How bad an idea is it to major in the social sciences? If you believe the glut of Web slideshows on the worst college degrees, it’s a pretty tragic decision—graduate with a sheepskin emblazoned with the words "sociology," "political science," or even "economics" printed on it, and you’ll live a life of penury—and that after years of fruitless searching for a job in your field.
Even if you pull away from linkbait Web articles and head for genuine research on the subject, the news isn’t welcoming. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which looks into college majors and employment as a matter of course (their last few annual reports have shared the title Hard Times), actually finds there are reasonable employment and earnings prospects for social science grads, with sociologists paid the least on average and economists the most. (The social sciences also have one of the sharpest average gender differentials in pay—$18,000 less a year for women—seen in any field.)
Victor E. Ferrall Jr., the author of Liberal Arts at the Brink and both a retired attorney and university president, summed up the results of this in a Pacific Standard piece last year:
Young people are being advised to pursue directly career-related majors, rather than “impractical” liberal arts, by almost everyone – nervous parents; high school counselors; educational consultants; business leaders; and local, state, and federal officials. Anthony Carnevale, who heads the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says American colleges and universities “need to streamline their programs, so they emphasize employability,” meaning that the college years are explicitly “preparing for an occupation.”
Despite that vocational monomania, degrees, at least bachelor’s degrees, in the social sciences remain popular. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the combination of social science/history was the second most likely undergrad major, some 173,000 bachelor degrees of the 1,650,000 awarded in 2009-10 in the U.S. (Business was first with just over twice as many bachelor's.) What’s wrong with these people?
Based on a new report looking at the social science terrain in the United Kingdom, nothing. The Campaign for Social Science (yes, they have a dog in this fight) has found that three and half years after graduating, more social science grads are employed (84.2 percent) that those from the STEM fields (77.8 percent) or the arts and humanities (78.7 percent). Keep in mind, though, about one in six science, technology, engineering, and mathematics bachelor’s students pursue a higher degree, compared to one in 10 of the social science grads.
Sound counterintuitive? It does to the IT crowd at The Register website: “You're more likely to get a job if you study 'social' sciences, say fuzzy-studies profs,” reads the headline, followed by the sub-head, “It's OK! No need to work hard at university after all!”
Furthermore, according to the campaign’s report, seven of 10 social science grads are in "professional" or "associate professional and technical" occupations and a greater proportion of social scientists are already "managers, directors and senior officials" than graduates of any other subject group, according to the report.
And while this report is looking at British grads, the Georgetown Center suggests something similar in the U.S.:
Of people who majored in Social Science, 22 percent work in Management, 16 percent in Sales, 13 percent in Office, 7 percent in Finance, and 6 percent in Business occupations. By industry, 16 percent work in Financial Activities, 13 percent in Public Administration, 11 percent in Professional Services, 9 percent in Health Services, and 8 percent in Retail Trade.
The idea that social science graduates work solely as social workers or teachers is shown to be unfounded. What this report shows instead is that employers across many areas of employment, in both the public and private sectors, are keen to recruit social science graduates because they have the skills of analysis and communication that our economy and society needs.
Part of the good news does come from a fungible definition of what comprises the social sciences. In this report they include subjects such as the law, education, and business studies that probably wouldn’t make the cut elsewhere. The campaign itself uses the (imprecise) definition of the European Science Foundation: “The social sciences examine what it means to be a social being, ranging from the minutiae of human behaviour and brain functions, to large scale social movements, demographics, economics and politics.” But in noting that lots of social science grads are in management roles, the campaign lumps in business and architecture, which wouldn’t be included in definitions of social science I’ve seen.
The use of the 3.5-year benchmark is also a tad opportunistic. That period was taken from Britain’s High Education Statistics Agency’s Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education longitudinal survey. But using the same agency’s annual survey, six months out of school, the largest percentage of geography, psychology, and sociology grads are working in “retail, catering, waiting and bar staff,” i.e. “You want fries, er, chips, with that?” Economists, law grads (but again, only with a bachelor’s), and politics grads are much better represented in professional pursuits at this point, although a big chunk of law and politics grads are still in hospitality. The results aren’t contradictory, but they also don’t depict a land of desperate employers clamoring for freshly minted sociologists, either.
As a result of these two largish caveats, I’d hesitate to accept the assertion that social science grads are more employable than STEM grads. Rather than that overreach, it does seem safe to say that social science grads can find good jobs, which has not always been the public’s cursory perception. The message that these are legitimate fields of study from a career perspective has real value right now, especially in the U.K. and the U.S., where social science itself is under fundamental attack.
Once social science grads are fully confident in their career choice, they can bravely set out to make fun of other fields, like art history, or the perennial last place in “worst jobs” list, community organization. After all, what kind of lousy career could you hope for from that?