Real-World Outcomes of Common Majors

By Clare Coffey  |  July 2019

Introduction

The role of higher education in preparing people for work is a much discussed topic. Even though we generally can agree that post-secondary education leads to better labor market outcomes, we don’t quite know how to answer the “which education?” question very well. As a result, the value and actual role of different forms of postsecondary education are still contested.

Increasingly, data is available to help shed more light on these questions - many of which are dominated by opinion, anecdotal evidence, or data that just isn’t robust enough to explore the nuances.

In this new study, we work to show the labor market outcomes of seven different degree areas in the hope that institutions, policy makers, businesses, community-based organizations, and even individuals can use it as a baseline for education-to-career outcomes, as well as further exploration.

The data we present here can also be explored at the institutional, regional, and company levels. We encourage you to this data and to inquire if you want to learn more about it.

For instance, of late, parents, students, high school teachers, policy makers, politicians, and your uncle Joe have adopted a “STEM vs. everything else” framework.

A computer science major, goes the thinking, means a high paying tech job in the city and company of your choice--including highest pay, highest competition cities like New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, and so on. A nursing degree wins you a solid salary and job security almost anywhere. An English degree, on the other hand, dooms you to life in your parents’ basement, struggling to pay off thousands of dollars in loans on a bartender’s tips.

And according to a recent report by the Strada Institute, many students feel that they receive less value from humanities and soft sciences than they do from STEM degrees.

Amidst the anecdotes, we wanted to conduct a reality check. We decided to take stock of the real-world outcomes that college graduates are experiencing.

In Robot Ready, we looked at college relevance through the lens of the liberal arts. In order to gain a more complete picture of the current workforce, we decided to broaden our lens to a sampling of seven different major types.

The Value Equation

Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey

Methodology

Here, we used our extensive database of over 100 million professional profiles to isolate the work outcomes for graduates from the languages and philosophy, the social sciences, business, communications, IT, engineering, and health care.

The essence of analysis is comparison, and our goal is to present career outcomes for very different degree areas side by side so we can gain a real picture of the similarities and differences. To that end, we surveyed the first, second, and third jobs of students from the following areas.

(1) Philosophy / language (the core of the Liberal arts) and Social Sciences - Two degrees that aren’t career-specific or as tied to the world of work (and are therefore the ones that get a vast bulk of the criticism).

(2) Business and Communications - Two degree areas that are still somewhat general, but are more geared toward the labor market and we think of having more solid, secure labor market outcomes.

(3) Engineering, Information Technology, and Healthcare - Three that are highly career-specific.

Our data scientists also pulled skills data from the profiles of graduates of the seven different program types we surveyed in job outcomes. Using factor analysis, they found the most common areas of work for program type, as well as the most important skills therein.

Outcomes + skills: a more complete picture

For these graduates, we set out to measure their first job outcomes (do they start in good jobs?), their change over time (do they move to better jobs over time?), and the key areas of work in which they tend to cluster (do the skills gained in these degrees manifest in the labor market?). We included skills in our analysis because, while the career outcomes for different majors can provide valuable insights, by themselves, they leave important information out of sight. Each career path is a broad umbrella term that collects various specific jobs under its mantle. Moreover, jobs with exactly the same name on paper can in fact involve extremely different day-to-day activities.

For example, marketing tends to pick up a solid share of both business and communications graduates. But does it follow that their paths within marketing converge?

Does a marketing specialist do the same thing at a digital startup and an long-established non-profit?

This data provides another level of granularity and nuance to the age-old question “what will you do with your degree?” Rather than just looking at their career outcome, we can explore what skills they are primarily employing in their work-- perhaps a better way of diagnosing the value of what they learned, and its relationship with where they work. Essentially, we are using skills as a proxy for work and education rather than relying on program and occupation names.

Observations

Across all the degree types we looked at, the most popular career tends to be related to the degree in question. However, the one or two top careers usually do not capture the majority of all graduates. The bulk of graduates’ outcomes are dispersed widely, among many different careers.

First observation


Thus, the notion that college program choice locks you into a narrow career path is simply not supported by the data. The relationship between degree and work is more complex than your degree funneling you into a single occupation (in fact, some research has found that only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major). Our data adds support to what many of us know intuitively: even for STEM majors like engineering, you may end up working in software development or sales rather than engineering per se.

