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4. Economics as a major

Economics is a popular subject among undergraduates. And the major is going again through a Chinese-like spurt of growth. Many students believe they ought to have at least one course in economics, and economics coursework is often required by interdisciplinary fields like international studies, public policy and business administration. At universities where a business major is unavailable, as for example at the Ivy League schools, students interested in business careers will choose economics as the next best option. According to a National Science Foundation study conducted in 1990, 23,600 students graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1988. About 20 percent of these graduates continued their studies in some fashion, and fully 80 per cent sought employment. Most of the latter found work in business and industry (85 percent), with five percent working for government or non-profits, four percent working in educational institutions, the remainder were "other."

There is some limited evidence that economics attracts above average students. A 1984 study found that senior economics majors had combined SAT scores of 1216, well above the national average of 890. The smartness improves, happily: Economics majors are tied with physics and theology majors for best score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). They go on to the highest positions in society: President of the United States, King of Spain, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, U.S. Senator, Finance Minister of Singapore, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Prime Minister of Greece, Mayor of London, Nobel Laureate. Despite having good students, there is also evidence that economics is a "hard" major, i.e., that economics professors give lower grades, on average, than do their colleagues in other social science and humanities departments. A survey of eight colleges in the mid-1980s (Sabot and Wakemann-Linn Journal of Economic Perspectives Winter 1991) found average grades of 2.81 in introductory economics courses, as against 3.12 in English and 3.02 in Psychology, for example. These high-grading departments also tended to "cluster" grades on the high end. Fully 31 percent of the economics students received a grade below B-, while only 12 percent and 23 percent did so in English and Psychology, respectively.

Few students go on to study economics at the graduate level, where the material is vastly more technical. Graduate students in economics often come from non-economics backgrounds, like mathematics or engineering. In addition, many graduate students come to U.S. schools from overseas. Of the 12,700 graduate students studying economics in 1991, 5,400 (43 percent) were not U.S. citizens.***update with Colander

About 2,200 Masters degrees in economics were awarded in 1988. Most of these master's degree recipients sought employment (73 percent), though nearly a quarter continued their schooling, presumably pursuing a Ph.D. Like those with bachelor's degrees in economics, most master's degree recipients who are not continuing in school go into business and industry (81 percent), with others finding work in government (13 percent) and education (6 percent). In 1990, master's-level economists who had graduated in 1988 or 1989, earned a median annual salary of about $36,000.

Few graduate students continue on to earn a Ph.D. In economics, only 853 doctorates were awarded in 1991, for example. A Ph.D. requires, on average, six or seven years to complete, though this reflects the fact that many students work full time after or during their required courses. It is difficult and unusual to complete a Ph.D. in less than four years. Unlike bachelor's or master's-level economists, only about 20 percent of Ph.D. students will seek work in business and industry. Roughly 60 percent want to find academic jobs.