Humanities and social science grads have more stable careers over time

Friday, November 28, 2014

Matthew McKean, Policy Analyst, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

You know your friends in the computer sciences, math, engineering and business—the ones who never quite took your arts degree seriously enough and then boasted about the fabulous salaries they were earning after graduation? Turns out their jobs and their earnings were more volatile than they might have admitted. A new study has found that over the past almost fifteen years, humanities, social science and health grads have been enjoying more stable careers.

The report, co-authored by Professor Ross Finnie, director of the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, surveyed 82,000 University of Ottawa graduates over a 13-year period. Statistics Canada supplied the uOttawa research team with tax record data in order to measure earnings and track outcomes of graduates beginning with the 1998 cohort through to 2011. In the process, the study compared the incomes of male and female graduates.

The study found that average earnings in the year after graduation were modest, ranging from $41,000 to $47,000, but rose substantially thereafter. And while starting salaries for graduates from different faculties varied, so too did salary increases over time. Computer science and engineering grads still came out on top, at both the beginning and the end of the study. But they, along with business, math, and natural science grads had rockier roads to the $100,000 salary plateau than did graduates in the humanities, social sciences, and health, whose earnings grew at a smaller, steadier rate.

Also encouraging for humanities and social science graduates is that top earners had mean salaries between $75,000 and $125,000 13 years after graduation. Their higher-earning friends in the computer sciences and engineering experienced significant decreases in earnings – to the tune of $30,000 – over the peak years of the bust. For their part, business grads accounted for the largest range in salaries, from high but also to low, while the 2008 recession adversely affected all earners.

Far less encouraging was the fact that male graduates out-earned female graduates over the same timeframe across all groups, an average earning differential that began in the $10,000 range and grew to $20,000 by 2011. The gap was most pronounced in engineering and the computer sciences (between $15,000 and $30,000). The gender wage gap was smaller across all other faculty groups, and in some instances altogether absent at the outset, but in every case increased over time. The gender-earnings divide and the reasons why some graduates remained at the lower-to-middle income levels are issues that require additional clarification or study. So too does the question of job distribution, both disciplinary and geographic, across the 82,000 grads.

The take-away message from the uOttawa report, however, is that humanities and social science graduates ended up at more or less the same place salary-wise as non-humanities and social science graduates and got there without having to endure the fluctuations and unpredictability of their peers in the computer sciences, math, engineering and business. In fact, the report concluded, social science graduates, among the lowest earners at the outset, “enjoyed substantial earnings increases over time, to finish above their humanities and health colleagues.”

All of this is encouraging news for students contemplating a field of study in the humanities and social sciences. Their skills are in demand and their salaries are competitive. Better yet, they can feel confident that pursuing jobs in creative or social fields won’t come at the cost of financial and career stability.




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