It has become a dispiriting summer ritual: Thousands of students graduate from college every year only to discover they still don’t have what it takes to land a decent-paying job. But they do have a huge school bill that needs to be repaid.
With hiring still weak in nearly every stratum of the economy, many recent grads are alarmed to discover the only jobs open to them involve low-skilled (and low-paid) work that doesn’t even require a college degree. That doesn’t mean they chose the wrong major: In some popular fields, there are simply more people with the same types of skills than the job market can absorb. In other fields, students may be on the right track but need further schooling or experience before they can nab the jobs they’re after.
The best majors for landing a good job tend to be engineering, computer science and other rigorous fields that prepare students for specific work in booming industries. For people in other majors, something that sets you apart from the masses — such as graduating from a top program or developing expertise in more than one discipline — might be needed to provide an edge. “It’s good to have a little right brain and a little left brain,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at Payscale, a compensation-research firm. “Go with what you’re strong in as your primary field, and what you’re not quite as good in as your secondary field.”
Payscale recently sorted through data on roughly 100 majors to identify those associated with the greatest portion of recent grads who end up overqualified for the work they do. Somebody who graduated with a business degree, for instance, would be considered overqualified if he worked as a waiter or an assistant manager at a retail store, jobs that require an associate’s degree or less. Students shouldn’t necessarily avoid such majors, but they should be aware that simply graduating with a degree in one of these fields may not be enough to land a desirable job.
Here are 10 majors with the weakest job prospects, based on the portion of workers employed in jobs for which they're overqualified:
1. Business administration / management. This is one of the most popular majors, which has produced a glut of grads with business degrees at a time when big companies are reluctant to hire. “A lot of students have the idea that if they just major in business, they’ll be a successful Wall Street banker,” says Bardaro. “Unfortunately, the number of jobs available in that sector is very, very small.” One way to distinguish yourself: Develop a concentration in quantitative courses such as statistics or finance.
2. Criminal justice. Glamour jobs in this field include FBI agent and intelligence analyst, but those positions typically require years of experience, technical knowledge or connections that recent grads don’t ordinarily have. Many criminal justice majors end up becoming police officers, paralegals or security officers — jobs that don’t usually require a college degree.
3. Drama / theater arts. A few theater people become stars, but many struggle in a notoriously demanding field with few breakout opportunities. Instead of discovering fame and fortune, many drama majors end up in unremarkable jobs such as executive assistant or customer-service rep.
4. Anthropology. Remember: Indiana Jones was fictional. There’s not much profitable field work for anthropologists, and while corporations need a small number of experts to help them understand human behavior, those tend to be consultant gigs going to the most highly trained pros.
5. Liberal arts and sciences. An assortment of humanities courses might round out your intellect, but it could also confuse employers who don’t understand what kind of job a liberal arts major is supposed to prepare you for.
6. History. We are not a contemplative society, alas, and most jobs for history majors tend to be in teaching. That’s fine, except there’s an excess of history majors, and school districts are more likely to be cutting back than hiring.
7. Psychology. Sure, the human psyche is fascinating and bottomless. That doesn’t mean somebody’s willing to pay you to study it, which may be why one of the top jobs held by recent psych majors is barista, earning about $19,000 per year. This major may be best for students planning to do graduate work or get other qualifications that will make them more appealing to employers.
8. Biology. A lot of bio majors think they might go to medical school someday but end up deterred by the cost, difficulty and length of study. Then they discover that a lot of others made the same decision and are competing for a limited number of lower-level research or technician jobs. A better choice of major might be biochemistry, which is more quantitative and better-aligned with jobs in the biotech or pharmaceutical industries.
9. English. As a major, this is the road more traveled by, with not nearly enough writing, teaching, publishing or journalism jobs for all the students who graduate with a yen for the written word. It doesn’t help that many media fields have been upended by the digital revolution.
10. Economics. Students in liberal-arts universities sometimes think an economics degree will represent the sort of rigorous, scientific background employers want. But that may only be true for students with a focus on quantitative areas such as econometrics. The rest face a problem they should have learned about in Econ 101: In the job market, the supply of econ majors outstrips demand.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.