Want a job? Study science.

By Phil Plait | November 10, 2011 10:00 am

[UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that some of the conclusions I draw in this post are in error. To help correct these, I have written a follow-up post. It might be best to read that one first, but if you read what’s below first please do go and read that one as well, to clear up any lingering issues.]

Via my pal astropixie I heard of a database of college majors compiled by the Wall Street Journal based on the 2010 Census. Looking at people who took those majors in college, it lists their median incomes after finding a job, the popularity of that major, and perhaps most importantly given the situation these days, the employment rate for that major.

I took a look, and listed the jobs by the lowest unemployment rate, asking, essentially, "Which jobs had the best chance of getting you a job after college?" Here’s a screen grab of the top ten:

I highlighted one in particular: Astronomy and Astrophysics. Note that it has a 0% unemployment rate; in other words, last year everyone who majored in these fields got a job! Now, I find myself being a tad skeptical about this, but if there’s some weird thing going on with this survey, I can at least make the broad assumption that the relative job numbers are probably OK. Majoring in astronomy is still a good idea, and will strengthen your chances of getting a job after college.

But look at the list more carefully. Ignoring actuarial science and pharmacology, three four of these ten majors are science-based (pharmacology, astronomy, atmospheric sciences, and geological engineering — yes, that last is not technically a science, but is science-based). If we broaden our look to science and technology, the list grows longer (especially if you go beyond the top ten).

In other words: want a job? Study science.

I’ll note that the list doesn’t say if the students got jobs in those fields, but in fact this strengthens my claim: learning science trains you in a way that makes you employable. I have friends who left astronomy after grad school and got jobs doing climate modeling, computer game server programming, economic forecasting, and more. Once you learn the methods of science, you’re better prepared for working in other fields as well. I’m proof of that as well.

But here’s the irony: a lot of folks in the government claim they are all about making sure Americans have job opportunities (although they seem to be maniacally spending most of their time worrying about other things). Yet many of these very same folks are doing everything they can to destroy science education in this country.

Interesting paradox, isn’t it? If you want Americans to have good prospects out of college, find good jobs, and contribute to society, it seems to me that teaching science and technology are the very things you should be supporting most. And that’s not the only reason; if you support antiscience, you might find businesses leaving your state, looking elsewhere for a place that’s more reality-friendly.

In my opinion, we should be teaching everyone science because that is the same as teaching them reality. Everything we know and understand about the Universe is from science. We owe our lives to medical science, and we owe our economy to the technology it’s birthed. But if you want a more concrete reason, now you’ve got one: science pays.

And when government turns its back on science, we all pay.

Related posts:

Science Fare
Erasing false balance: the right is more antiscience than the left
Science IS imagination
Jindal dooms Louisiana

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (47)

  1. Regrets I’ve had a few..

  2. Paddy

    Describing Pharmacology as “not science based”? Boo to you and your anti-Biology bias, sir. ūüėČ

  3. Gehackte

    I had my college phone me shortly after I graduated asking if I was employed. I said not in my field, and in fact in a part time minimum wage job, so I asked if that counted, he said yes.

    So I worry quite a bit about these kinds of lists. Albeit I base it on an anecdote, hopefully other schools are more specific. (albeit I’m employed in my field now, full disclosure).

  4. steviepeas

    I have a Bsc in forensic science, and after 9 months of searching for any sort of scientific job I now work in a betting shop, so its not all roses in the employment field

  5. pumpkinpie

    Does this address whether people in those majors got jobs right out of college, or if this was after getting an advanced degree? That’s a very important distinction. What are the most employable majors that don’t require more than a Bachelor’s Degree?

  6. VinceRN

    If you look for those top ten employable major when the list is sorted by popularity you learn a lot about our education system and the people using it.

    In the top 100 popular majors only only “Medical Technology Technician” and “Teacher Education: Multiple Levels” is listed. At #51 and #86.

    The science based majors our host mentions are listed much further down the list. Majors that lead to employment are not popular. This is the root of the problem. Kids are not generally taught science in any meaningful way in grade school or high school and so have little interest in it in college.

