it's possible that they were simply hiding out of shame." The caption underneath a picture of said jellyfish?
"Above: the liberal arts major of the sea."
- 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!
- Kent Brockman:
"Things aren't as happy as they used to be down here at the unemployment office. Joblessness is no longer just for Philosophy majors - useful people are starting to feel the pinch."
- The Comic Book Guy:
"I have a Masters Degree in Folklore and Mythology!"
- 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 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".
- As in the Film example above, Extreme Ghostbusters briefly touches upon this in the first episode—Eduardo thinks it's going to be an easy A.
- The Fairly Oddparents episode "You Doo" features a guy who majored in French philosophy. This guy happens to be the elementary school's janitor. (He also apparently put a lot of his money into Internet stocks, but that's neither here nor there.)
- Transformers Prime uses a mixture of this and Worthless Foreign Degree, Ratchet is the medic and scientist and is extremely talented in treating his fellow Autobots. On occasion he makes mention of potential health concerns for the Autobots, not realizing human don't have to worry about things like rusting. When Raf is injured Ratchet nearly has a breakdown, admitting that despite close contact with the humans he never bothered to study their biology and thus had no idea what to do.
- The Science major asks, "Why does it work?" The Engineering major asks, "How does it work?" The Liberal Arts major asks, "Do you want fries with that?"
- Q: What's the difference between someone with a BA in English and someone with a BA in Theatre?
- A: The one with a degree in English says "Would you like fries with that?". The one with the Theatre degree says "Good evening, I'll be your server tonight. The special of the evening is Medallions of Wild Boar in a Cranberry-Dijon Reduction, served on a bed of Ramps sauteed..."