Sunday, June 24, 2012

So..Your Parents Let You Get a Degree in French Literature?

I get asked this question, or variations of it often--usually by guys with degrees in engineering.* I've considered responses like "yes, and as you can see I'm employed in spite of this" and "well if everyone got a degree in engineering then the skill set would be less valued."

Lately I've considered changing my default response to "Not everyone is a Quant--the world needs Verbals too."

Now that I am back in grad school I can very easily see the value of being a literature geek. For example--I just took a class in computer security. A good portion of that class was about math, because it was about probability, and cryptography and cyphers.

It's hard to do math after years out of practice. (See also, my struggles with Statistics last year). It's hard to understand a lecture about math at 8 PM after working all day. I think the professor understood that. I however had no problem with the math involved in basic cryptography** because I've read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon about 17 times. I had no problem at all with the Playfair cypher either--because Lord Peter Wimsey explains it in Dorothy Sayers's Have His Carcase.

Being widely read is helpful, but what is more helpful is the ability to analyse ideas and write about them. This is one thing that a literature degree teaches you to do well. I can no longer write a 40 page paper (or even a 4 page paper) in French, but I can analyse text--whether it's a short story or a business case--and I can explain my analyses in written form. This is useful in graduate school--even if you're getting a degree in IT.

*Yes, always guys. To be fair I've not met that many female engineers.
**Basic math--all about probability and work factor. No prime numbers were factored or harmed in this course.


Daniel Martin said...

Just curious - what do they think you should have majored in? Do they imagine that if you'd majored in, say, political science, you'd own your own small dictatorship somewhere by now?

Daniel Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cantabridgienne said...

No, I don't think so. Which is too bad because I think I'd make an awesome benevolent dictator!

It's really that I work with people who don't get liberal arts at all.