These college degrees get you jobs (that don’t need a degree)

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Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville
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Engineers can stay calm.

A new study by labor-data firm Burning Glass Technologies published in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) suggested that only 29% of US engineering-degree majors take a first job that doesn’t need a degree. But some other graduates have it tougher.

Psychology and biology majors, for example, had a 54% and 51% chance of working jobs that don’t require college degrees, respectively. Homeland-security and law-enforcement degrees had a 65% probability of being underemployed. People who studied “culinary services” had an 81% chance of taking a job that rendered their past four years useless.

“When examined by major, underemployment rates vary by 50 percentage points, from 29% in engineering to 80% in personal and culinary services, a more than twofold difference in risk,” the authors of the study noted (pdf).

Below is the full list of jobs and their likelihood of underemployment. The order doesn’t always correspond to the chances of not getting a degree-needing job because of other factors, like the cost of underemployment and the oversupply of jobs in that field:

All in all, the study suggested 43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first job; they are making $36,000 on average, compared to the $46,000 those in degree-requiring jobs make. The degrees that beat this trend are the sort of liberal-arts degrees that have been widely disparaged as companies and governments focused on luring STEM graduates. And with the amount of debt students in the US are taking on, it makes sense to think about degrees in terms of return on investment.

People with English-literature degrees had only a 45% chance of being underemployed and similar levels were true for people who studied philosophy, foreign languages, and subjects like gender studies.

Burning Glass suggested that students in underperforming majors can significantly improve their prospects by selecting a high-demand specialization within their field. ”Underemployment for business majors overall is 47%, but lower for those with specializations in finance (33%) or marketing (41%),” they cited. “Business majors who specialize in hospitality or merchandising fare much worse, at 68% and 65%, respectively.”