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An arts degree: The sharpest tool in your belt 

Dropping science (can be a smart move)

click to enlarge University, for Adam Cameron, is more of an art than a science. - MEGHAN TANSEY WHITTON
  • University, for Adam Cameron, is more of an art than a science.

When it comes to applying to medical school, an applied sciences or biochemistry degree might seem natural as an undergrad choice. However, that’s not the case for everyone. What a student might need is a sharp mind—articulate and creative, but critical of the facts.

For Adam Cameron, the edge he needs to get into medical school will come from an English degree. Cameron started university aiming for kinesiology, so the natural path seemed like sciences. He soon realized that he was on the wrong track.

“English was something I was good at, something I really liked,” Cameron says.

So, against the judgment of his wife and others, he made the switch to the arts and pushed forward with a new goal of applying to law school. By year three of his English degree, he altered plans again and applied to medical school with dreams of being a doctor.

“That goal was constantly changing, but I always had something I was aiming for,” Cameron says. “I think it’s important for students to have a goal. Not having one would seem like a waste.”

Jason Haslam is an English professor at Dalhousie University, as well as the president of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English. He says that an end goal is an unfortunate and harsh reality for students, but it’s certainly no reason to avoid the arts.

“We’re asked these questions a lot: why study the arts? Why do the humanities matter?” says Haslam. “They come from one overarching concern, and that is, ‘What do you do with this degree? What is the job at the end?’”

Arts degrees are often valued less than other applied studies where students graduate with the title of “dentist,” “nurse” or “engineer,” but Haslam says there are no shortage of jobs that arts degrees can equip you for.

“What you do become is any range of professional positions that require a nimble mind,” Haslam says, adding that it’s financial concerns that usually discourage students from pursuing the arts.

“We are in a place where the price of tuition moves the system in a particular way, toward the necessity of immediately having remuneration that can pay off your outrageous debts.”

Haslam says that often graduates of arts programs end up making equal salaries to graduates of more applied degrees. Though it sometimes takes them longer to get there, the success is real.

  • Aziza Asat

Don’t panic!
You can still change your mind

Feeling like you might be on the wrong track, too? Don’t panic. It’s a pretty breezy process to switch degrees, says Mairead Barry from Dalhousie’s registrar’s office.

“It’s very common, especially early on,” says Barry.

Career counsellors are standard at all universities to guide students who want to transfer.

“Counsellors make sure they’re confident, then help them determine their strengths and weaknesses, what their career goals might be,” Barry says. The switch can often be made right on the spot.

“In general, up until the third year, it’s pretty flexible with the exception of professional programs.”


As Cameron preps for interviews and applications for medical school with his arts degree in tow, that nimble and critical mind is something he thinks will give him an edge.

“I know medical school requires a lot of studying, and I know how to really study. I can read for a long time and retain it,” he says. “Patient care is also so important, and I feel that I will be able to relate with patients and really talk to them about what’s wrong, and how to help them.”

Haslam believes it’s important for students to find themselves a really good career counsellor, someone who can help them realize their strengths and passions, and show students all the opportunities that an arts degree offers. “Having people who are able to ask the complicated questions and sit down with the complicated answers is an important thing.”


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