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Does Your College Major Matter?

October 24th, 2007 · 20 comments

The Importance of Your College MajorWhat Employers Want (from collegegrad.com)

Late last week, Ryan Healy, over at the Employee Evolution blog, put up a post titled: Choosing a college major. His message was simple:

I believe the smartest thing a confused undergrad can do is to choose a major with a good job market.

The response was quick and heated. Within days, 15 comments popped up. Many of the reactions, including one written by me, strongly disagreed with Ryan. “Employers don’t care what you major in,” we said. “Choose something that interests you and do well.”

But were we right?

The Experts Weigh In

I decided to do some research. The first study to catch my attention had been conducted by the job search web site CollegeGrad.com. They had recently conduced a survey of “top entry level employers” to determine what they were looking for in a new hire. The results:

#1 – The student’s major (42%)
#2 – The student’s interviewing skills (25%)
#3 – The student’s internships/experience (16%)
#4 – Other miscellaneous qualifications (10%)
#5 – The student’s computer skills (3%)
#6 – The student’s personal appearance (2%)
#7 – The student’s GPA (1%)
#8 – The college the student graduated from (1%)

In other words, this particular survey supports Ryan. Your major, it seems, is important. Choose the right major for the job market or you won’t get a good job.

But Wait…

Before closing the book on the topic, let’s be good scientists, and take a closer look. The press release for the study includes quotes from 22 of the participating companies. A review of these quotes reveals the following:

  • Four companies said major matters because their employees need a specific technical skill. For example, Intel really does need people who majored in computer engineering.
  • Three companies said that major matters in the more general sense. For example, a business degree might look more attractive than a liberal arts degree.
  • Five companies didn’t explicitly describe what they are looking for in their hires.
  • Ten companies either explicitly said that major doesn’t matter or listed traits other than major as the most important in their hiring criteria.

This paints a completely different picture.

Only 3 out of 22 companies in the sample quotes described one’s major as being important outside of the case where specific technical skills are needed for the job.

This suggests a different interpretation. Perhaps, most of the 42% who choose an applicant’s major as being the most important were companies that were hiring for a specific technical skill. If this is the case, then we haven’t learned anything new. Aspiring rocket scientists know they need to major in engineering.

But what about the rest of us…

A Better Study

The CollegeGrad.com survey makes me nervous. For one thing, the sample data doesn’t square easily with the summary results. For another, the survey is not scientific. It was a voluntary web-based poll. And, in general, I tend to treat with skepticism any study that is presented alongside banner ads of dancing aliens hawking low mortgage rates.

As I usually do in this situation, I turn to my favorite academic journals. In this case, I soon found my way to the always illuminating: Economics of Education Review.

The article that caught my attention: Education and job match: The relatedness of college major and work.

This study was conducted by John Robst of the University of South Florida, and was published in August of 2006. Robst analyzes data from the 1993 National Survey of College Graduates dataset. He was interested, roughly speaking, in how many students enter careers that are related to their college major and how this affects their wages.

The Findings

The study includes several interesting findings:

  • Around 55% of graduates land a job that matches their major. Another 25% have jobs that partially match their major. The remaining 20% have jobs that don’t match at all.
  • The majors that are most likely to lead to unrelated jobs include: “English and foreign languages, social sciences, and liberal arts.” Majors such as computer science, engineering, library science and business management tend to lead to related jobs.
  • Graduates with jobs unrelated to their major tend to earn less money than graduates with related jobs. If their job partially matches, however, the difference in wages from having a matching job is small.
  • This “mismatch penalty” comes almost entirely from graduates with technical majors taking on unrelated jobs. If you major in “business management, engineering, the health professions, computer science or law,” you can face a more than 20% drop in wages by taking a job unrelated to your major.
  • For liberal arts majors whether or not your job matches your major does not effect your wages. The results here were statistically insignificant.

Conclusions

The Robst study illuminates the some interesting mechanics lurking behind this issue. My read of this data is as follows.

  • Jobs that require a specific technical skill — such as engineering or computer science competency — pay more money. This is not surprising. Therefore, if you want to maximize the amount of money you make out of college your best bet is to major in a technical major.
  • Outside of these technical majors what you study doesn’t matter when it comes to later wages. The Robst analysis demonstrates that for liberal arts majors your salary is basically unaffected by whether or not your job matches your field of study. For social science and education majors there is some effect, but it’s minor.
  • More analysis is needed to tease out the importance of business majors. The study shows that business majors that take business jobs make more money than if they take jobs unrelated to this field. That is not surprising. Business management jobs tend to pay more than other non-management jobs. The question, however, is whether these same business jobs are open to non-business majors. The data could be read two ways. One is that these jobs are not available to non-business majors. This is why we do not see liberal arts majors having an increase in wages by working in unrelated fields (which includes business). The other interpretation is that liberal arts majors, in general, are not interested in business jobs. So the increased salary effect doesn’t show up due to lack of interest, not lack of access.

