Unemployment by Major – Some Degrees Pay While Others Leave YOU Paying

by Darwin on November 9, 2011

A few months back, I wrote an article that didn’t go over too well.  It was titled, “A Question for all you Communications Majors“.  The article was initially meant to focus on how kids are going to college, taking on massive debt and graduating with majors that leave them unable to pay it down given their prospects upon graduation.  And for whatever reason, I went off on a tangent about Communications degrees, renamed the article as such and well, that’s history.  I wrote it, I own it now.  So, after being toasted all over the web for that one (primarily by bloggers who majored in Communications), here’s the actual data that matters.  This comprehensive report from the Wall Street Journal shows what the unemployment rate is by major based on 2010 Census data.  While I picked on Communications majors for whatever reason, there are several degrees that fare much worse (Communications actually fared relatively well compared to my preconceived notions).  Rather than make you sift through the 10 page slide decks at HuffPo and other outlets that picked up this story, here are the screen shots of the data that I thought were interesting – sorted by Highest Unemployment Rate by Major and Highest Salary by Major with a focus on the 75th percentile.  I felt that salary bucket was most telling since many of my readers tend to be in their prime earnings years, or live on the coasts where the cost of living’s a bit higher.  The 25% earnings is not real relevant for most readers and median takes into account the rest of the country and employees with less tenure.  So, I picked the 75% column assuming it’s most representative of 30-40-somethings OR where readers plan on being in the near future.

But First, Unemployment by Education Level

It’s important to note the stark difference in unemployment rates nationally by level of education.  Primarily, by virtue of even having a college degree, your rate should be much lower than the national average.  So, with a 9.0% rate nationally (which wildly misrepresents the actual jobs situation since jobs added aren’t even keeping up with birth/death model; they simply stop counting workers that have stopped looking and exhausted benefits), even a degree that’s not in demand that highly should still have a single-digit rate.  So, when you see degrees with double-digit rates of unemployment, that definitely calls into question the value that those students derived from that choice.  It’s a double-whammy.  Not only did you spend a large sum of money to obtain the degree, but you’re LESS likely to find work in that field than not going to college at all?!  That doesn’t make sense (barring skilled trades which ARE in demand in much of the country), but, well, that’s what the data shows for particular degrees.

Unemployment by Major:

(click to expand)

The trend, as you probably anticipated is mainly in the arts, humanities and such.  I was a bit surprised to see some degrees in there that I assumed might have had more demand due to their names, right?  Like Military Technologies?  We’re in the midst of two, three wars (I’m losing count, we’re about to bomb Iran, right?), so you’d think degreed military majors would be in demand.  But I don’t know what that really means.  Also, International Business?  I just assumed this would be pretty hot given all the outsourcing of services and global competitive forces out there.

Salary by Major – 75th Percentile:

Salary by Major(click to expand)

One can’t help but notice all the “engineering”, “computer”, and science majors in there.  I don’t highlight because I happen to be an engineer (in fact, I don’t do anything having to do with engineering, so it’s not really relevant), but simply, that the common theme has been for years – and probably will continue to be the following:  The majors that are HARD, have a focus on MATH and PROBLEM SOLVING will continue to be the ones in high demand and at least have pretty good pay.  Granted, most of my buddies who partied hard in college and eventually went to work on Wall Street after B-school started off with lower salaries than I did but they’re all making double-triple what I make now.  So, longer term, Finance/Accounting has continued to be where it’s at on the East Coast and of course, programmers are killing it with startups and social media on the West Coast.  But I’m not sure those jobs are always going to continue to flourish given the financial crash, regulation and political sentiment hitting Wall Street. (See a Rebuttal to Occupy Wall Street).

Side note – even though Military Technologies had a real high unemployment rate, the pay is also quite high – seems to be a bit of an outlier in that it ended up on both screenshots.

So, the one qualifier here is that many people I know don’t even have a job “in the field” that they majored in after 10 years or more.  But undergrad degrees to tend to carry some sort of weight throughout a career, even when shifting into other disciplines in the workplace.
What are Your Thoughts On this Data? 

Any Surprises?

Make sure to check out the CAREER section for salary info, career tips and more.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

PKamp3 November 9, 2011 at 12:37 am

Having just written an article focusing on Art and Psychology Majors (for their low salaries in relation to student loan rates, not unemployment rates), I understand you completely! Why spend 6 figures on a degree that:
a) Doesn’t pay a salary that’s even 1/4 of the balance on your loans
b) Has an unemployment rate 2x the rest of the country

Also, I saw this chart in the WSJ, but something has got to be up with Actuarial Scientists. That Major seems like a sure thing from this perspective…


Darwin November 9, 2011 at 12:46 am

I remember some kids I went to school with were talking about going into actuarial work – they were saying the pay was off the charts (for starting salary). Boring, but high pay was the rumor. I have an actuary living in our neighborhood. She seems pretty happy.


