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So, I'm an Econ Major, What's in It for Me?

Economics is an unusual major that plays different roles for different people. For those of you in a liberal arts program with no business major it is as close to business as you're going to get. A major in economics will come closest to learning the basics of business. So you can major in economics to prepare you for business. For students in a college with a business major, economics is as far as you can get from business while still staying within business.

In some colleges economics is in the arts and sciences school; in others it is in the business school. Whichever it is in, economics teaches the same material, and serves as a foundation for all business. That ability of economics to be in either school says a lot about what the econ major is.

The most important skill that businesses want are people who can think and solve problems. Particular occupations may require special skills, but the needed skills change. The need for people who can think and solve problems does not. Economics is probably the major that best trains you to think in a way that's useful for solving problems. That's what's in it for you. It turns you into a thinking machine that businesses highly value. As a sidelight, becoming a thinking machine changes the way you view life and understand problems.

What do Econ Majors Do after Graduation?

Econ majors do all kinds of things after graduation. For example, consider the following individuals. What do you think they have in common?

  • Mick Jagger (singer)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Supreme Court Justice)
  • Roy Romer (Former Governor of Colorado, current Superintendent of Los Angeles Schools)
  • Richard Trumka (President of the United Mine Workers)
  • George Bush (Former President of the U.S.)
  • Mose Allison (Jazz Artist)
  • John Elway (Former NFL Quarterback)
  • Les Aspin (Former Secretary of Defense)
  • William Isaac (Former Chairman of the FDIC)

Obviously, the answer is that they majored in economics. Otherwise we wouldn't have asked the question.

Now, we're not saying that majoring in economics helped Mick Jagger's singing, (but it may have helped him manage his money). We are saying that economics should be seen as an all round major that prepares you to be an all round person. All the other business majors developed as spin-offs of economics. With economics you study the core reasoning that underlies all business decisions. It's like studying the operating systems of computers rather than studying software. John Maynard Keynes said, "the theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique which helps its possessor to draw correct conclusions."

His quotation helps to explain why economics majors pursue a wide variety of careers after graduation. Economics is an approach to decision making that is valuable to all aspects of life. Individuals, employers and graduate schools find the techniques used in economics "to draw correct conclusions" very useful. For these reasons economics majors are found pursuing all sorts of careers after graduation, and very often they are not in positions titled "economist." If you're thinking of becoming a lawyer, economics is a perfect major. If you're planning on becoming a CEO or running your own business, economics is a perfect major. If you're planning on becoming an investment banker, economics is a perfect major. However if you're planning on becoming a CPA, economics is not the major for you.

The table below, collected at one liberal arts college (Mary Washington College) over many years, shows that no single type of employer tends to hire economics majors upon graduation. The large percent (9.8) found in the "other" category also highlights that what you can do with an education in economics is unlimited!

Type of Employer
Percent of Graduates
Traditional Business
23.3
Government
18.4
Financial Business
17.7
Graduate School
13.7
Consulting Services
4.4
Private/public School
3.9
Law Firm
3.5
Other
9.8

 

The 3 General Types of Economists

There are three general categories of economists: business economists, government economists and academic economists. Each type of economist applies the economic approach to decision making in a different setting.

Business Economists

Business economists work in manufacturing, mining, transportation, communications, banking, insurance, retailing, investment, and other types of organizations. They also work in trade associations and consulting organizations.

For more information on business economists, see the web site for the National Association of Business Economists (NABE).

Government Economists

Many economists are hired by federal, state, and local governments and serve in a wide variety of positions involving analysis and policy making.

For more information about positions for economists in government, go to USAJobs, which lists job openings at Federal agencies or see positions listed on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors web site. From the Board of Governors web site you can also go to each of the 12 Federal Reserve Bank home pages and check their job listings.

Women and Minorities in Economics

Women and minorities make up a small, but growing percentage of economists. Several organizations support women and minorities in the economics profession. Visit the web sites of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) and the National Economics Association (NEA - formerly the Caucus of Black Economists)

While there may be fewer women economics majors and fewer female economists, evidence shows that, when it comes to salaries, women do well. A Washington Post article titled "Majoring in Money," (Sunday, March 24, 1996) listed the Annual Earnings by College Undergraduate Major for Women aged 35-44 for the top five majors - and economics was #1! The article described an economics degree for women as "golden."

Annual Earnings by College Undergraduate Major Women Aged 35-44 (top 5)
Economics
$49,170
Engineering
$49,070
Pharmacy
$48, 427
Architecture
$46,353
Computer Science
$43,757

Salaries

Graduates with a degree in economics earn, on average, high salaries. A survey by the National Association of Business Economists found the median annual base salary for economists was $70,000. Data from by the National show that economics majors have higher earning potential than other business or social science majors. To view more information on salaries earned by economics majors, check out the SUNY Oswego's web site or the College Placement Council Salary Survey. If you want an idea of what Federal Employees earn at various pay scales, you can find it on the Office of Personnel Salary Tables.

Economics as Preparation for Graduate Studies

A degree in economics prepares you not only for graduate study in economics, but also for graduate study in a variety of related fields. Economics majors do very well getting into and out of law school. Economics is excellent preparation for a Masters in Business Administration. Economics majors also go on to different types of graduate programs in public policy or international affairs. Economics is also excellent preparation for many interdisciplinary majors such as urban studies or environmental policy.

To see a listing of economics departments, institutes, and research centers around the world, go to the EDIRC web site.

The Search

For an overall view of occupations available, check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook. It describes almost every possible job, lists what education is needed as well as earnings and job prospects. After you've decided what job you're looking for, you'll have to prepare a resume, find job openings and get ready for the interview. A number of web sites provide help in all these areas. Quintessential Careers provides resources specifically for college students. Careers in Business has links to various career areas, a list of books on jobs in business and links to help you write resumes and cover letters.