In fact, we found some surprising commonalities across different degree types. Even in programs where other careers take the top spot, sales, marketing, management, and business and financial analysis show up again and again as outcomes--usually in the top ten jobs.

Second observation


These common areas contradict the idea of drastically different (and in some cases, worse) outcomes for different degrees. In fact, humanities graduates and business graduates go into many of the same fields in large numbers--and a significant segment of STEM majors go into these fields as well.

These common areas fall under the umbrella of a) strategic and tactical communication, and b) operational or managerial oversight. Sales can be seen as tactical, interpersonal, and persuasive communication, while marketing is more strategic, descriptive and analytical. Management is the interpersonal side of oversight, while business and financial analysis focuses more on systems and operation. The fact that so many students go into these fields suggests that colleges are not producing experts and non-experts (as the “STEM vs. everything else” framework holds). Rather, they are producing experts in specific STEM processes, and experts in oversight and communication. Businesses need, and are hiring, both.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Language and Philosophy

Outcomes

Language and philosophy graduates go into a broad array of jobs. The top five first jobs are in the fields of education (17%), journalism (10%), sales (10%), marketing (7%), and service-oriented non-profits (6%). The most notable changes across the next two jobs are the drop in journalism’s popularity, and the steady climb of marketing to second most popular job. Legal and regulatory services also climbs from tenth place to sixth--as they gain experience in the workforce, humanities graduate increasingly opt for legal and paralegal careers. Business and financial analysis, human resources, and management all hold a place in the top ten across the first three jobs.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Skills

The top areas of work (aka skill clusters) for language and philosophy graduates center around non-profits (such as social and religious organizations), education, marketing, and journalism.

Non Profits

The top skill by far in non-profits was writing. Besides writing, most of the strong skills involved organizational steering: public administration, strategic planning, budgeting, fund-raising. Language-oriented majors are using their verbal skills to communicate and raise funds on behalf of non-profits, but notably, these organizations are also offering language and philosophy grads the chance to gain leadership experience.

Marketing

The strongest skill for marketing was analytics, followed by social media, search engine optimization, digital marketing, and google analytics. CSS, a programming language, and web development also appeared. As Robot Ready predicted, combinations of verbal and technical skills will only become more common in the future.

Education

In education, the skills are similarly high-level. Instructional design, learning management systems, and adult education comprise the strongest skills. (The last skill somewhat complicates the familiar picture of English major as elementary school teacher.)

Journalism

The journalism skills for language and philosophy graduates do not line up with what we think of as traditional journalism: interviews, public records, writing, etc. Rather, public relations is the strongest skill for this area of work, followed by marketing, communications, press releases, and branding. If we think of journalism as a two way street between businesses that want promotion and news writers that want stories, language and philosophy grads are coming down firmly on the PR side. In fact, for language and philosophy majors, “journalism” may really mean the less analytical and more verbal side of marketing.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Social Sciences

Outcomes

Social science graduates also go into a broad array of jobs--but they tend to move out of them less than language and philosophy graduates. The top five first jobs for social science graduates are sales (12%) non-profits (11%), education (9%), marketing (8%), and business and financial analysis (7%). The first, second, fifth, and sixth place careers all hold their rank across all three jobs. The exception is education, which starts out in third place but falls to fourth as marketing climbs in the second job. There is slightly more mobility the lower in the rankings we get: management (4%) climbs from eighth to seventh place, while counseling (3%) moves from tenth to seventh.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Skills

The top work areas for social science graduates are in non-profits, marketing, sales, and business and financial analysis.

Non Profits

Like language and philosophy graduates, many social science majors go on to work in service oriented non-profits, such as Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, and World Vision (to give just a few high-profile examples). But their role in these organizations looks different from that of their peers. While language and philosophy majors do high-level organizational steering, social sciences majors seem to gravitate towards directly therapeutic work. Mental health, behavioral health, and psychiatry are the top skills, while trauma, substance abuse treatment, family therapy, and crisis intervention appear as well.

Marketing

Marketing looks more or less the same for social sciences as it does for language and philosophy. Analytics takes top place, followed by social media and search engine optimization. The main difference is that, unlike what we saw in language and philosophy, CSS and Javascript do not appear. Given that these are both web development languages, one interesting implication is that social science graduates are doing less web development than language and philosophy majors. Another way to put it: in marketing, language and philosophy have a slight advantage in ideating and building, while social science graduates tend to analyze and describe.

