Transferable Skills: A Matter of ‘Degree’?

How studying for a humanities degree can help develop your transferable skills ready for the world of work



There is often a misconception that studying a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to degree level means students are more employable by comparison to those who study a humanities degree. This notion is generally derived from the fact that the content of STEM subjects is often viewed as ‘more challenging’. They are also thought, by some, to contribute more to the economy in terms of trade due to a large amount of money being made on technological exports such as cars, technology, electronics and machinery.[1]

However, humanities subjects tend to cultivate a highly desirable transferable skillset in their students which enhances their employability skills. Dragon’s Den star and entrepreneur James Caan has claimed ‘soft skills are as important as an education’.[2] Employers are not only taking knowledge into consideration when searching for candidates; they are also looking for core skills such as communication, time management, and problem-solving skills.[3] Statistics by the Office for National Statistics show that your degree does not necessarily define which sector of employment you work. It found that students pursuing humanities degrees go into many different kinds of jobs from scientific and technical activities to education.[4]

The purpose of this article is to highlight the crucial transferable skills that a humanities degree tends to cultivate and also illustrate how these are attractive to employers.

Emma Chadwick - Legal Research Analyst internship & Brand Ambassador

Emma Chadwick

I completed a three month Legal Research Analyst internship at E3 Consulting during the summer 2015. During my internship I completed a variety of tasks.

I heard about the opportunity at E3 Consulting via the Excel Internship Programme.

I was attracted to the role because of E3’s approach and environment, where I felt I could be myself develop my skills and that my work would be valued.

I have carried out sales research, on the automotive and serviced office sectors, as well as some client project work. I have found most tasks and activities really interesting and challenging. I was subsequently a Brand Ambassador for E3 Consulting during the final year of my English and History degree at the University of Southampton 2015/16.

This involved supporting E3 with their engagement at the university including by sharing my experience during my internship as part of E3 Consulting’s commercial awareness presentation given to Southampton University 2nd year law students. I have also attended several charity quizzes and various networking events with E3 Consulting.

I have developed in particular my listening and research skills which will help with my MA in History. In addition I have contributed to various articles and business content.

Defining ‘Humanities’

Philosophy The difference between science and humanities is that science is based on empiricism: the ability to apply a hypothesis and prove or disprove it using empirical evidence. Humanities subjects, by nature, are more subjective; Giambattista Vico (an 18thcentury Italian philosopher 

thought to be the main figure behind defining ‘humanities’) argued that it is ‘the attempt to explain human behaviour in non-human terms’.[5] Much of the humanities is studying mediums of expression such as literature, primary sources (diaries, legislation etc.) and music to better understand the human condition and the world around us.

To exemplify, within the subject of English Literature, students will spend time analysing books or poems with the purpose of trying to understand what message/s the author is attempting to communicate. Students are encouraged to question why the author has chosen to convey a particular message and how this can inform them about the world around them. Tasks such as these help students develop transferable skills which are crucial to the work place. The most significant of these will be discussed throughout this article.

Conducting research

One of the key skills that humanities students develop is the ability to conduct thorough research. This is not just about gathering lots of data, it is the ability to analyse the large volume of data and pull out the most significant points. Library

Often, students do not find they have a lack of information, their issue tends to be that they have too much; employers are looking for graduates who are able to use their time effectively and find the most valuable sources of information. Research is pivotal to any company whether it is the ability to research the legal consequences of an action or conducting market research to understand your customers better.

For example, as part of the Legal Research Analyst internship I undertook at E3 Consulting; one of my key research tasks was to look for a new serviced office for the company. To present my data, I created a spreadsheet of the relevant data such as cost, location and the services provided by each company I investigated. This helped me understand the market better and make informed choices about which companies we should consider. As Steve Seaward at the New York Education Department points out ‘analysis is second nature for people who studied the humanities’ because they ‘routinely imbibe vast amounts of information, make sense of it, and then critique what they’ve learned’.[6]

Humanities subjects therefore teach their students the process of researching; this involves skills such as the ability to skim data and knowing how to source and detect reliable sources. It then teaches them how to put raw data into a coherent format. With humanities subjects being heavily essay based, students are required to find data that backs up their arguments from credible sources.