    I too question excluding pharmacology from the list of science based majors. Likely a political decision. We are all supposed to hate “Big Pharma” and that word brings up evil corporations and such in people’s minds.

  7. CJ

    The comments hit the nail on the top-of-the-nail thing: what are the actual data? How many are employed vs what percent? Are they employed in a field related to their specialty? Are they employed full-time? What is the breakdown of ugrad vs grad degrees?

    This comes on the heels of a recent story bemoaning how few people stay in the STEM degree tracks compared to other courses of study because the classes are 1) hard; and b) badly taught. As a result many migrate to other majors…majors that undoubtedly are glutted and thus have saturated the job market (not that we’d know that from the data as presented).

  8. CB

    Yeah, every single astronomy and astrophysics major got a job… as a NY cabbie. :)

    Okay, snarkiness and stereotypes aside, these stats are relatively meaningless to me unless they take into account the % that got jobs related to their major. If there aren’t that many astronomy majors graduating, then all of them could end up employed in those jobs that merely require (or prefer) a degree in *something*.

    I mean there just can’t be that many jobs that use astronomy degrees directly, can there? On the other hand I could believe the % employed in astronomy is quite high, since the historical belief that there isn’t a career in astronomy could mean the number of graduates is equal to or less than the number of actual positions.

    So really, I need to see both % employed in the field they majored in, and the absolute number of graduates in that field.

    No denying that studying science is good for job prospects, though!

  9. Sigh. I graduated with an Astronomy/Physics BS in 2010, then went to grad school for Science Communication. I’m unemployed and have spent the past few days applying to seasonal minimum wage jobs in the mall.

  10. Hmmmm… I may have been confusing pharmacology with pharmacy (which is a common problem). I’ll amend that statement.

  11. Hevach

    I see “Teacher Education: Multiple Levels 1.1%” and I call baloney already. Heck, looking at the education section in general I see every option well below what a bit of googling says is the reality.

    Here’s the clue: “Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.” Universities are notoriously dishonest with these kinds of statistics. In better times I’d say take them with a grain of salt, but these days I can’t even take them at all. If not outright fabricated they have all kinds of ways that they may as well have been. Some use old statistics, if called on the matter they’re “correcting for statistical anomalies represented by temporary recessions.” My university’s statistics were regionally limited so they covered less than 1% of its graduates, didn’t count students that had graduated within the last 5 years, and only those who had been working at least 2.5 years at a job, and of course counted jobs outside their field.

  12. abadidea

    I assume the 100% astronomy employment rate refers only to people who did NOT continue for a master’s after their bachelor’s. I’d reckon getting the advanced degree is the norm in astronomy so these would probably be the people who decided they didn’t want to work in astronomy after all or who got a good job offer before they even graduated.

  13. Chris

    Mars Science Laboratory Press Briefing happening NOW!

  14. I am not so sure I believe these numbers, Phil.

    Sure, I have a job in astronomy, but most of my undergrad friends went on to grad school right after our BS degrees. Most of us got paid to do teaching or research, so technically, we were employed.

    Does that really count?
    I have several applications out right now. Guess what? There aren’t that many astro jobs out there right now.

  15. elmnop

    yes! my degree is art & science (one title). i wonder if that means i’ll go down from 100% unemployment, whew.

  16. This was a good article until I got here; “In my opinion, we should be teaching everyone science because that is the same as teaching them reality. ”

    I’m not sure about your definition of reality.

  17. Brendon

    While I can’t disagree with the idea of teaching and supporting science, the causal link that you suggest – that doing a science major makes you more employable – isn’t borne out by the data you’ve presented. Might it be that the types of people who take astrophysics are the types who are naturally more employable? Or perhaps something else is going on?

    I don’t know; Blame my sceptical scientifically-trained mind for that criticism.

    (Glancing at the full data, the fact that the category of theology and religious vocations claims a lower unemployment rate (4.1%) than physics (4.5%) slightly depresses me.)

  18. ragnar

    If you really want good numbers and answers, please go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The site has lots of good info and several databases that can be searched.

    w w w.bls.gov/

  19. M.P. Mumo

    My friends have been circulating this, because astronomy is at the top of the list when you sort it by unemployment rate. However, all of the majors with 0% unemployment in the table are very unpopular ones. If you look at the column you omitted from the screen shot (why do that?), astronomy and astrophyiscs is 170 out of 173 in the popularity list, which suggests is might be a very small sample.