Lily November 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm

0% unemployment in act sci sounds about right. I know interns in act sci who got limo rides and got paid more than engineers before they even got their degree. It’s a hard, soulless job that few want to do, so those who do it get rewarded.


JT November 9, 2011 at 1:06 am

A little off topic, but I couldn’t miss this gem: “PUBLIC POLICY 2.2%.” There’s only one industry that grows all the time, and that’s the monopoly of big government. Go figure.

As a general rule I see the best paying degrees/those with the lowest unemployment being those that put you closest to the money. Petroleum engineers are going to make bank because they’re intelligent, and because they’re going to be doing the thought work behind billion dollar oil businesses. Accountants are going to do well because they’re going to be paid to shelter that money from an always changing tax code. Health care administrators are going to do better than nurses because operating the business is more important–I use that term carefully–than actually taking care of the patients. Computer science people are going to do well because they’re going to code the thought process for bringing oil above ground/beating the tax code/getting the most health insurance money. You have to be in the “money/front office” area of whatever it is you’re working in.

It’d be interesting to know, too, how much of a recent surge the mineral/mining engineers are getting. With the gold rush underway once more (err, all metals, for that matter) they’ve gotta be doing a lot better than they were in…say, 2000.


101 Centavos November 9, 2011 at 11:56 pm

JT, I suspect that the high salaries in petroleum, metallurgical and mining engineering are partly due to the graying of the workforce. It’s not easy finding qualified and experienced people, and those who are willing to make a switch can afford to wait for the right price.


JT November 10, 2011 at 11:26 am

Ahh, that makes a lot of sense! I didn’t think about that.


MoneyCone November 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm

If the returns aren’t worth the investment, you are better off not going to college. Might sound harsh, but if I were to go through this now, that’s probably how my thinking would go.

You are right, degrees that are hard will always have demand.


krantcents November 9, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Many of the majors listed either require advance degrees to do anything or they should go into a training program. College degrees are meant for more than a specic career. I do not disagree with ou on the amount of debt compared to your future earnings. Going to Harvard to become a teacher and studying Spanish would be a waste if you walk away with $25K in loans.


Highgamma November 9, 2011 at 5:55 pm

“College degrees are meant for more than a specific career.”

Don’t disagree with you there; however, that does not preclude a student from getting a well-rounded education AND developing skills that are valued by society (i.e., mathematical modelling, problem-solving, effective communication, and management). Yes, these skills are hard to acquire; however, if you’re going to take out a loan, it is advisable that you develop skills that will enable you to pay it back. Don’t worry. There’s plenty of time for “life of the mind” stuff, especially if you don’t spend all of your time drinking, playing sports, and engaging in other “social” activities.


Eric November 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm

This is a hugely important topic. I know people that took the English/History/Social Work route. I always asked, so what are you going to do after. The only real options are law school/grad school, teaching, or Starbucks. It is sad to see how many took the Starbucks route.


retirebyforty November 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Petroleum engineering is looking good. The culture here in the US just do not promote math, science, and engineering enough. Kids think it’s geeky and go for fine art degrees instead. That’s why the industry have to hire foreign engineers to fill the gaps. Now, the big companies are doing their engineering oversea too and it just doesn’t bode well for the US.


funancials November 12, 2011 at 11:29 am

I’m a little pissed with you Darwin. Not for bashing comm majors, the reason everyone else hates you, but for stealing my Saturday morning. Saturday mornings contain the most precious hours of the week. Supposed to be filled with complete relaxation, with zero thought of work or anything else productive.

Thanks to your communications rant, you’ve consumed my entire morning. First this post, then your linking communications post, then the comm post comments (these were the best). Thanks, dick.


PKamp3 November 12, 2011 at 11:51 am

HAHAHAHAHA… just saw this in my email. Now I bet you’ve ruined my morning as well, since now I’m back to dig through the archives.


Darwin November 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm



Darwin November 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Haha! Thanks for cracking me up! Good to have some levity on this site once in a while!


Invest It Wisely November 12, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Interesting chart, gotta find something like this for Canada!

As for people jumping around, I have a business degree but work in a more technical capacity, and a lot of what I do I learned on the job. There was a guy here who had a music degree, but was great at what he did so just shows that sometimes, the degree is just a stamp that admits entry into the workforce.


Robert November 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Try being a security guard making $9.50 an hour with a communications/broadcast degree. I think obtaining a communications/broadcast degree was a mistake. However, my car accident after graduation and the very soft market upon getting back on my feet after breaking two legs, my career options dried up quick. Mergers and automation was the culprit to getting into the technical side of broadcasting in which my school wasn’t teaching. 70 year old instructors teaching your major isn’t good either.


Leave a Comment

{ 9 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: