Tuesday 22 January 2013

Choosing your degree

Students choosing majors may well worry about employment options after graduation. The NZ Ministry of Education has released some data on post-study outcomes by major. Read the whole thing here; I've copied a few relevant bits below. Earnings aren't everything, but they ought to count for something.

I tend to advise students considering Economics at Canterbury to do it as an Arts degree with a minor in something demonstrating strong literacy skills, like politics, philosophy, or history, or in a discipline that offers complementary skills, like a minor in geography with an emphasis on Geographic Information Systems. Or, if they want to double with Finance, or if they want to add in a lot of math for a technically focused degree, a B.Sc in Economics works well. Students taking Economics as part of a Commerce degree must complete the Commerce Core, which prescribes a very large proportion of the student's first year. The Commerce prescribed core is fine for those students who want that particular mix of courses, or who know at the outset that they want to do a double major between Economics and either Management or Accounting, but if you want to choose your own mix, the Arts or Science degrees provide more freedom. Unfortunately, incoming students have to make this choice before they start their first year.

I've turned the PDF into a Google spreadsheet.

Students graduating in Economics and Econometrics earned $57,785 five years after graduation. 74% of them were in employment at that point; 15% in further study; 2% on the dole and 10% in other activities. Accountants earn $60,473, 80% are employed, 8% in further study, 0% on the dole and 11% doing other things. Lawyers earn $56,894, 74% are in employment, 15% in further study, 1% on the dole and 9% in other activities. Other management areas like "Business and Management", "Sales and Marketing" and "Tourism" don't do quite as well. Only 63% of those in Political Science and Policy Studies are in employment 5 years after graduation.

Perhaps it's self-serving bias, but I still think our recommendations to students aren't all bad. If you want to take a degree in Politics or Philosophy, combining it with minor in Economics will likely improve your employment chances. While Law looks like a more sure-thing employment option, the data shows little difference between Law and Economics - earnings and employment are very similar. A third of those choosing natural and physical sciences are in further study five years after undergraduate graduation. If you've a passion for chemistry or biology, expect reasonable odds that you'll need to go on to post-graduate study.

The government has been encouraging Universities to offer more places for students in engineering relative to things like the creative arts. It's then interesting to compare the percentage of students on a benefit five years after graduation. Six percent of graduates in "Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Technology" are on the dole five years after graduation - the highest of any subject. Five percent of graduates in "Manufacturing, Engineering and Technology" are on the dole - the same proportion as for subjects like "Performing Arts" and "Visual Arts and Crafts", and worse than the three percent of graduates on the dole after graduating from Philosophy, languages, or graphic design.

The most depressing bit: graduates in public health earn more than graduates in economics.


  1. Should the decision not be made on life-time earnings with the full opportunity cost of gaining a qualification taken into account. Does the Min of Ed do this?

  2. I think they're just providing one of the inputs for that kind of calculation, Paul.

  3. I suspect that very few people who study economics actually end up with a career in economics. I worked as an economist in banking and broking for awhile, but have since (over 20 years now) been in broader executive management. It is hard to have a career as an economist, at least in NZ. Very few companies are of a scale that might carry an economics related function. Perhaps a key difference to law or accounting is that they are regarded as professions, whereas economists stray off into all manner of areas.

  4. I don't think that unemployment percentage is a very valid measure on which to compare subject areas. Any number of those technically 'employed' graduates could be working for near minimum-wage in the fast-food industry, making them quite under-employed (but still counting as 'employed' for the purposes of those statistics). It certainly doesn't imply that engineering is a poor choice of field to go in to.

  5. The policy stereotype is the unemployed arts grad. But yes, salaries are much much higher in engineering.