STEM or Liberal Arts? Which One Should You Pick?

Well, that depends.

Last year, Emsi (the folks behind Find Your Calling) produced a list of the college degrees that have grown or declined the most since the recession. What did we find? Not a whole lot that would surprise you.

Over half of the top 10 fastest-growing degrees are in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), while humanities and social sciences programs tanked. Below are more details about program growth and decline from 2010 to 2014.

College Degrees With the Most Growth

15-1141_heroSix of the top 10 fastest-growing degrees are STEM-related.

  • Science technologies/technicians: +1,521 new college grads (49% growth)
  • Natural resources and conservation: +7,792 (45% growth)
  • Mathematics and statistics: +9,384 (35% growth)
  • Computer and information sciences ad support services: +38,194 (32% growth)
  • Precision production: +9,581 (30% growth)
  • Engineering: +32,058 (26% growth)

Degrees With the Greatest Decline

27-3042_heroEight of the 10 fastest-declining degrees were in humanities and social sciences (and closely related to teaching occupations).

  • Library science: -1,432 (17% decline)
  • Education: -33,301 (9% decline)
  • History: -3,561 (8% decline)
  • Construction trades: -1,980 (6% decline)
  • Philosophy and religious studies: -542 (3% decline)
  • English language and literature/letters: -1,571 (2% decline)
  • Foreign languages, literatures and linguistics: -683 (2% decline)
  • Architecture and related sciences: -217 (1% decline)

Degrees That Pay the Most

On top of this, it’s no secret that STEM-related degrees (like engineering or business & economics) tend to reap bigger paychecks. The chart below from The Economist shows the difference in average wages.


Picking a Degree

What does all this mean? The fact that so many college students are choosing STEM-related degrees over humanities and social sciences demonstrates that young Americans have picked up the fact that most of the top jobs for college grads for growth and wages (whether you have an AA or a BA degree) are STEM-related.

But. (There’s always a but.) This isn’t to discourage students from pursuing those art and poetry degrees. We need both nurses and philosophers; engineers and lawyers; software developers and history teachers. The truth is, some education should be career-oriented; some should not. Neither is better. The question is, Better for what? Better for whom?

Ditches, as they say, lie on either side of the road. One weakness of STEM-career education is that it can lock you onto too narrow a path; your career options might be powerful, but they are also more niche. Also, the current obsession with STEM programs could actually lead (in the not too distant future) to an oversupply of STEM grads. It may be hard to imagine the demand for computer programmers ever dying down, but a similar phenomenon might have already arrived with nurses.

Liberal arts degrees’ main weakness is that they don’t correlate as directly with many occupations, making your career path murkier. On top of this, far too many students default to this education (“I guess I’ll be a psych major”) without considering whether it’s their real passion or whether they have a clear idea of what they might do with it.

How to fix this? Turn the degree’s weakness into a strength. If a liberal arts education doesn’t translate straight to any one occupation, it’s because it can prepare you for a whole host of options. Be a technical writer. Teach law. Work in sales. Even run your own company. Besides this, employers across the board (yes, even in STEM industries) are on the hunt for capable communicators, writers, and critical thinkers—the sort of workers that liberal arts degrees help cultivate.

Whatever degree you’re interested in, explore how it connects to the labor market and determine whether it will make you a valuable employee. A brand new prototype from Emsi called Your Degree in the Job Market lets you do just that: Simply search for the degree in question and the results will show you which companies are hiring for workers with that degree, the jobs available, the skills you’d need, and the top cities for those jobs. The surprising truth? You can do quite a lot with that “useless” liberal arts degree.

The point is to know yourself, know the labor market, and build an education path that works for both. Using concrete information on employability, wages, and the like, you can then be sure you have found your calling—be it coding, philosophy, economics, or literature.

Which is exactly what Find Your Calling is all about.

Use Find Your Calling to discover high-wage, in-demand careers you’ll love and plan the education you need. Get started with our free Discovery QuestionnaireGet career tips and college advice by following FYC on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Sign up here for the monthly newsletter. Contact me at

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