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What do humanities graduates do?

December 2020

Many schemes have been put in place to encourage women into STEM subjects to redress the gender balance - but why are there so few equivalent attempts to persuade men to take humanities? This is one of the questions raised by the latest edition of What do graduates do?


  • English
  • History
  • Languages
  • Philosophy

In this section the subjects being focused on are English, history, languages and philosophy. Due to their non-vocational nature, this group of subjects offers graduates a wide range of career options. As Professor A. C. Grayling from New College of the Humanities (NCH) has said, 'a good degree in the humanities is a platform for setting out on successful careers in a wide range of fields'.1

Despite this, according to the 2017/18 Graduate Outcomes survey, a significant percentage of humanities graduates entered similar occupational areas, with the most popular ones being education; marketing, PR and sales professionals; business, HR and finance professionals and clerical, secretarial and numerical clerks.


The percentage of those in full-time employment was lower for humanities graduates than those from other subjects, at 54.3% for languages down to 48.8% for history. The average among other subjects was 59.8%. These figures though are unsurprising - partly because a higher than average number of humanities graduates chose to progress onto further study than graduates from most other subjects.

Nearly a quarter of all English graduates, 15 months after graduation, chose to work within education. This was overwhelmingly the top choice of industry for all humanities graduates, with English at 24.4% down to 17% for philosophy, which was still well above the all-subject average of 12.7%. Business and finance followed by retail were the second and third most popular industries for humanities graduates to enter, with media and publishing coming in at fourth place.

On closer inspection, we can see the main occupations these graduates have chosen to go into 15 months after graduating from their humanities degree. For English graduates, 17.8% have chosen to become marketing, PR and sales professionals, 17.5% education professionals and 13.4% clerical, secretarial and numerical clerks. History graduates entered occupations including clerical, secretarial and numerical clerks (14.5%), business, HR and finance professionals (14.1%) and marketing, PR and sales professionals (13.9%).

The top occupations for both language (17.2%) and philosophy (19.2%) graduates were in business, HR and finance roles. Most other language graduates chose to enter marketing, PR and sales (16.4%) or educational (13.6%) occupations. The majority of the remaining philosophy graduates entered clerical, secretarial and numerical clerk (12.8%) and marketing, PR and sales (11.5%) occupations.

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As a result of the non-vocational nature of humanities subjects, graduates from these subjects possess numerous transferable skills, such as communication, collaboration, analysis and decision making, which makes them highly employable. Professor Grayling has said, 'To think with clarity, acuity and versatility, to acquire understanding with wide scope, to combine a breadth of knowledge with an ability to be precise and penetrating - these are the outcomes of an advanced education in the humanities.'2

A report by the British Academy indicates that, due to high levels of employability and transferable skills, graduates from arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) subjects would be more resilient and adaptable in the face of change.3 These are essential qualities, especially in the current climate of economic uncertainty in the UK.

Gender and salary

There was a significant difference between the number of female and male survey respondents graduating from humanities subjects. English was the most popular subject among females with 79.8% (4,515 out of 5,655) choosing this. The course showing the least amount of gender difference was philosophy with 53.2% (690 out of 1,299) being female and the remaining 610 males. Languages showed a difference of 3,240 females to 1,400 males from a total figure of 4,635 and history had 54.8% (3,540) female graduates compared with 2,915 males from a total of 6,455. There could be numerous explanations for why humanities subjects are so popular among females, but there is little evidence to suggest that anything is being done to redress the balance. Many projects and schemes have been implemented to encourage women into STEM subjects, but very little has been done to encourage men into the humanities.

In fact, an article published in Inside Higher Ed asks, 'would greater exposure to such fields [...] help men make better decisions and become stronger citizens, workers and leaders?'4 This argument has been reinforced by a statistic cited in All About Careers revealing that '60% of the UK's industry leaders have a humanities degree', which contrasts with the 15% who had studied STEM subjects at university.5

For those humanities graduates in employment the gender pay gap was considerable. An article published by Prospects Luminate stated that 'women are more likely to enrol onto courses associated with lower returns'.6 Humanities are a prime example due the significant number of females studying these subjects. Another factor cited within the article was the 'motherhood factor' and for this reason 'both economic inactivity and part-time work become much more prevalent among female graduates'. This was certainly reflected in the survey outcomes for English which show that 12.8%of graduates, 2.2 percentage points more than all subjects, were in part-time work 15 months after graduation. This figure wasn't broken down by gender but as we have already seen, English was the most popular of the humanities subjects amongst those who identify as female.

In general, those working part time tend to earn less and it can sometimes have a negative effect on chances of promotion. This is not to say that the picture was entirely optimistic for their male counterparts. According to an article by the Institute of Fiscal Studies 'for men, studying creative arts, English or philosophy actually results in lower earnings on average at age 29 than people with similar background characteristics who did not go to HE at all' - although a higher salary is not, of course, the only factor that makes a degree worthwhile.7

Regardless of gender, the figures from the Graduate Outcomes survey indicated that, to be earning a salary close to average for all subjects, humanities graduates would need to undertake significant postgraduate study. The average UK salary for all 2017/18 graduates from all subjects was between £24,217 and £24,478, with the higher figure being the average amount earned by those who had undertaken postgraduate study.

Graduates from all humanities subjects except languages were earning less than the average for those who had undertaken significant postgraduate study. Their averages were £22,461 (English), £22,644 (history) and £24,238 (philosophy). Language graduates straddled the average with their salary range being between £22,750 and £28,050 depending on precisely which language degree they studied.

Further study

The Graduate Outcomes survey showed that a higher percentage of humanities graduates, compared to those from other subjects, decided to undertake full or part-time further study after completing their undergraduate degree. The percentages ranged from 14% (history) to 11.3% (English) compared to an average of 8.4% across all other subjects.

Choosing to enter a career within education was a popular choice amongst humanities graduates, ranging from 17.5% for English to 10.5%for philosophy. This directly correlates with the higher than average number of humanities graduates opting to undertake a postgraduate diploma or certificate (including PGCE/PGDE). This option was most popular with language graduates at 24.5% down to 15.2% for philosophy graduates, which was still higher than the average amongst other subjects at 14.8%.

Choosing to complete a PGCE in order to enter a career in education would be considered by some a wise decision since, according to the Complete University Guide, education tops the list of best subjects for postgraduate employability at 93%.8 Studying an MA or MSc was also a popular choice among humanities graduates with 59.1% of history, 58.2% of English, 52.2% of philosophy and 49.1% of languages graduates following this route.


With the cost of studying at university going up, it would seem natural that students would want to choose subjects that gave them the best return on their investment. On the face of it, it could be argued that humanities subjects would therefore be the losers. But, with their broad nature, numerous transferable skills and adaptability, rather than being unnecessary, humanities subjects could be more important than ever moving forward.

This claim is ratified by two of Microsoft's top CEOs, who were quoted in Business Insider as saying 'as computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.'9

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Also in this series


  1. AC Grayling on studying the humanities, New College of the Humanities, February 2016.
  2. Ibid
  3. Qualified for the Future: Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills, The British Academy, 2020.
  4. We Need More Men in the Humanities, Inside Higher Ed, October 2018.
  5. 60% of the UK's industry leaders have a humanities degree, All About Careers.
  6. The Graduate Gender Pay Gap, Prospects Luminate, July 2020.
  7. The impact of undergraduate degrees on early-career earnings, Institute of Fiscal Studies, November 2018.
  8. Top ten postgraduate subjects for employability, Complete University Guide, February 2020..
  9. Microsoft's president says liberal arts majors are necessary for the future of tech, Business Insider, January 2018.

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