    Indeed, physics, which represents a nearly-identical skill set but is much more popular (#50) , has a 4.5% unemployment rate in the table. The upshot is, beware the small number statistics.

    I tried to find the source at Georgetown, and found a study, although it is probably not the source for the WSJ table (http://cew.georgetown.edu/whatsitworth/). In that study, 94% of astronomy majors in the workforce are employed, which implies a 6% unemployment rate. From that study, scientists and engineers seem to be more likely to have full time jobs than some other fields (especially arts), but the numbers wouldn’t drive me to make a decision on my major…

  20. Just be a bit careful; for instance, there appear to be, at least in the US, about 200 applicants per meteorology position.

  21. DrFlimmer

    Don’t trust any statistic you haven’t faked yourself. ūüėČ

  22. Johanna

    Thanks for at least starting the conversation, Phil! I would be interested to see a breakdown of where these degrees actually went…i.e., if those people with math majors are working in a ‘math’ job. And are all of these data based on U.S. citizens alone?

  23. Bandsaw

    The top 15 in employment percentage do not fall within the top 50 of popularity (with the exception of Nursing), so this could simply mean that the number of graduates in those fields is low enough that there is sufficient demand, or it could mean that the number of graduates in those fields is low enough that there is not a statistically significant number of them in the survey.

  24. This is interesting because, in my freshman year of college, I faced a problem. I was struggling with my Quantum Mechanics class (in part my fault because I misread the prerequisites, but also in part the college’s fault for letting me take the class without the proper prerequisites). Meanwhile, I wasn’t even paying attention in my computer science class (we had these cool workstations that had been recently used to create T2: Judgement Day) and was getting straight A’s.

    I remember wondering why I should continue struggling with my physics major which seemed to have a limited job market when my computer science minor came naturally to me and had such a wide-open job market.

  25. Now I wish more than ever I’d majored in astronomy.

  26. Something seems fishy in these numbers…

    The chart lists five computer-related majors: computer engineering , computer programming and data processing, computer networking and telecom, computer administration and security, and computer science. I’m not aware of a special computer programming degree, or a special computer networking degree. There are programs and certifications one can take in those fields but they are not degrees. So where are these majors coming from?

    Generally, computer related majors break down into computer science, MIS (management of information systems), and now we’re starting to see InfoSec (security) majors. Since the last is a fairly recent development, I wonder how exactly we know their employment numbers reliably. Likewise, Gehackte, CJ, and CB hit the nail on the head in pointing out that being employed and being gainfully employed in your field are two very different things.

  27. @Paddy
    I think Eddington said Physics is the only true science all the rest is mere stamp collecting.

  28. There is a more cynical view. Employers cannot give IQ tests because of disparate impact, so they rely on science majors as being bright and willing to work hard. I have no opinion.

  29. Jack

    Go back to your source and click on the Science drop down. There are 33 categories of jobs in the sciences. Only one, Acturial Science (a commercial use of statistics with very stringent entry test requirements; you have to be really good at the math to pass) shows a 0.0% unemployment rate. In fact most of the science areas listed showed no significant difference from the slack job situation in general. Where did you find all those 0.0% categories? There not listed in your source.

  30. MadScientist

    Perhaps we should recommend ‘actuarial science’ – the starting salary is low, but the median soars above the others. I still don’t know what the hell ‘actuarial science’ is – the insurance industry is a mix of statistics and voodoo.

  31. Nice to see the line on atmospheric sciences!

    I agree on what Jack said about Acturial Science. Know someone in the field and he will never be without a big paycheck!

  32. I want to major in Mad Science.

    What line do I stand in to get my army of glow-in-the-dark monkeys to experiment on?

  33. podrock

    Geology, at least in the metals exploration field, is a boom and bust career path. During the 1990’s, jobs were few, and many left the field. I retrained into GIS and 3D modeling and published my own maps to get through the lean times. Now that we are in a bull market in commodities work has been more consistant. Yet I know the wurm will turn again.