Organisation and Time Management

telephone For a company to be successful and to grow, employees have to be organised and manage their time effectively. This means prioritising tasks by their importance and urgency and organising your time in a way that reflects this.

Typically, humanities subjects are low in contact time; students will typically only have around seven hours a week in lectures or seminars, meaning that they need to spend a lot of time outside of class conducting independent study. In effect, they are to a large extent having to be self-propelling and very disciplined.

An article by The Independent stated: ‘the degree asks as much of students as they will give’.[7] Due to this low contact time, it is often thought that humanities are less work by comparison to STEM subjects. However, the degree requires students to be proactive and organise their own tasks. A lecturer will often provide the students with the topics of discussion for a particular week. It is then the task of the student to research the subject and come to the seminars and lectures ready to discuss and ask questions to clarify their understanding. The onus is on the student to take charge and drive their own learning.

One of the key skills I have developed from my humanities degree is that you have to be honest with yourself about how much work you have actually completed. It is easy to fall into a trap of thinking that a couple of hours a day and going to all your lectures is sufficient. Humanities students learn to create their own schedules and measure their outcomes. Therefore, when students are provided with feedback, it is a real reflection of the effort they have put in. As humanities have no right or wrong answer, essays are marked on your ability to communicate your ideas effectively. What is so significant about studying a humanities degree is the process of constantly reviewing your progress and understanding how you can improve. How can I use my time affectively to accomplish everything I need to? How do I organise myself so that the key tasks are done today?

In the workplace, tasks will often be delegated and you will be expected to get on with them. Rarely will someone be constantly watching over you to ensure they are completed; however, employers will expect you to report back with your progress and to have tasks completed on time and to the required standard. Applying yourself in this manner is much easier when you have studied a humanities degree; students already have a good grasp of how they can manage their work load and usually do not need constant supervision. Overall, this contributes to a large extent with productivity.


Communication Communication is a base line necessity for any job whether you are dealing with customers in a sales role or within the organisation itself with your fellow colleagues. Communication comes in many forms varying from verbal communication, emails, letters, social media, texts and non-verbal communication including body language.

In addition to humanities students’ ability understand how to conduct detailed research, this is complimented by their ability to articulate their ideas in a coherent and well-presented way. Humanities students are taught to express their ideas through seminars, essay writing and are often required both individually and in a group to present their findings in a structured and clear format.

In terms of sales and meeting customer needs, employers need graduates who are able to communicate their company’s ethos clearly and to be able to answer questions in a professional manner. What is really important is having the ability to understand what the most appropriate form of communication is for the task at hand: is it better for you to send an email or for you to make a telephone call?

In terms of written communication, students are taught to write in a way that is easy to read and communicates their ideas well. Essays are the core way that students are assessed so they need to be able to present their arguments in a practical and well-formed manner.

Creativity and Imagination: A Curious Mind

Finally, humanities students often have a natural curiosity about the world and people within it; essay questions are often left up to the students own interpretation allowing them to pursue their own ideas and decide their own avenues of research.  Ideas

This tends to encourage and provides the flexibility for students to use their creativity skills, if they so choose.

Creativity is important within any type of business (including not for profit). In a sales capacity, companies need to be clear how best to market their products or services to prospective customers. Graduates with humanities degrees often have an open mind and a creative way of thinking which can be utilised to find new and develop existing strategies for solving problems. Creative thinking is a key skill in humanities and in most jobs.

Commercial Awareness and an Interest with the World

Employers seek out students who are interested in the world around them and who are aware of what it currently happening, both domestically and globally. For example, with regards to studying history, one needs to keep updated on the news to make informed judgments about how the past has affected the present. How have political decisions from the past informed the decisions politicians make today?

"Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it." - Winston Churchill

Commercial Awareness in its simplest definition is “understanding what is happening in the world from a business perspective and questioning if activities add value to the business”[8].

However in practice commercial awareness should ultimately be “an attitude of mind, but one you can develop. It’s about being interested in the world around you and how it works, and maintaining that air of wonder.”[9]

Commercial awareness is a necessity in any organisation; in order for a company to be efficient and productive.  A company, and equally its people, need to understand its commercial environment and how current trends and events in their given sector can have a positive or negative affect on the company.

