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. See Analysis tab for more.
See Hard On Soft Science for when scientists invoke this on other scientists. Related to Classically-Trained Extra.
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).
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."
Bob: What did you study? Charlotte: Philosophy. 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 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 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
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.
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".
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."
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!
"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".