6 Degrees Everyone Thought Were Useless (But Are Actually Pretty Handy)

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Computer science, mechanical engineering, medicine: if you hold one of those degrees, you’re probably not too worried about your long term job prospects—especially if you have a security clearance. The same cannot be said for every college major, however. (“Oh, you have a creative writing degree? How nice. Anyway I’ll take a tall skinny no-foam latte.”) Oddly, the clearance world might be the final bastion of the much-maligned humanities degree, making it a place where degrees in history and mathematics can stand side-by-side, both possessing enormous advantage to their holders and to national security. So when you’re staring at the framed diploma on your wall and raging at the heavens like King Lear, shouting, “Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain! Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my degree in hospitality and tourism!”—take heart. Because of new threats over the last 15 years, you can still get a job saving the world. Here are six degrees everyone thought were useless, but are actually pretty handy.

French Literature

Your parents probably had their hearts set on “brain surgeon” or “nuclear physicist,” so when you announced your intention to major in French literature, they might have held their smiles but they cried a little inside. What they didn’t anticipate was the establishment of U.S. Africa Command, and the pressing need for fluent speakers of the French language. Starting in the 17th century, France colonized vast stretches of Africa, and today the French language is spoken by 120 million Africans. Accordingly, that is very often the language that U.S. advisors must use when training partner nations. Ramasser une arme et suivez-moi !


“But what can you do with a math degree?” asks everyone who has ever met a math major. In the cleared community, at least, the answer is: a lot. In the age of “big data,” contractors and intelligence agencies need specialists in data mining, data analytics, data methodologies, and data science, among other things. And when you’re talking about data, you’re talking about mathematics. Likewise, because of the FBI‘s lawsuit against Apple over access to an encrypted iPhone, cryptography has been a hot topic in the news of late. And what is the very foundation of encryption? Mathematics! Know your numbers and you can write your own check.


A graduate-level degree in biology promises a great job; a mere undergrad in biology does not. A biology undergraduate degree plus a security clearance, however, is an employment bonanza. The field of CBRNE—Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives—has biology right there in the name, and they’re looking for people with biology bachelors who can help develop procedures and technologies for use here and abroad.


In retrospect what did you expect to do with a photography degree? There’s journalism, though even that’s a job on the brink. There are the little studios at Target and Sears, but—well if you hold a degree in photography you already know why you don’t need a degree to snap family portraits at Walmart. So let’s think bigger. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency contractors need photographers with Top Secret clearances, print technicians with TS/SCI, and Top Secret videographers. What will you be capturing on film? They’re not saying, and when you get the job, you won’t be able to say, either.


Displaying your geography degree is likely to elicit a response similar to Michael’s on Arrested Development: “Sure. Hasn’t everything already sort of been discovered, though by, like, Magellan and Cortés? NASA, you know?” (Yes, he was talking about cartography, but it was still a funny line.) In the military and intelligence community, geography is serious business. Geography is a cornerstone of good intelligence. It helps explain why people are where they are, and why they face the problems they face. It describes language and culture and conquest and survival. Geography is essential to battlefield planning and defense. Geography is everything, and the intelligence community and related contractors are hiring people who can make sense of it.


One day after graduation, you probably ripped through the Help Wanted ads desperate to see lines like “proficient in Shakespearean soliloquy explication” or “able to unpack ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ in Moby-Dick.'” Instead, you were shocked to learn that truck drivers earn six-figures while seeing the country, and that if you can operate a fork lift, society actually needs you and will pay handsomely for your services. So what are you going to do now? Thank goodness you read ClearanceJobs, because I’m about to make you a lot of money. The federal government has an annual printing expenditure of $1.8 billion. That’s a lot of words, and someone has to write them. The number of technical writers needed by the government could probably fill a supertanker. Everything needs to be explained in clear language and follow certain style guidelines. Research editors, meanwhile, keep the policy machine running. Proposals (and requests for proposals!) must be written. Public awareness reports and brochures don’t just appear through a membrane—English grads write them! Strategic communications likewise need to be penned. The first line in this ad lays the gauntlet on the table: “Are you a creative and adept Wordsmith?” Well, are you? Apply!

David Brown is a regular contributor to Clearance Jobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.