Labour market guides: the degree subjects that are best for employment and pay

Complicated equations
Subjects such as medicine, maths, engineering, physics and chemistry are associated with good salaries, but much depends on the career you choose when you graduate.

Different degree subjects are on average associated with different levels of pay and employment prospects. But don’t get hung up on this – it’s important to pick a subject that you can do well in and that will motivate you enough to work hard.

The undergraduate degree subjects associated with the highest salaries are medicine and those that relate closely to maths, physics and chemistry. However, not all graduates from these subjects find it easy to get their first job.

Biology graduates are further down the salary scale and don’t always step straight into a professional career. Graduates from creative subjects often need to pick up casual work but are surprisingly successful at finding jobs that relates to their degree.

Keep in mind that statistics don’t tell you anything about cause and effect. Studying a particular subject is no guarantee of a job or a good salary. For example, bright students are often attracted to challenging subjects – and are also likely to appeal to employers and do well in job interviews. So some of these graduates might have done equally well in the job market whatever subject they’d studied.

Degree subjects and future earnings

The Office for National Statistics’ Graduates in the UK Labour Market 2013 report, outlined above, looked at the incomes of those who held an undergraduate degree by which subject they had studied. These figures include all undergraduate degree holders, not just recent graduates. From highest to lowest, the ranking was:

  1. medicine
  2. engineering
  3. physical and environmental sciences
  4. architecture
  5. maths and computer science
  6. languages
  7. social sciences and law
  8. business and finance
  9. education
  10. agricultural sciences
  11. biological sciences
  12. humanities
  13. subjects related to medicine
  14. technology
  15. linguistics, English and classics
  16. arts
  17. media and information studies.

The highest average salary (medicine) was £46,000. The lowest (media and information studies) was £21,000.

Some of these differences in pay are likely to be because of the kind of job that degree-holders were working in. For example, 35% of biological sciences graduates and 40% of arts graduates were working in jobs defined as ‘non-graduate’.

The Graduate Labour Market Statistics: 2015 report found that there were differences in the unemployment rate for young graduates depending on what subject they had studied. For graduates aged 21 to 30, unemployment rates were:

  • 3.7% for those whose degree was in science, engineering, technology or maths
  • 4.8% for those whose degree was in law, economics or management
  • 6.1% for those whose degree was in other social science subjects, or in arts or humanities subjects.

However, the differences were much less when looking at the working-age graduates as a whole.

Which degree subjects are best for graduate employment?

Each year UK universities contact their former students six months after they have graduated to find out what they are doing – for example working, studying for a further qualification or searching for work. This is known as the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. The data is broken down by subject studied, so it is worth taking a look at this for subjects that interest you.

The results shed interesting light onto the data provided elsewhere in these labour market guides. In particular, some job areas that appear to offer good employment prospects for experienced staff seem to present difficulties for graduates seeking their first jobs in that area.

For example, graduates with degrees in computer science or related subjects are consistently the group with the highest unemployment level – this has been the case in DLHE surveys going back a number of years. The 2015 survey asked those who graduated in 2014 what they were doing six months later and found that:

  • 6.3% of graduates across all first degree subjects were unemployed
  • 8.9% of electrical and electronic engineering graduates were unemployed
  • 11.4% of computer science and IT graduates were unemployed.

Recruiters often comment on the difficulty of hiring engineers and computer scientists, so this may be due to graduates leaving university without the skills, experience or grades they need to get hired.

Alternatively, it may be that graduates from these subjects are less willing or able than others to find casual work while hunting for a job in their desired area. Many graduates across the survey as a whole were employed as retail, catering, waiting and bar staff – 12.1% of those in employment. It seems safe to assume that the majority were doing so as a stop-gap solution. However, the percentages of computer science and IT graduates and of electrical and electronic engineering graduates working in this area was lower than average (10.2% and 7.1% respectively).

Employment outcomes can be quite different between similar subjects. For example, among biology graduates who were in work, the biggest single employment area was as retail, catering, waiting and bar staff – 20.2% of biology graduates in employment worked in this area. Only 7.3% of biology graduates were working as science professionals – a career which presumably many would have been considering when applying for university.

In contrast, among chemistry graduates who were in work, the biggest single employment area was as ‘other professionals, associate professionals and technicians’ (19.0%), closely followed by science professionals (18.4%). Only 9.1% were working as retail, catering, waiting and bar staff. This was despite similar unemployment levels (8.0% among biology graduates and 7.4% among chemistry graduates), so is unlikely to be caused by any greater reluctance among chemistry graduates to take stop-gap jobs.

Graduates from fine art, design and performing arts degrees were more likely than the average graduate to be working as retail, catering, waiting and bar staff six months after graduating. However, the single biggest employment area was as arts, design and media professionals. Looking at those who were in employment, this accounted for:

  • 27.0% of fine art graduates
  • 29.9% of performing arts graduates
  • 41.1% of design graduates.

Employment rates – a red herring

If you look at the survey yourself, don’t worry too much about the percentages of graduates from different subjects who were in work. If you want to know about employability, look at the unemployment rates instead. This is because there are good reasons why lots of graduates from a particular subject might not be working. For example, law graduates are less likely than the average graduate to be in employment six months after graduation. However, lots of law graduates want to become solicitors or barristers, which requires further study – and indeed the survey shows that they are more likely than the average graduate to be still studying.

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