For example, at E3 Consulting having commercially aware employees is important as externally it is paramount to understanding that the advice we give to clients has to benefit them in their business, does it help them sale more? Does it reduce their costs, or able them to charge more? Does it help them achieve their business objectives in some other way?

Internally commercial awareness is key as we are in business to make a profit, meaning we have to charge our clients a fee for our advice that exceeds what it costs us to prepare that advice. 

 These two points need to exist in tandem and overlap in order to be successful. If employees are commercially aware their whole approach will tend to be clear and focused on quality outcomes for all projects and tasks. To work consistently to a high standard requires proactive, frequent communication and clarification. In businesses like E3 Consulting, this means the team works actively together to support each other.

E3 Consulting Approach

As a business E3 Consulting has a thorough, holistic approach to its recruitment. Our main drivers for recruiting someone are based on their inherent skills, natural curiosity and broad interest in buildings and property. This is clearly reflected in the fact that both of E3 Consulting’s property tax surveyors studied undergraduate degrees in humanities subjects, both initially starting at E3 on internships. Ian Barwick studied Classics at the University of Warwick and Rupert Guppy studied French and Politics at the University of Southampton.

“It was very clear prior to starting that I would have the opportunity to gain a level of responsibility early on in my role. As soon as I came into the business, I had the opportunity to have ownership of a project – from beginning to end. This has allowed me to manage my own work, as well as gaining confidence, whilst achieving an important key goal for the business.” – Ian Barwick

Ian Barwick - Property Tax Surveyor



Rupert Guppy - Senior Property Tax Surveyor


“I consider myself a natural curious person and really like the “at the coalface” element of working in an Small & Medium Enterprise like E3.  I have much more responsibility and accountability and feel really connected to the business – you can see at first hand the impact your work has on the progress and performance of the firm as a whole, your contribution really matters.” – Rupert Guppy


Both Rupert and Ian have subsequently gone on to study Quantity Surveying Masters Degrees and complete the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) Taxation Pathway.


Overall studding a humanities degree equally cultivates a specific knowledge set and various soft skills that contribute towards graduates being suitable prepared goe the workplace. Transferable skills are those that are needed in any place of employment including those such as the ability to work under pressure and critical thinking. These are important for any type of career.

There is often a suggestion that studying STEM subjects at degree level helps to develop a person to be more employable by comparison to those who pursue a humanities degree. However, employability is about how you utilise the skills from your degree rather than its specific content. Employers need to see graduates marketing themselves in a way that reflects the attitude of their company; how do the skills that they have fit into your company? The relationship between employer and employee must be mutually symbiotic; what can you offer the company and what can they offer you?

The need for people in a business is that they should ‘be able to do things that machines can’t do in a service economy’.[10]  In order to be more employable, candidates should ensure they tailor their application to the company they are applying for. Knowledge from your degree is important however, it is often transferable skills that most employers will have as a top priority when recruiting.  


[1] Shane Schutte, ‘Top 10 UK Exports’ in ‘’, , [accessed 20 May 2016].

[2] Mary Isokariari, ‘James Caan: ‘Soft skills are as important as education’ in Training Journal, <>, [accessed 23 March 2016].

[3] ‘What are the ‘soft skills’ employers want?’ in ‘’, [accessed 23 March 2016].

[4] ‘Does your degree define your career?’ in ‘’, [accessed 23 March 2016].

[5] Anna Wierzbicka, ‘Defining the ‘humanities’’ in Culture & Psychology 17.1 (2011), p.35.

[6] Steve Seaward, ‘Five Reasons Your Humanities Degree Was Great Idea’, in ‘’, [accessed 23 March 2016].

[7] ‘Doing Arts is not a ‘waste’ of your points’, The Independent, 17 August 2015, [accessed 23 March 2016].


[9] Commercial Awareness 2015/16 – Christopher Stoakes

[10] Max Nisen, ‘11 Reasons To Ignore The Haters and Major In THE Humanities’, in ‘’, [accessed 23 March 2016].


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