My conclusion for undergraduates looking ahead to the job search:

  • Major in what you like. If you don’t like science or engineering, but major it in for the money, you are likely to end up, down the line, in an unrelated job you like more. And once you leave your field of study your salary benefits disappear. You would have been better off studying something you liked in the first place. Similarly, if you are not interested in a technical job, then choose the liberal arts or social science major that interests you most. The data shows that it won’t matter whether or not your job matches your major.
  • In some sense: all non-technical majors are created equal. And if you like what you do, you are more likely to get better grades and become involved in the type of projects recruiters like.

What is your experience regarding the importance of the college major in the job searching process?

20 thoughts on “Does Your College Major Matter?

  1. Great piece of research. Thanks for giving your thoughts.

    In the UK, I believe the issue to be similar. Also, there are some degree subjects that appear to help a particular career path, but may prove no more useful in securing a job in that area. This is quite rare, but it’s always worth investigating how effective a subject will be for future prospects and how companies view those subjects. If a student is more interested in a different course and it wouldn’t make a difference to employment in later years, I would usually suggest working toward the more interesting subject.

    My own experience was that I studied a subject of interest to me, rather than a vocational one. My employment since graduating has not been specifically related to the subject I studied and has not caused a problem in any way.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Thanks Martin. I really agree. If you’re interested in a specific job, and that job has specific technical requirements, then the major/career connection becomes relevant. Otherwise, challenge yourself!

  3. pace says:

    You pointed out problems with the first poll and another one is that while 42% say major matters most, they are not saying that it has to be one specific major. Maybe the applicant’s major is important, but there is a wide range of majors that are desirable. For those jobs in which a broad collection of majors are qualified, the importance is more focused on education in general as opposed to a specific field of study.

  4. Julian says:

    I think it really depends on the kind of major you choose. Humanities e.g. have a really wide field to choose from, but it’s also really uncertain what you can do with it. So you have to make lots of interns to stamp out your path and to gain experience.
    Computer Science tend to be much narrower, but opens doors to jobs you can’t access without such a degree (as you hardly derived enough skills on you own in this field).
    For becoming a teacher, at least in Germany, there is only one way: getting a MA of Education. There is no way of becoming a teacher without that degree (only very, very rarely and I don’t know the circumstances for that).

    There are lots of jobs that rather ask for mutible (interdisciplinary) skills and there are jobs demand certain education…
    My conclusion: It depends :D

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Pace:

    You might be right. For example, I’ve heard from recruiters that there are certain majors they frown upon because they are too “new” and seem to lack rigor; e.g., communications, marketing. For these recruiters, something like English might actually be a plus, because it is a solid, well-known, hard major.

    Julian:

    This is definitely true — and one of the conclusions of the study. Certain fields (technical and education were the examples given) really care about major. Others really don’t. I’m not a big believer in the idea of the “right path” for an individual (e.g., there is one right thing that will make you happy, everything else won’t), so as long as you generally like what you are doing and are challenging yourself, you’re doing fine. Or something like that…

  6. Sometimes you’re not so good at what you like. For example, I’ve always like biology. But biology involves a lot of memorization, something I’m not so hot at. So, when I look back at my transcripts, I’ve done a lot better in my chemistry courses, a subject where understanding the material is more important than memorization.

  7. Gwen says:

    I think its important to look back on Healy’s original suggestion. If you don’t know what you want to do/study, find something that’s marketable. It makes sense, and gives a fall back to those who have no clear cut love of one subject. For example, while I was working toward my AA I was an undecided, but took the courses required for an engineer. Not because I loved it, but because I knew I could do the work and always have a job. I’ve ended up in chemistry, but know I have extra math to fall back on should I need it.

  8. Atafies says:

    I love how you attacked business majors so subtly there. Great article though.

  9. Nicole says:

    So I’m not wasting my life with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts? Awesome.

  10. Adam isom says:

    A liberal arts major – and that will include me – doesn’t face lower wages if they take an unrelated job. True.

    But that’s only because their wages in *related* jobs is so low!

    That’s why I’m going to do what I can to make myself marketable. For example, I’m going to try my hardest to join the University Venture Fund (student-run VC) or failing that, at least get a marketing internship after some marketing courses and being the PR guy for a club. The point is: I think this *particular* advice of yours may not be accurate if you look at liberal arts majors who don’t learn marketable skills, whether or not they work in their field.

  11. Jacob says:

    Why don’t you think Business could be a field where you become an expert* and yield all the befefits of that position, whilst Computer science is?
    *

  12. LiberalFarts says:

    This is an irrelevant post to make the liberal arts majors feel good about the terrible choices they have made. The article by John Robst was completely misinterpreted to support what the author was trying to prove. Minor in English or History and get a degree that is relevant, this will make you more money.

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