Four Degrees That Could Ruin Your Career Chances

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Your college major might have serious implications for your future career, so choose wisely.

By Jennifer Berry

If you're going to spend the time and money to go to college, you're probably going to expect to see a good return on your investment. But here's something you might not expect: Some degrees could actually hurt your chances of getting the career you want.

Unemployment figures can range widely depending on the major, according to a 2013 study by the Georgetown University study titled "Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings." To understand why, it helps to look at a degree in the same way an employer might.

"Your major provides two key elements of job readiness: subject matter expertise and essential skills and training," says Carol Barash, founder and CEO of Story To College, which teaches students how to use storytelling tools to advocate for themselves in school, work, and life.

And those skills need to be in demand, too. “If you want to be employable upon graduation, you have to learn tactical skills that are needed by companies that are growing,” explains Michael Staton, partner at Learn Capital, a venture capital firm focused on funding entrepreneurs with a vision for better and smarter learning.

The good news is that for many majors with a statistically high unemployment rate among recent graduates, there are similar alternatives with lower unemployment rates. Read on to learn about a few majors with high unemployment rates - and some potential alternate degrees with better prospects.*

High-Unemployment Degree #1: Economics
Unemployment Rate: 10.4%

You're fascinated by the life-blood of our economy: money. A degree in economics might seem like a perfect fit, but think twice before you get started: With so many people pursuing this degree, you could be left high and dry after graduation.

"Economics is a very popular major - at many universities it is the most popular major," says Barash. "But there are very few entry-level jobs as economists." Why is that? "An economist is someone who analyzes and predicts trends," says Barash. "Most people right out of college don't have enough analytical experience to work as economists."

This degree can also be heavy on the theory and light on the practical know-how, says Staton. According to the College Board (a nonprofit organization committed to excellence in education), some of the classes economics majors take include comparative economic systems, economic theory, and econometrics.

More Promising Alternative: Finance

Unemployment Rate: 5.9%

Looking for an alternative degree where you can still explore the impact of money on our modern life - but also prepare to pursue a career after graduation? Check out finance.

According to the College Board, a degree in finance can prepare you to make financial decisions for companies, raise funds, and invest wisely - all practical know-how skills that potential employers might be looking for.

How It Improves Your Odds: "Economics teaches market forces, but finance teaches you how to manipulate spreadsheets, package and evaluate financial products, and handle operational concerns of companies," explains Staton.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Finance Program.

Just look to the College Board for evidence of what you could learn: Typical major courses are accounting and statistics for financial analysis, financial management, and investments.

"Finance is replacing economics as a high-impact, high-salary career choice," adds Barash. And while Barash notes that your first job will probably be mostly working with Excel manipulating numbers, she also notes that these jobs tend to be compensated well.

Career Options**:

  • Financial analyst
  • Personal financial advisor

High-Unemployment Degree #2: Political Science and Government
Unemployment Rate: 11.1%

Are you a political junky, addicted to blogs and political news outlets? Before you jump into a political science and government degree, you might want to do some serious thinking, as its unemployment rate suggests it might not put you in the best position to get a job.

Why? It's another degree focused more on academics and less on applicable skills. As Staton says, "Political science covers high-level theory and research methods." Just look at some of the courses listed by the College Board: political theory, judicial processes, and contemporary political ideologies.

And while the degree may have some important application, its job potential is very narrow. According to Barash, "These are great degrees if you want to run for public office - and we definitely need young people committed to this type of public service - but not for very many other entry-level jobs." 

More Promising Alternative: Criminal Justice

Unemployment Rate: 8.9%

Want to check out a related degree with a lower unemployment rate? Why not consider criminal justice?

Criminal justice is an interdisciplinary major where you might study everything form law to psychology, says the College Board. Some of the typical classes for this major include criminology, juvenile justice, criminal law, and the U.S. criminal-justice system.

How It Improves Your Odds: Why might this be a better choice than a poli-sci degree? "Public service is out - but catching criminals and terrorists is in," says Barash. In other words, job prospects for people who get out in the world and stop the bad guys might be better than job prospects for people who theorize about political ideologies or judicial processes.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Criminal Justice Program.

