Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Are liberal arts majors doomed to starvation?

A new study suggests that this is not the case. This rather dense collection of data is further broken down by Bloomberg Businessweek.

The good news here is that during the "peak earning years", an English literature major might be making as much money as a engineering grad. 

But for those of you in the 18-24 year-old age range, some important caveats:

1.) Your potential income at your "peak earning years" say little about your employability on graduation day. English lit majors still receive far fewer offers than newly minted chemical engineering graduates. (And that is unlikely to change, even if the economy improves.)

2.) The report apparent classifies the humanities (ex: English lit) and the social sciences (ex: psychology) in the same category as math, and the physical and natural sciences.

This is fine and good from an academic perspective. A mathematics degree is not an engineering degree. At many universities, all of these courses are housed in a "college of arts and sciences." This was the case at the University of Cincinnati, which I attended in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However, a potential hiring officer is going to view the math major and the English lit major as very different commodities. And I don't need to tell you which one she is going to favor.

Now--the most important thing you need to know:

3.) Evaluating people's income at their "peak earning years" according to college academic major is inherently misleading. This is because many people (perhaps as many as 30% to 40%) change careers and focuses several times during their working lives.

For example. (These are real, not made up.)

One of my college friends, (I'll call her "Donna") majored in psychology--one of the most unmarketable degrees at the 4-year level. However, Donna has since retrained, and she now works as an IT consultant. 

Donna is now my age, more or less (44). She earns a good income. But this has little connection to the psychology degree she was awarded back in 1990.

Another one of my friends (I'll call him Russ) earned an engineering degree. That's a competitive major, by everyone's estimate. 

But Russ hated the nuts-and-bolts of engineering work. He went into sales. He earns a good income, too, as chance would have it; but Russ has never been a practicing engineer. 

And what about me? I majored in economics. At various times since I received my degree in 1991, I've been a salesperson, purchasing agent, translator, and IT project manager. 

I've never been an economist, though. And the first company that hired me, in 1991, had no interest in my economics degree. They hired me because I could speak and read Japanese--a skill which I mostly taught myself while finishing up my university degree.

So go figure...