Don’t be afraid of numbers!

An introductory financial management subject can be beneficial for arts students wanting to get an edge on their competition in the job hunt. Executive Master of Arts student Stephen Pfeiffer makes a case for numbers in the humanities.
Don’t be afraid of numbers!

Image: Stephen with other EMA students. Supplied.

Picture this: you’re applying for a job as a project manager, group leader or event coordinator at an exciting arts organisation. You’re towards the end of the interview and so far, you have wowed your interviewers. They are highly impressed with your innovative ideas, your communication skills and your portfolio of writing samples from your course. But then disaster strikes. They put a cash flow statement, profit and loss statement, and a balance statement in front of you, asking you to explain what they show and how you would plan an event or project based on the numbers. You fidget. You fumble. Your confidence disappears. You try to make something up, but you really have no idea what you’re looking at. And it shows. You leave the interviewers with uncertain and concerned looks on their faces and a deflated look on yours.


Now picture this: a commerce graduate applies for the same role. With little trouble, they explain clearly what the numbers show and how they would use the numbers to oversee a team project or plan an event. Although their ideas are a little predictable and certainly not as imaginative and visionary as yours as an arts graduate, the interviewers feel reassured that they could trust them to balance the books and not put the company at financial risk. The commerce grad gets the job.

Attention, arts students! With the understanding and capacity for creativity, deep critical thinking, research, ethical analysis and communications that graduates of the humanities can bring to organisations, we must not let commerce and business students snap up these jobs because we lack a basic skill! Don’t be afraid of numbers!

After spending nine years as a high school English and history teacher, I decided to move to Melbourne to undertake graduate study in the Executive Master of Arts (EMA) at the University of Melbourne. This is a management course, grounded in the humanities that teaches critical and creative thinking skills, authentic and ethical leadership, cultural development and transformation in organisations, project management and professional communication skills. Prior to becoming a graduate arts student, the very last subject I imagined I would be enrolled in was Budgets and Financial Management. 

As a history teacher, I had accumulated absolutely no experience drafting budgets or analysing financial statements. I was seriously lacking in basic accounting, banking and finance skills. Needless to say that when I found out that I had to study a subject called Budgets and Financial Management, I noticed a few beads of sweat appear above my brow. I said to myself, ‘I’m definitely not a numbers person’ ‘Give me Shakespeare, Marx, the Brontë or Kafka above algebra, calculus and other maths things any day!’ If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have been brave enough or wise enough to choose such a subject.

However, having completed this subject, I can now say that I actually found budgeting and analysing financial statements interesting. Aided by the passion, enthusiasm, close support and biting humour of our two teachers, Noel Boys and Richard Comerford, Budgets and Financial Management was actually become a highlight of my course. It was like learning a language and then using this language to read stories about organisations, which I think is extraordinarily powerful. Terms such as ‘leveraging’, ‘cash flow’, ‘equity’, ‘accounts payable’, ‘retained earnings’, even the difference between a ‘creditor’ and ‘debtor’ were made clear and usable. With admittedly still a large degree of uncertainty I am now (somewhat) able to interpret annual reports and see if an organisation has a suitable revenue mix, or if it needs to seek new sources of income. I can identify if an entity has a reliable and appropriate degree of cash flow. I can create a budget for an event, understanding how fixed and variable drivers of expenses and income work, avoiding the risk of recording a loss. It was hard, like learning anything for the first time is hard, but the crazy thing was, it wasn’t that hard. The best part was that it’s all relevant to non-profits, private businesses (great or small), publicly funded organisations or even government departments.

For many people, this is accounting basics (it is the actual basics) – very simple and straightforward, but for me it was an education that up until this stage of my career and studies I had missed (avoided, or even fled screaming from).  And in between studying EH Carr, Tolstoy, Germaine Greer, human rights theory and practice, it’s nice to engage that opposite (totally underused and almost limp) side of the brain in some black-and-white problem solving. And most importantly, you don’t need to be “good at maths”.

Arts students, if you’re looking for an elective to update your skill set, find an introductory subject in budgeting and financial management to enrol in. No matter what path your studies and career takes you, I promise it will be useful. At the very least, you’ll be a safer bet for prospective employers at the next job you apply for, be better equipped to plan your own personal financial goals and balance your own household budgets. Get savvy about budgeting and financing and pip the commerce students at the post!

Stephen Pfeiffer

Tuesday 17 October, 2017

About the author

Freelance writer in Melbourne.