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For a Job After Graduation, Major in These, Not Those

Thursday, 30 May 2013 | 3:08 PM ET
Stigur Karlsson | The Agency Collection | Getty Images

It pays to go to college in general—but how big a payoff you get can vary wildly depending on what you decide to major in.

A report released Wednesday finds that people who recently graduated from college with degrees in fields such as education and health faced much lower unemployment rates than those who recently graduated with degrees in fields including architecture and the arts.

The unemployment rate for people who had recently received an undergraduate education degree was 5.7 percent, according to the report, compared with 12.8 percent for the recent graduates of undergraduate architecture programs.

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Your choice of major also is likely to have a lifelong impact on how much money you make, according to the report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The median earnings for experienced workers with an undergraduate architecture degree was $65,000, the report found, compared with median earnings of $44,000 for experienced workers who earned an undergraduate education degree.

The report offers a reminder that while lots of young people will spend an inordinate amount of time deciding where to go to college, it's perhaps more important to figure out your major once you get there.

"What your field of study is ends up being the most important thing," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and co-author of the report.

The Georgetown report used the government's American Community Survey data from 2010 and 2011 for its analysis. For recent graduates, it looked at 22- to 26-year-olds who had bachelor's degrees, and for more experienced college graduates it looked at 30- to 54-year-olds with college degrees.

In general, it's a good idea to choose a major that teaches specific skills, such as nursing. But Carnevale cautions that doesn't mean that everyone should choose practical majors like mathematics or engineering—especially if they just don't like it.

"If they're not interested or suited [to] the major that they choose—and ultimately, even more so, the job that they choose—they won't be any good at it," Carnevale said.

Chasing what seems like a hot field also can end up backfiring. For example, the researchers found that recent graduates who went into information systems faced a whopping 14.7 percent unemployment rate. That, in turn, pushed the overall unemployment rate for computer and mathematics majors up to 9.1 percent, even though in general those fields seem to be in great need of good workers.

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Carnevale said the finding seemed to be a result of the tough job market for things like clerical and entry-level management jobs that involve computer systems, which were hard-hit during the recession and early recovery. But he noted that the unemployment rate for more experienced information systems grads was much lower, at 4.4 percent.

In the case of architecture, Carnevale said the effect of the housing and construction industry bust appeared to still be dragging on employment, although he noted that the job market for architects has often been tough.

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If you do choose a major such as English literature or archeology, Carnevale said, you need to be prepared to find other ways to train yourself for a specific career, or find an employer who is willing to train you. Many will also end up going to graduate school to get a more skills-oriented degree, such as law or business.

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"It's a tougher game," Carnevale said.

Jonathan Salm, 22, knew it might be harder to get a job when he chose to major in English, with a minor in philosophy, at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

But Salm, who graduated from college last week, said he also felt like part of the reason you go to a liberal arts university is to experience learning for the sake of learning.

The unemployment rate for recent graduates with English literature and language degrees was 9.8 percent, according to the Georgetown data, and median earnings were $31,000.

Salm has done some internships in marketing and communications and is hoping to get a job in New York City doing data analytics marketing. He said he's turned down options that didn't seem to be the right fit and is willing to move back in with his parents in Florida for a little while until he can find the right position.

"I'm comfortable not getting a job right after graduation," he said.

The Georgetown report found that the overall unemployment rate for recent college graduates was 7.9 percent.

That may seem high, but unemployment rates for people in their 20s are generally higher than for older workers, and other research has shown that it pays to go to college, despite the high tuition costs and soaring student loan debt.

A Pew Charitable Trusts report released earlier this year found that young college grads fared betterthan their less educated peers during the recession and recovery. In addition, a recent batch of U.S. Census Bureau data found that people with a college degree earned nearly twice as much as people with a high school degree in the last three months of 2011.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn