For policymakers and educators in the humanities, some of the most important questions
concern the career paths of humanities students once they leave the university.
What kinds of work do they wind up doing? How much to they earn? In 2009, as part
American Community Survey
U.S. Census Bureau
began collecting data on the fields in which Americans earn undergraduate degrees.
These data reveal the share of humanities majors engaged in different types of occupations
and the amount those with humanities training earn at their jobs compared to workers
with science degrees and more professionally -oriented degrees, such as those in
business and education.
How directly are humanities majors applying the skills they acquired in their undergraduate
programs? How satisfied are they in their positions? These questions cannot be fully
addressed with existing data, but the findings of the
National Center for Education Statistics
Baccalaureate and Beyond
(B&B), a longitudinal study of graduating college seniors, give some answers
for one cohort of young Americans who graduated from college in the early-1990s.
In addition to providing information on the career paths of humanities college graduates,
this section focuses on the relationship between humanistic education and work in
fields such as business, medicine, and law. Analyses of employment data, as well
as data on graduate school admission tests, permit a rudimentary assessment of the
extent to which humanities training prepares college graduates for a diverse range
Occupations of College Graduates Who Majored in Humanities Disciplines
Updated (11/23/2011) with data from the 2009 American Community Survey.
Data pertaining to the occupations of college graduates who majored in the humanities
and other fields are now available from the
ACS, which has been administered
on an annual basis by the U.S. Census Bureau since 2005. The ACS replaced the “long
form” version of the decennial census and collects information—used to allocate
more than $400 billion in state and federal funding—about Americans’ personal characteristics,
family composition, employment, income, and housing.
This indicator uses ACS data to describe the occupational distribution of two distinct
groups. The first comprises holders of terminal bachelor’s degrees in the humanities.
The second group is the subset of employed1 humanities majors who, as of 2009, held advanced
degrees in the humanities or other fields (information on the field of advanced
degrees is not collected as a part of the ACS). As Supplemental Table III-3
indicates, employment rates were similar for the two groups, with approximately
84% of humanities terminal bachelor’s holders (TBHs) and 86% of advanced degree
holders (ADHs) having worked at some point in the five years before they responded
to the ACS.2
The HI has chosen to focus its analysis not merely on the currently employed but
on those college graduates who were employed at any time in the previous five years,
because the objective of this indicator is to shed as much light as possible on
what humanities majors go on to do in the way of paid employment and how this compares
to the occupational outcomes of those who majored in other fields. To consider only
the currently employed would be to lose information regarding, for example, the
employment experiences of the recently retired or those who have temporarily exited
the paid labor force to care for children or an elderly family member or to go back
This indicator also compares the occupational distribution of humanities majors
with those who earned bachelor’s degrees in other fields. The fields differ with
respect to the employment rates of their majors. Supplemental Table III-3
supplies information that facilitates comparison of the different fields along this
In 2009, slightly more than half of humanities TBHs, 56%, worked in management,
professional, and related occupations (Figure III-3a).3 These workers included the 15% of humanities TBHs
who were in education-related occupations, approximately two-thirds of them in precollegiate
teaching. Another 12% worked as managers of various kinds. The two next most prevalent
types of occupations in the management and professional category were business and
financial operations and arts, design, entertainment, and media, with approximately
7% of humanities TBHs holding jobs in each of these two broad occupational categories.
Looking beyond managerial/professional jobs, approximately 15% of terminal bachelor’s
holders in the humanities worked in office and administrative support occupations.
A similar proportion, 14%, worked in sales, while 9% held service jobs.
Figure III-3b compares humanities TBHs with workers who earned their terminal
bachelor’s degrees in other fields. Although humanities majors were less likely
than those in most other fields to hold professional, managerial, or related occupations,
humanities majors were the likeliest, with the exception of those who majored in
education, to work in the educational profession. Humanities TBHs were also more
likely to work in office and administrative support positions than were TBHs in
any other field. Additionally, compared to TBHs in other fields, humanities majors
were more evenly distributed across major occupational categories, a characteristic
they shared with behavioral and social science TBHs.
In 2009, approximately 44% of people with humanities bachelor’s degrees who had
worked in the previous five years possessed an advanced degree (Figure III-3c).
The humanities majors’ percentage was most similar to that of workers with undergraduate
training in education and the behavioral and social sciences. Workers who had majored
in the life or physical sciences had advanced degree completion rates of 57% and
54% and were the most likely to have pursued such additional academic training.
Workers with majors in engineering, health and medical science, arts, and business
were less likely than working humanities majors to have earned advanced degrees.
