How to explain your degree to someone who has never studied it

‘So, what do you study?’

You’ve been asked it a thousand and one times, but you’ve somehow never managed to find the perfect answer. Say your degree title and you risk being stereotyped into the box that people associate that subject with. Go into too much detail and you’re bound to lose them. Make it too basic and you can sound patronising. It’s a simple question that can be so difficult to answer. Luckily, this post is full of tips to help you answer that dreaded question with the least amount of awkwardness possible.

Step 1: Title Talk

The simplest way to reply to someone asking about your degree is to quote the title. However, this can be problematic. Firstly, it’s important to avoid using acronyms or shorthand. Although most students at Warwick will know what PAIS stands for, people in the outside world will have no idea. Using language that people don’t understand will quickly shut them out of the conversation, so make sure to avoid it.

With degrees like Liberal Arts or Classics, where it isn’t completely obvious from the title what actually happens in lectures, you will probably get the inevitable follow-up question of ‘what does that involve?’. It’s a good idea to think of a stock sentence here that you can use to sum up your degree without over-complicating it. For example, instead of giving people specifics of dates and empires, I sum up ‘Ancient History and Classical Archaeology’ with ‘Greeks and Romans’ to make it more accessible.

How to explain your degree to someone who has never studied it

Step 2: Avoiding the Stereotype

If your degree title is recognisable, it often means that there is a stereotype for it. When people hear the ‘archaeology’ part of my degree, they often assume that I like dinosaurs. I’ve heard people conclude that all drama students are ‘hippies’, or all English students are depressed poets. These stereotypes can be irritating at best (and offensive at worst), so it’s a good idea to try and dismiss them from the offset.

For example, a Geography student being subjected to the long-running joke about colouring in maps might want to laugh it off to start with. However, this doesn’t do much to correct the image people have pinned on you. Module titles can be good places to turn if you’re struggling to think of examples on the spot. When people assume that I like dinosaurs (which, by the way, is palaeontology not archaeology!), I might tell them about my City of Rome or ancient Coinage modules to give them a more informed idea of what it is I study.

How to explain your degree to someone who has never studied it

Step 3: What next?

It’s worth remembering that you will probably get asked about what you want to do after your degree, which can be painful to answer. These questions fall into three categories: an actual question about what you see yourself doing after your degree; a blind assumption about the job that you are going to do after your degree; a question about whether you can actually get a job related to your degree. Each of these can be uncomfortable to answer in their own way, so let’s break them down:

How to explain your degree to someone who has never studied it

A) What would you like to do after your degree?’

If you’re doing a second degree, it’s a get-out-of-jail-free. If you’ve done an internship in a role that you enjoyed, you can say that you would like to explore that industry further. If you don’t know, this can be a really awkward question. Telling your parents’ friends that you have no idea what you’re going to do after you graduate is a sure-fire way to raise eyebrows and spark ideas of post-university joblessness. A better way to answer this question is to say that you’re considering the options available to you, since it’s more definitive than ‘I haven’t got a clue’

B) ‘So, you study history… you must want to be a teacher, right?’

This is just one example of a long list of degrees that come with assumptions about the jobs that follow them. Others include accounting, engineering, psychology and so many more. I chose history here since I know so many students who have been infuriated by the assumption that all they can do after university is teach. Gently shutting down assumptions like this helps to correct the stereotype, but it can be difficult to know how to word it without being rude. Try saying something like ‘I know people assume that I will be doing x after I graduate, but there are so many things you can do with my degree’.

C) ‘So, is there actually a job market for that?’

Or, as I was so impolitely asked once, ‘How are you going to make any money doing that?’. First of all, it’s important to establish that doing a degree isn’t always about financial gain at the end of it. Choosing a degree out of pure interest for the subject is completely valid, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. After explaining this, it is worth thinking of some famous people who studied your degree and are now doing something completely unrelated to it. Ashton Kutcher studied Biochemical Engineering and Boris Johnson has a degree in Classics. If these people didn’t get a job in their degree field, it shouldn’t matter that you don’t have an obvious career-path after graduation.

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