"Criminal justice teaches you how to enforce and work within the growing justice system," says Staton, highlighting another benefit to this degree.

Career Options**:

  • Probation officer
  • Police officer

High-Unemployment Degree #3: Information Systems
Unemployment Rate: 14.7%

Given the tech-driven world we live in, you may think any computer-related degree could help pave the way to a great career. Think again. Not all computer-related degrees are created equal - and if you choose to major in information systems, you could be limiting your future career options.

"Information systems is conceptual work around information management and computer systems in the corporate environment (which is moving to the cloud, so very few people will be employed in information systems like they are now)," says Staton. In other words, with more information being stored off-site, there will be less need for people employed on-site.

Barash also points to rapid changes in technology as one reason why this degree is not what it used to be. "People with degrees in information systems used to plan the computer programs and systems that other people built," she says Barash. "But everything moves more quickly now, and the whole tech world is much more entrepreneurial." Instead of one set of people planning programs and systems and another set building them, Barash says, the builders are becoming the designers as well, so they might have degrees in electrical engineering and/or computer science.

More Promising Alternative: Computer Science

Unemployment Rate: 8.7%

Compared to information systems, computer science has a much less frightening unemployment rate, and it could be a great alternative degree for anyone interested in computers.

If you want to design computer programs, impact the way humans and computers interact, or help pioneer artificial intelligence (all what the College Board says you could learn in this program), a degree in computer science will get you a lot further than a degree in information systems. Some of the courses typical for this major include digital system design, software engineering, and artificial intelligence.

How It Improves Your Odds: "Computer science teaches you how to write the code that makes the whole Internet work," says Staton. Demand for this degree is high, he continues, but there aren't enough qualified graduates to fill the open positions in the growing internet sector.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Computer Science Program.

Barash shares that sentiment: "Computer science is a great degree because you get actual experience writing computer code and building things," says Barash. "This is so important that we should be teaching more of it in high school."

And why is coding so important? According to Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to growing computer programming education, "Learning to code unlocks creative thinking and opens unparalleled career options. Coding is the new American Dream and should be available to everybody, not just the lucky few."

Career Options**:

  • Network and computer systems administrator
  • Software developer

High-Unemployment Degree #4: Architecture
Unemployment Rate: 12.8%

Do you dream of creating landmark buildings or custom homes to delight your clients? Think carefully before you sign up for that architecture degree - in the "Hard Times" study architecture has one of the highest unemployment rates among recent college graduates.

One of the main drawbacks of this degree is what it doesn't teach you. "Architects are planners, designers," says Barash. The trouble is that in today's market, she says, there's a demand for people who can design and build. "Often people with training in the build side gain the design skills later. It's much harder to do the reverse."

More Promising Alternative: Civil Engineering

Unemployment Rate: 7.6%

So what should you consider as an alternate degree that could help prepare you for the "build" aspect of the job? Why not look into civil engineering, which reports a much lower unemployment rate among grads?

Rather than focusing primarily on design, as a civil engineering major you might study crucial practical skills which according to the College Board might include structural analysis and design, strength of materials, and environmental awareness for engineers.

How It Improves Your Odds: Civil engineering majors learn to build projects in addition to designing them - a marketable skill that many architects lack coming out of school, says Barash.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Engineering Program.

And the practical skills you learn can help prepare you to pursue a career creating buildings - or even designing communities.

"Unlike an architect who designs and plans on a small scale (think one building), a civil engineer plans and implements on a much larger scale: town and city planning, roads and bridges, redevelopment, even green urban planning," Barash says.

Career Options**:

  • Civil engineer
  • Construction manager

* All unemployment rates included here are from the 2013 Georgetown "Hard Times" study and are associated with recent college graduates of each major. The report defines recent college graduates as bachelor's degree holders ages 22-26.

** All potential careers listed from the 2012-2013 U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook. The Department of Labor cites the associated degrees as common, required, preferred, or one of a number of degrees acceptable as preparation for the potential career. In some instances, candidates might require further schooling, professional certifications, or experience, before being qualified to pursue the career.

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