Workers who were business majors were the least likely to have obtained an advanced
degree, with approximately 22% having done so.
Humanities majors with advanced degrees were more likely to be working in management,
professional, and related jobs than were majors in the same field who had not pursued
additional education (Figure III-3d). Eighty-six percent of humanities ADHs
worked in occupations of this kind. Among such occupations, those related to education
were the most prevalent, with 31% of all humanities ADHs working in such jobs, more
than twice the percentage of TBHs who did so. Approximately 14% of humanities ADHs
were in precollegiate teaching and 11% in postsecondary. Legal occupations were
the next most common among ADHs who had majored in the humanities. Approximately
14% worked in such jobs.4
A cross-field analysis reveals that the disparity between humanities ADHs and ADHs
in other fields who held managerial, professional, or related positions was less
pronounced than that observed among TBHs (Figure III-3e). A comparison of
the fields also reveals that humanities ADHs and those with behavioral and social
science majors (approximately 15% of whom worked in legal professions) were several
times more likely than those with other types of undergraduate majors to have legal
jobs. As with humanities TBHs, humanities ADHs were more evenly distributed across
the major occupational sectors examined here than were their counterparts with undergraduate
majors in other fields.
Humanistic training at the undergraduate level seems to equip people—by offering
them marketable skills and/or allowing them to successfully pursue advanced training—to
operate in a variety of occupational roles. Approximately 19% of humanities TBHs
and 36% of humanities ADHs worked in “applied humanities” occupations. This occupational
category encompasses education-related jobs (although the ACS data do not indicate
whether those working in education are teaching humanities subjects or administering
programs with a humanities orientation), museum and library occupations, writers,
news analysts, reporters and correspondents, editors (text), and tour and travel
However, the data suggest that the bulk of humanities majors—including, for example,
the almost 8% of humanities ADHs who were employed in community and social service
occupations—worked in occupations that were not directly related to the disciplines
in which they received their degrees.6
1 At any time in the previous five years.
Supplemental Table III-3 also supplies an estimate of the proportion
of humanities majors who were employed when they completed the ACS questionnaire
(approximately 93% for those with terminal bachelor’s degrees in the humanities
and 96% of those who had majored in the humanities and then obtained an advanced
degree in the humanities or some other field). This rate is calculated by dividing
the number of currently employed degree holders by the number of degree holders
in the labor force. The way in which the current employment rate is calculated thus
results in a proportion that, counterintuitively, is higher than the share of college
graduates who were employed in the previous five years (the latter calculation includes
all college graduates with a given degree in the denominator, even those who were
not in the labor force at the time of the survey). See Supplemental Table III-3
for a link to a definition of “labor force” and other key concepts.
3 Respondents who had more than one job in the previous five years were
asked to report the job at which they worked the most hours.
4 For an estimate of the share of attorneys who have undergraduate degrees
in the humanities, see Indicator III-5,
Undergraduate Humanities Majors and the Professions.
5 TBHs in “applied humanities” occupations include educators (14.5% of all
humanities TBHs); museum and library staff (0.7%); writers (1.7%); news analysts,
reporters, and correspondents (0.4%); text editors (1.3%); and tour and travel guides
ADHs in “applied humanities” occupations include educators (30.5% of all humanities
ADHs); museum and library staff (2.43%); writers (1.54%); news analysts, reporters,
and correspondents (0.26%); text editors (1.04%); and tour and travel guides (0.04%).
6 This conclusion seems justified even though the way in which ACS classifies
occupations does not allow for the counting of humanities majors working in other
occupations, such as translators and historians, that can be thought of as humanistic
in their orientation.
Earnings and Job Satisfaction of Humanities Majors
Data from the ACS describe not only what kinds of occupations those with undergraduate
degrees in the humanities pursue (see Indicator III-3, Occupations of College Graduates
Who Majored in Humanities Disciplines) but also their earnings1 as compared with workers who earned bachelor’s
degrees in other fields. An analysis of the ACS data, along with job satisfaction
data collected as part of the B&B survey, provides a window on the rewards, both
monetary and psychological, that humanities majors’ work affords them.
This indicator uses ACS data to estimate the earnings of two distinct groups. The
first comprises full-time workers2 who hold terminal bachelor’s degrees in the humanities.
