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What Degree Should You Study to Become a Billionaire?

On The Daily Princetonian, W. Barksdale Maynard, author and professor of Art and Archaeology, discusses how a degree in the arts and humanities can lead to financial success…

Read Maynard’s column here:

Maybe your parents warned you that an art history degree means a job pumping gas at your local Shell station. Or perhaps you listened to President Barack Obama’s 2014 speech in which he proclaimed, “Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

If you think these warnings ring true, you’d better think again: the humanities in general, and art history in particular, can be a powerful ticket to career success. Art history plunges you deep into critical thinking about the world’s cultures, about the nature of creativity and genius, about the ineffable sources of greatness in human endeavor — and if it’s a good fit for you personally, the long-term results can be extraordinary.

“I’m convinced that being an art history major helped me stand out as an applicant to Stanford Business School,” Kelly Sortino ’03 tells me. “Since then, I have worked at Boston Consulting Group and Google — and no one batted an eyelash that I didn’t pursue a more ‘practical’ major.”

She adds, “Being an art history major allowed me to differentiate myself from the sea of economics and computer science majors out there!”

Sortino is right: when one in five American undergraduates is majoring in business, your “safe” major could land you in a vast, turgid sea of lookalike business school resumes — a sea that grows by nearly 400,000 every June.

I’ve been asking my fellow Princeton alumni if an art history major helped their career or hurt it. All say that it helped — and in ways they never could have predicted when they were 20.

“My art history education was the first step in training my eye to recognize the recurring signatures of price movement in the financial markets,” Jamie Crapanzano ’00, portfolio manager at Guggenheim Partners, told me. Who would have guessed?

“Majoring in art history brilliantly expanded my ability to solve problems in medicine,” says noted psychiatrist Jeremy Spiegel ’92, who fondly recalls “the nurturing and consciousness-expanding playpen” of the Department of Art and Archaeology.

As a vice president of NBA Entertainment, Stephen Hellmuth ’75 has made design innovations to arena display screens that enhance the drama of basketball for all of us. In this and other endeavors involving complex visual systems, his “degree from art and archeology was essential,” he says.

Once more, art history proves itself astonishingly useful in unpredictable ways.

“Majoring in art history allowed me to relate to and understand the psychology of the creative mind,” says Sara Dennis ’87, who has been senior vice president at top fashion companies, including Lands’ End. Dennis has drawn from art history again and again, because “the beauty of the major is that the student can explore a plethora of topics, from science to politics.”

The Tigers I spoke to agree that art history expands your mind and can launch you into the career world with an explosive burst. And these graduates end up everywhere.

“I had the pleasure of studying a subject matter I really loved, and gaining cultural literacy,” says Kristin Hodgson ’03, communications director of Meetup, the world’s largest network of local groups (social networking based on geographic locale).

Like others, Hodgson warns against choosing a “safe” major.

But what about the pressure you are getting from your parents? You are not alone: a 2012 survey showed that 42 percent of parents push their children towards majors that will supposedly pay off (the Princeton Class of 2014 gravitated especially to economics and politics).

“My father spent his entire career at Citibank and was concerned that I would not be able to find a decent job if I majored in art history,” Jason Harris ’00 remembers. “But I landed my first job after graduation at Morgan Stanley.”

Harris, who now heads a huge Presbyterian church on Park Avenue, recalls that first Morgan Stanley interview: “I spent most of it talking about Picasso with a man who was an art aficionado.”

That conversation might not have happened had Harris chosen a “safe” major. Beware: majors geared towards business and seemingly safe sectors in fact tend to produce underemployed graduates, Fortune has shown. Often, graduates of safe majors report lower rates of job satisfaction. “You have all your working life to concentrate on things that are boring and make you miserable — don’t start early!” warns Alexandra de Campi ’92.

“I majored in art history because it combined the best of all other liberal arts majors: history, politics, economics, sociology,” de Campi told me. “I then went on to be an equity research analyst in Hong Kong.” Today she is a famous music video director and writer.

Don’t blow your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fall in love with a major. Remember: the humanities just might supercharge your career. They certainly won’t hurt it: even those ultra-rigorous medical schools show no preference in admissions for Princeton science majors over Princeton majors in humanities and social sciences.

And if your parents still don’t believe you, tell them that The Telegraph reported a few days ago in “What Degree Should You Study to Become a Billionaire?” that 9 percent of the 100 richest people on the Forbes list studied arts in college — more than those who majored in economics (8 percent) and finance (3 percent).