The Major Pipeline

Linking college majors to occupations

Neal Caren - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill mail web twitter scholar

I'm a sociology professor, so sometimes parents ask me what their son or daughter can do with a sociology major. I have a stock answer about how we provide a set of analytic skills that are useful in a variety of contexts. A sociology major is not going to directly help them get into medical school, but it's not going to prevent them from getting into law school. It isn't the most satisfying answer, but it tends to reassure them that they are not wasting tens of thousands of dollars. What I didn't know, however, was what occupations sociology majors end up in and how that compares to other majors. So I made a chart.

Since 2009, the Census's American Community Survey (ACS) has collected data on college major in addition to the respondent's other demographic and occupational information. Individual level ACS data is available for download from IPUMS. Combined, the last two waves of the ACS have 595,100 respondents who earned at least a Bachelor's degree, usually work 35 or more hours a week and are between 25 and 55. I dropped the 2009 wave because it used a slightly different occupational coding scheme. The Census categorizes people into 173 college majors and more than 500 occupations, totaling 34,988 observed major-occupation categories.

In the diagram below, I show the 42 most popular majors and the 45 occupations that these folks are most likely to end up in. Specifically, I link each major (or group of related majors) with more than 250,000 graduates in the labor market with their top 5 occupations, or any other occupation that the major sends about 1,000 people a year into. I've also trimmed out some of the smaller occupations. Additionally, I haven't divided the occupation by industry, but you can sometimes infer it from the job title. In other words, I'm only showing the most common majors and only the most common occupations that these folks end up in. While I think is the most efficient way to show the data, this creates a couple of distortion: there are paths away from majors that are not shown; there are paths to occupations that are not shown; and the totals listed for each major and occupation are too low, since they don't include the graduates not shown. Despite these issues, I think it does a good job showing the significant links between majors and careers.

The graph is made with D3.js using the Sankey plugin. Thanks to d3noob for providing sample code.

The chart is a little jumbled, but that largely reflects the fact that many college majors provide people with a lot of opportunities. In fact, it would be much more jumbled if I added lines for some of the less popular connections between majors and occupations. So if anything, it overstates the links between majors and occupations.

While a few pre-professional majors like education, nursing and accounting feed large percentages of their graduates directly into one career, other majors, like sociology, have no dominant career path. Given this complex relationship, looking at charts like this is probably a much better way of understanding the links between college majors and occupational outcomes then estimating average salary by major. History majors, for example, probably make lots of money when they become lawyers, the modal career, but likely make a lot less if they are interested in the second most common occupational outcome, high school teachers. As for sociology, I'm proud to say we train a lot of social workers, teachers, counselors, managers, lawyers, and a whole bunch folks who do other interesting work.