The second group is the subset of full-time workers with humanities bachelor’s degrees
who, as of 2009, also held advanced degrees in the humanities and other fields (information
on the field of advanced degrees is not collected as part of the ACS). As
Supplemental Table III-4 indicates, employment rates were similar for the
two groups, with approximately 66% of humanities terminal bachelor’s holders (TBHs)
and 70% of advanced degree holders (ADHs) having been employed full-time in the
12 months preceding their completion of the 2009 ACS questionnaire.3
This indicator also compares the earnings of humanities majors with those of workers
who hold bachelor’s degrees in other fields. The fields differ with respect to the
advanced degree attainment and employment rates (especially full-time employment
rates) of their majors. Supplemental Table III-4
supplies information that facilitates comparison of the different fields along these
The median earnings reported by male humanities TBHs (all earnings estimates are
for those who worked full-time) were $54,0004 for the 12 months preceding response to the ACS
(Figure III-4a; estimates of the 25th and 75th percentile earnings for humanities
majors and majors in the other fields examined here are included in the supporting
data table for this figure5).
Male humanities TBHs’ earnings were most similar to those of men with terminal bachelor’s
degrees in the life sciences and arts. The humanities median was 68% of that of
male engineering TBHs (the group with the highest median earnings) and 84% of that
for all male TBHs.
The median earnings of female TBHs were $43,000, or 80% of the male median. Female
humanities TBHs’ earnings were most similar to those of their counterparts in the
behavioral and social sciences and the life sciences. The humanities median for
women was 65% of that for women with TBHs in engineering, the group with the highest
median earnings. Women’s median earnings were somewhat closer than were men’s to
the median for all fields, with the female humanities median being 92% of that for
all women with terminal bachelor’s degrees. Additionally, the gap between humanities
majors’ earnings and those of majors in better-paying fields tended to be lower
for women than for men.
At 20%, the gender earnings gap experienced by TBHs in the humanities (calculated
by the Humanities Indicators as the difference between men’s and women’s median
earnings divided by men’s median earnings, in keeping with
OECD practice) was toward the middle
of the range found among the different fields; it was well below the gender gap
observed in the behavioral and social sciences, physical sciences, and business,
but greater than that in engineering, health and medical sciences, arts, and education.
The gender gap for humanities was six percentage points lower than that for all
In 2009, 45% of humanities majors with full-time employment possessed at least one
advanced degree in the humanities or another field (see Supplemental Table III-4).
Male humanities ADHs (advanced degree holders whose bachelor’s degrees are in the
humanities; an ADH’s advanced degree may be in any field) reported median earnings
of $80,000, while their female counterparts’ median earnings were $60,000 (Figure
III-4b). The humanities median for men was most similar to that for the
behavioral and social sciences, but the latter was still $10,000 higher. The median
earnings of male humanities ADHs were 78% of the highest earning ADHs, those with
bachelor’s degrees in life sciences, and were 89% of the median earnings of all
Female ADHs with the highest median earnings were those with undergraduate degrees
in engineering. Median earnings of humanities ADHs were approximately 71% of those
of engineering ADHs but only $1,000 less than the median for all female ADHs. As
was true for men, the median earnings of female ADHs with humanities degrees were
most similar—equivalent, in fact—to those of female behavioral and social science
majors who later earned advanced degrees.
The gap between men’s and women’s median earnings was five percentage points higher
for advanced degree holders with humanities majors than for humanities TBHs. This
was lower than in the sciences and business but substantially higher than in engineering,
education, and the arts. In all higher-paying fields but one—engineering—female
humanities ADHs’ earnings were closer to those of other majors than were the earnings
of male humanities ADHs.
Figure III-4c depicts the earnings boost experienced by humanities majors
who obtain an advanced degree in any field. The median gain was higher for men (48%)
than for women (40%), as was the case in the natural sciences and business. For
both male and female humanities ADHs, the boost was most similar in magnitude to
that experienced by ADHs with bachelor’s degrees in the behavioral and social sciences.
It was considerably lower than that of life sciences majors, the group of ADHs that
realized the greatest monetary boost from their advanced degrees (81% for men; 56%
for women), but higher than that of majors in all fields combined.
The range in median earnings among specific humanities disciplines was far narrower
than among the broad academic fields discussed above (Figure III-4d). At
the low end, male TBHs with degrees in area, ethnic, and civilization studies reported
median earnings of $49,000, compared to male U.S. history TBHs, who made $60,000,
the greatest median earnings level among examined disciplines. A median earnings
estimate was not available for women with U.S. history majors, but among the other
humanities disciplines the range of female median earnings was even narrower than
that for men, with linguistics and comparative language and literature TBHs, the
lowest earners, reporting median earnings of $38,000 and majors in English language
and literature and art history/criticism, the highest earners, reporting $45,000.
In all humanities disciplines, men made more than women. The gender gap in median
earnings ranged from 13% for English and art history/criticism to 27% for history
(non-U.S.), linguistics, and comparative language and literature majors.