Sales

Many social science grads end up in sales jobs, and many of the skills they employ post-graduation allow them to excel in the financial products and services sector. The top skills are insurance sales, life insurance sales and insurance policies. Thus, it appears that the social science graduates who go into sales are largely selling insurance, and especially life insurance. Other skills in the cluster include familiarity with annuities, medicare (likely for health insurance sales), and mortgage loans. This emphasis on financial products indicates that social science graduates tend to go into the professional, higher-level side of the sales spectrum

Business and financial analysis

The top skills in the business and financial analysis are forecasting, financial statements, and budgeting. The remainder of the skills--accounting, auditing, financial analysis, general ledger--paint a picture of accounting as the standard entry point for social science majors interested in business. But with forecasting the top skill, more general business strategy is also a viable option.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Business

Outcomes

Business sees a large portion of its graduates concentrated in broadly popular careers: sales, marketing, etc. The top five first jobs for business are sales (18%), business and financial analysis (15%), accounting (14%), marketing (9%), and human resources (6%). It’s worth noting that management does better among business graduates than it does among almost any other program type—it’s the fifth most popular career path by the third job.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Skills

Business graduates use their skills in business and financial analysis, sales, accounting, and marketing.

As with social sciences, the business and financial analysis area leads with forecasting, financial statements, and budgeting. In fact, across business, sales, and marketing, business graduates do not differ significantly from humanities graduates. Insurance sales leads sales, analytics leads marketing, etc. This is a major finding. Much education rhetoric pits these two program types against each other: business is often the quintessential “practical” major, while social sciences represents useless erudition. But in fact, business and social science majors learn and use many of the exact same skills.

However, unlike either language and philosophy or social sciences, accounting is a major area of work for business. The top accounting skills are general ledger and accounts receivable, while bank reconciliations, accounts payable, billing, and collections also make a strong showing.

Thus, the constellation of skills around accounting and book-keeping seems the most distinct benefit conferred by a business degree specifically (although of course intangible benefits like business-school networking are difficult to measure.) And since many of these skills are also available as a one-time credential course, there is some good news here for those who chose a major outside business but want to pursue a career in it.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Communications

Outcomes

For the first job, 18% of communication majors go into journalism, sales, and marketing each. From there, the numbers drop off sharply, with the next most popular job, human resources, garnering 5% of all graduates. However, journalism does not maintain its top spot beyond the first job. By the second job, it falls to third (10%), while marketing (20%) becomes the most popular career path.

In terms of rankings, management does just as well among communications majors as it does among business grads, climbing to fifth place by the second job. But a slightly higher percentage of business graduates go into management--6% vs. 4%.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Skills

The top work areas for communications are in marketing, journalism, and sales.

Sales for communications majors looks almost identical to sales for social science majors, with insurance sales and life insurance the top skills.

One of the journalism tracks almost exactly matches one of the marketing tracks, with analytics, social media, and SEO dominating both. The other journalism track resembles the language and philosophy journalism track, with public relations, marketing communications, and press releases as the most important skills.

And the second marketing track is geared towards digital marketing processes: marketing automation, demand generation, and salesforce.

Communications majors excel in three different areas of marketing: analytics, content, and processes. But what’s even more notable about this degree type is how broadly applicable their skill sets are. Many of their work areas look exactly like the work areas from different degrees, and their skills are important to a wide variety of jobs.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Engineering

Outcomes

Industrial and mechanical engineering is the leader across all three jobs, with 20% of graduates in the first job. Software development (13%) comes next, followed by sales (7%). Sales is notable for being the only non-STEM career to make it into the top five first jobs. IT jobs are relatively popular among engineering majors: together, software development and programming, IT networks and systems, and other IT comprise 21% of all engineering grads. Marketing also gains in popularity over time, climbing from seventh place to fifth between the first and third job, and finishing with 5% of all graduates.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Skills

Engineering is dominated by mechanical and industrial engineering, which has three different areas of work within it.

Computer aided design

The first is based on computer-aided design, and also involves SolidWorks (CAD) and AutoCAD.

Quality Management

The top skill for the second industrial/mechancial area is product quality assurance, with corrective and preventative actions, software quality assurance, and statistical process controls as well.

Process engineering

The third is based on new product development, with project management and process engineering as the major auxiliary skills. Industrial and mechanical engineering seems to involve three basic tracks: developing products, designing products, and managing the quality of products.

