How to choose a degree – what do employers want?

In my last post I looked at the role of degree choice for professional and academic careers. Now let’s branch out and look at the more general role of degree choice. This matters for people interested in Advocacy, Innovation, Improving as well as Earning to Give in non-professional careers. At this stage in our research, it seems that degrees in more quantitative subjects improve your employment prospects and your flexibility, which is important for making a difference. The next most important thing is to pick a degree you expect to do well in. But, again, we’ll be refining that view as we explore more of the evidence.

Employers like Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths

Once again, degree choice is not going to close off most of your options. In the UK, 80% of employers don’t have specific subject requirements for their graduate roles, according to CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2012. But the subject you choose does make a difference to them. 72% say that they are on the lookout for graduates from certain subjects (compared with 46% who say degree class is one of the most important criteria). Fully 50% of employers say that they are looking for graduates from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees. 17% want students with Business degrees. Only 2% want linguists, 2% social scientists, and 1% arts students.

That suggests that quantitative STEM subjects give you far more career flexibility and hiring prospects than other courses. But it is worth remembering that this is only a report of employers’ stated preferences, not a report of their actual behaviour.

Doing more quantitative subjects signals intelligence

There’s also an interesting signalling effect. Many employers want to have intelligent employees. And it turns out that your degree choice does, to an extent, signal the level of intelligence you have. Many of the stereotypes we have here are fairly accurate. This table shows the average SAT scores of US students by major choice using data from ETS, and maps the SAT scores onto an IQ score. (SAT scores are pretty good proxies for IQ scores.) Subjects like Physics, Math, Engineering and Philosophy lead the pack, with subjects getting less and less quantitative lower down with Social Work at the bottom.

Now this isn’t to say that all people who study Physics are smarter than people who study Social Work. It isn’t actually even saying that you have to be smarter to understand Physics than Social Work. It might just be that smart people tend to go into Physics because they feel like that’s what smart people ought to do. That is, the stereotypes might be self-reinforcing.

But it does suggest that if you know nothing about someone except what their major was, and you then have to guess how bright they are, you can expect that a Physics student is smart. In the case of many potential employers, that’s a relevant consideration. It also means that if you know someone studied, e.g., Physics and they did very well then they are probably very smart. But if you know someone did very well studying Social Work then you still don’t have good evidence that they are very smart (although they might be).

Quantitative subjects lead to more graduate jobs

We also want to look at the employment rates of people who finish various courses. The data table here reformatted from the survey by the Higher Education Career Services Unit here shows the employment profiles of graduates from a range of subjects 6 months after graduation. It assumes that the outcome you want after your degree is to either be doing further study, be employed in a graduate job, or to be doing a combination of study and work. If that is what you want, then a familiar pattern emerges with Medicine- and Engineering-related subjects doing the best, followed by sciences and the harder social sciences like Economics, with Education thrown in there.

That is a little misleading, because not all of the further study is eventually going to lead to a graduate career, and is often not worth it for its own sake. People who study science are more likely to go into graduate degrees than other subjects, and some of those won’t actually end up with graduate jobs.

Looking into the subject-by-subject breakdown, though, you learn that in most artsy degrees about 20-25% of employed graduates are working in Retail, Catering, Waiting and Bar Staff. While that isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s also probably not what you went into the degree to do.

But we have evidence that the average science student is smarter than the average student in other disciplines. That’s a huge confounding factor, since we would expect smarter people to be better at finding jobs (general mental ability is strongly correlated with job performance – for an overview of the evidence see here). That should make us very suspicious about how much of the improved outcome is down to the scientific degree relative to the ability of the student.

All of this is based on data about all people who go to university in the UK. If you are towards the top of the skill distribution, you might have a very different set of outcomes. In the future we’ll look at how this is different for top students.

So although there are some questions about which factors are playing a causal role, it seems that STEM courses and medical courses will help you make a difference more than humanities or arts courses.

There are some important questions that I haven’t addressed yet, but might in the future if readers think it would be useful. For example,
– How exactly do employers use degrees when making decisions? In particular, how differently do they treat degrees from elite universities? (Self-reported surveys say they don’t pay attention, but anecdotal evidence suggests they do.) Is it worth taking a gap year to reapply if you don’t get into a top university?
– Which degrees increase your earning potential the most? (This is not the same as asking which graduates have the highest earnings.)
– Which degrees give you the best general transferrable skills?
– What are the major predictors of success at university and how can you use these to decide what to study?
– How can you work out if going to university is worth the investment of time and money?

In my next post I’ll start outlining a way to structure your subject decision-making.

You might be interested in:
5 ways to be misled by salary rankings
Degree choice for professional or academic careers