  34. G

    Oh, didn’t they tell you about this when you were an undergrad? If you graduate with a Bachelor’s and go straight to grad school, your university *never* has to count you for their “employed a year after graduation” percentage. They can just count all the people who had some reason not to go on to grad school–often because they got a pretty good job offer. So in hard sciences, these %employed numbers are much closer to “damned lies” than to useful statistics.

    Now, if you can find honest statistics on the people who are employed–in their field–after GRAD school in the sciences, then you’ll have some useful numbers.

  35. Ross

    I think this is part of a more general principal that more education makes you more employable, regardless of your field of study. Calculated Risk regularly runs a graph of unemployment by education level (latest version here: http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2011/11/seasonal-retail-hiring-duration-of.html, scroll down to the 3rd graph). Employers are quick to use the sheepskin as an easy gating mechanism for entrance to or advancement of employment.

    When I first started my career in computers, it was very common for employers to lure college students away from finishing their studies into full-time employment. But whenever there was a downturn, all those without degrees were the first to be cut. And it’s really hard to go back and finish after 3 or 4 years of a comfortable full-time salary. I am very glad I resisted the temptation and finished my degree. It has paid off many-fold over the years.

  36. BJN

    Actuarial science. Can science get any more dismal than that?

  37. Aleina

    There is a lot of data on employment rates, how many people work in that career, pay, etc. I don’t know why students go into college without carefully considering these things.

  38. Fishy. Myself and two others I personally knew in Astro were unemployed for over a year during the recession.

  39. Frodis

    I have been a school teacher for almost 20 years in Japan. If I return to Canada and want to continue teaching, I must get a teaching license for that province. If I have a science related degree or a math degree, I can skip the teacher’s college requirement and get my license straight away. Without a math/science-based degree, I must fulfill the requirement of one year at teacher’s college before the license would be issued. I have a Master’s certificate and almost 20 years teaching experience but must move to the back of the line on this one. Not complaining though. I am happy with my field of specialty (sociology and cross-cultural studies). Hard science and math majors are more in demand than soft science majors.

  40. FrankZA

    Sort according to decreasing median pay. The top 29 jobs are science/engineering-related. That is a fairly good reason to study sciences or engineering fields rather than business ones.

  41. Tony

    This article is untrue! I’m studying bioprocess engineering, and fact is, everyone shying away from the science and technology degrees is what makes them so valuble!

  42. Barry

    I’m seconding Gehackte @ 3, here (as a math major, who found out how employable *that* was).

    Also, look at the numbers – there are a whole bunch of 0% or near-0% figures, for jobs which shouldn’t have that. ‘School Student Counseling’ is so in demand that every single person with that major is employed? In an economy where school districts have been laying off massive numbers of people, and hiring very, very few?

  43. Paddy

    Kudos restored for making that correction visavis pharmacology, and for your subsequent mea culpa! Proper scientific attitude – admitting a mistake, being willing to challenge your own conclusions, and thus get to what’s right!


    Back in 1928, he may have had a point. These days? Not so much. We can genuinely claim to know stuff about the fundamentals of what’s going on visavis biology now. :)

  44. Is the 7.8% number made up? NO! Do most people who read about it understand what it means? NO! A great number of people who would rather be working could not find work for extended periods of time, thus giving up on looking for work and deciding to either claim disability as many people did in West Virginia in the coal industry and collect from Social Security or retire early for the older unemployed, spend their savings and then get on medicaid, food stamps and other government programs. That is not to say that all of them are lazy and don’t want to work but most are doing what they need to do to survive because there are no jobs for them. In the United States, we need to create MORE THAN 200,000 jobs per month to keep pace with graduates entering the work force and older Americans working longer. Furthermore, many Americans are not considered unemployed under the 7.8% figure because they are either employed part time, holding temp jobs or working in retail jobs despite their MBA’s and Phd’s. The real Un/Under-employment rate is closer to twice the 7.8% figure. In addition, as people leaving the workforce exhaust their savings, they will become a further drag on the economy. You can sling around terms like troll if you want or you can get your head out of the sand, think for yourself, and do some research and see the light at the end of the tunnel.


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