Battle of the degrees: why do scientists win?

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By Madeleine Brown

Tim Minchin recently gave a speech for a graduation ceremony at the Universty of Western Australia, in which he raised the issue of the contemporary conflict between arts and science degrees, imploring us to challenge the “recent, stupid and damaging idea” that the “arts and sciences are at odds with one another”.

DSC_0019 copieAs a student of the Combined Honours in Arts and Social Sciences Programme it is naturally a source of pride to me that Durham university’s Arts and Humanities department has climbed 18 places from last year and is now ranked 30th in the world by the Times Higher Rankings. However, this in no way means that I am prejudiced towards the arts and humanities over science degree programmes. I consider them both very worthy and equally important to the development of knowledge.

In my fresher’s week in Durham, it has been novel and inspiring to meet students from the vast spectrum of degrees offered by the university. As the lure of social events and extra-curricular activities have enticed us from our respective academic departments, it has been interesting to note the similarities between students of seemingly disparate disciplines. I’ve hula-hooped with a sociologist, been to the pub with a geologist and on Sunday I danced Swing with a psychologist. We are all human, we all have interests in common, personalities and characteristics that aren’t purely defined by our academic commitments.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly the case that arts and humanities students argue that it is more difficult to gain a First Class degree in these subject areas in comparison to students studying science and maths degrees. Admittedly, simple observation of the distribution of exam results data exposes a contrast in trends between science and arts and humanities subjects. With science subjects there tends to be a polarisation of results, indicating that students can either do science and do it well or else flunk with dismal grades.


In contrast the bell curve of results in more arts related disciplines shows a greater proportion of students gaining enough marks to pass but very few progressing beyond a 2:1 to a first. This corresponds with the generally accepted notion that the knowledge rigorously developed in the field of science is in some way distinct from the imprecise and whimsical wisdom conjured up by the arts and humanities.

And perhaps it is the truth that the hardest working amongst us are the medics and engineers whose degree study will lead to a definite, esteemed and well rewarded career whereas the philosophers are wasting many a potential studying opportunity procrastinating, pontificating and gazing abstractedly out of the window of their local Starbucks cafe (that is if they can overcome their ethical qualms about endorsing a socially irresponsible corporation in the pursuit of satisfying their desire for a cup of excessively priced coffee.)

Personally, I don’t believe such a distinction exists, either between academic disciplines or the individuals who have committed to the study of them. Fundamentally as students, we are all here for one reason: because we want to study, regardless of the specific subject area and at some point or another we are all going to have to pick up a book. There are interdisciplinary elements between all subject areas and the epistemological skills that we are developing through our study at university should allow us to approach, contemplate, digest and regurgitate knowledge from the diversity of academic disciplines without a need to discriminate between them. As Tim Minchin so astutely argues “The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated.”


As students at a world-class institution we are all facing this same challenging experience together and I believe that to make the most of the opportunities we are being provided, to succeed in both an academic and personal, developmental sense we need to work collaboratively, exploring alternative perspectives and sharing similarities whether it is over a pint of beer or a cross-over and triple step. So perhaps more scientists are gaining first class degrees in comparison to arts and humanities students, but if we all hold a passion for our study, fundamentally, I would question whether it is really relevant at all?

Photographs: Emma Werner

Illustration: Leina Kay

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