Software development

C++ is the top skill for engineering majors in software and development, with C and embedded systems as well. This suggests that engineers who move into IT become programmers rather than IT support specialists.

Construction

The final work area for engineering is construction. Within construction, project management, subcontracting, and businesses logistics are the major skills. Engineers who work in construction tend to run projects and businesses, rather than lending their engineering-specific skills as tradesmen. This may also mean that when we see engineers move into management, they are in fact managing construction businesses rather than white collar companies.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

IT

Outcomes

IT has by far the most concentrated outcomes, with 35% of all graduates going into software development for their first job. Over the next two jobs, software development only loses a net 3% of graduates, while careers lower in the rankings see much more movement. IT network and systems (14%) and other IT (9%) are the second and third most popular careers across all three jobs. IT Support, on the other hand, starts out in fourth place (6%), but cedes its spot to business and financial analysis (5%) by the third job. And by the second job, marketing (3%), sales (4%), and management (2%) are in sixth, seventh, and eighth place respectively. While IT has a small but significant non-STEM contingent in the top ten careers, it has no engineering jobs. This is probably because the barriers to entry are higher for engineering than IT, meaning that the engineering to IT pipeline only flows one way.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Skills

In keeping with its highly concentrated and degree-related job outcomes, the skills of IT graduates featured the fewest surprises. Three work areas center on software development and programming, one on IT systems and networks.

C++

The first area of work in software development revolves around C++, and also includes embedded software, C, and electronic engineering.

Web development

The second is focused on web development: CSS, Javascript and HTML are the core skills.

.NET

The dominant skill for the third software development track is .Net, along with C sharp and SQL.

Computer Science

The final software development area differs from the others in that its core skill is not a programming language. Rather, computer science and computer engineering are its major skills.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Healthcare

Outcomes

Pharmacy (25%) dominates across all three jobs for healthcare graduates. The next most popular first job, therapy, has less than half of pharmacy’s numbers--9% of all grads. By the second job, therapy gets bumped to third place in favor of nursing (also with 9%). And just like we saw with IT, sales (8%) is the only non-STEM career that makes it into the top five. Community service non-profits (5%) are the next most popular non-STEM career path. Management (2%) and marketing (3%), on the other hand, finish in fourteenth and ninth place respectively---their lowest rankings for any degree.

Outcomes for Language and Philososphy graduates


Emsi profile analytics, 2019

Skills

The major work areas for healthcare graduates involve nursing, therapy, and non-profits focused on social, community, and religious services.

Nursing

The skills for nursing are fairly straightforward. Post-anaesthesia care sits at the top, with telemetry, pediatrics, surgery, intensive care unit, and critical care all following along with other nursing subspecialties.

Therapy

Therapy follow two different paths. The first work area is occupational therapy proper, and the major implicated skill is certified occupational therapy assistant.

Home Care

The second is for rehabilitative care, or home care. The top skill is care management, and the work area also includes activities of dailing living (ADLs), care, orthopedic surgery, nursing homes, acute care, and geriatrics, among others.

Most of the skills involve long term care. In neither case does “therapy” refer to mental health or behavioral care--social science, rather than healthcare, is the program type most strongly associated with that area of work.

Non-profits

Interestingly, the non-profits area looks much less therapeutic in healthcare than it does in social sciences. Writing, public administration, and strategic planning are the top skills while fundraising, budgeting, public health, and public relations also appear. Healthcare graduates may be going into public health non-profits that work on a policy level, rather than direct care provision to vulnerable communities. Like social science graduates, healthcare workers move into areas of work related to their studies, but not narrowly defined by them.

Common Skills

In addition to analyzing what skills and areas of work were most typical of each degree type, we also tracked what skills turned up the most frequently across all profiles. Because these skills tend to show up to some degree across all graduates rather than being strongly associated with a specific program, we call them “common skills.” As might be expected, many common skills are the same ones that rank highly for language, philosophy, and social science graduates. Thus, skills data offers another way to visualize our claim that humanities majors are specialists in areas where most people have a more basic and general knowledge.

The top common skills we found in the sample survey relate to management, marketing/communication, sales/business admin:

Management skills -Strategic planning -Project management

Marketing/Communication -Writing -Marketing strategies

Sales/Business Admin -New business development -Purchasing