The humanities majors who enjoyed the greatest boost in median earnings (69%) from
the attainment of an advanced degree were holders of degrees in less commonly studied
languages other than English (Figure III-4e). Philosophy and religious studies
majors who pursued advanced training experienced the least substantial earnings
boost, reporting median earnings that were 36% higher than TBHs in the discipline.
The job satisfaction data presented here were collected in 2003 from survey respondents
who had left college ten years earlier. (Although almost a decade old, these data
are the most recent of their kind available.) They reveal that despite the interfield
differences in earnings described above, majors in all academic fields reported
similarly high average levels of job satisfaction: 87–93% of respondents described
themselves as being “generally satisfied” with their jobs (Figure III-4f;
these jobs are not necessarily in the fields in which graduates received their degrees).
In response to being asked whether their current employment afforded them opportunities
to use their education, 78% of humanities majors said it did (education and health
services majors reported the greatest levels of this type of satisfaction, approximately
90% and 85%). The majority of humanities majors also reported that their jobs provided
opportunity for advancement. The only groups to report substantially higher levels
of satisfaction with this aspect of their jobs were biological and physical science
1 For the purposes of the ACS, the U.S. Census Bureau defines earnings as
“the sum of wage or salary income and net income from self-employment. ‘Earnings’
represent the amount of income received regularly for people 16 years old and over
before deductions for personal income taxes, Social Security, bond purchases, union
dues, Medicare deductions, etc. An individual with earnings is one who has either
wage/salary income or self-employment income, or both. Respondents who ‘break even’
in self-employment income and therefore have zero self-employment earnings also
are considered ‘individuals with earnings’” (from ACS documentation provided at
http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Downloads/data_documentation/SubjectDefinitions/2009_ACSSubjectDefinitions.pdf, p. 81).
2 A full-time worker is defined as an individual who has worked at least
35 hours per week for 50 or more weeks (including paid vacation) in the preceding
3 This rate was calculated by dividing the number of degree holders who
reported working full-time by the number of degree holders in the labor force. See
Supplemental Table III-4 for a link to the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition
of “labor force” and other key terms.
4 All earnings figures have been rounded to the nearest $1,000.
5 The 25th and 75th percentiles are known as the upper and lower quartiles.
Quartiles are statistics that divide the observations of a numeric sample into several
groups, each of which contains 25% of the data. The lower, middle, and upper quartiles
are computed by ordering the values for a particular variable from smallest to largest
and then finding the values below which fall 25%, 50%, and 75% of the data. The
lower quartile and the upper quartile are the two values that define the interquartile
range (the middle quartile is also known as the median). The interquartile range,
which excludes the most extreme values of a data distribution, is used to describe
the range of “typical” or “usual” values exhibited by a set of persons or objects.
Undergraduate Humanities Majors and the Professions
In order to assess the extent to which individuals with undergraduate majors in
the humanities are prepared for professional employment, this indicator first focuses
on their performance on professional school entrance examinations in business, medicine,
and law. To be sure, data on the educational backgrounds of those taking professional
school admission examinations do not reveal what careers those individuals actually
pursue. Nonetheless, given the substantial fees and preparation involved in professional
school examinations, test-taking by humanities majors does in itself indicate what
career options they are seriously exploring. Moreover, test results can provide
some measure of the applicability of the humanistic knowledge and skills gained
in college to the entrance requirements for various professional occupations. After
reviewing such professional examination data, this indicator looks more generally
at professional degree holders in order to ascertain what proportion of them have
bachelor’s degrees in the humanities.
Data on who takes the
Graduate Management Admission Test
(GMAT), which are available from the Graduate Management Admission Council, reveal
that GMAT test takers are less likely to be humanities majors than graduates in
any other field, constituting 4–6% of all examinees over the 2000–2009 time period
(Figure III-5a). Students with humanities backgrounds have, however, performed
better than business majors, on average, and approximately as well as social and
natural science majors (Figure III-5b).
Like the GMAT, the
Medical College Admission Test
(MCAT) did not draw many of its examinees from the ranks of humanities majors, who
must do significant work in science, in addition to fulfilling the requirements
for their major, in order to be prepared for the MCAT and apply to medical school.
According to data provided by the American Association of
Medical Colleges, from 1991 to 2009 the proportion of those taking the MCAT who
were humanities majors was approximately 3–4% (Figure III-5c).1 Even though they were in the minority, humanities
majors were strong performers relative to majors in other fields. From 1991 to 2000
they were the highest-scoring group of majors on the MCAT, and from 2001 to 2009
only math and statistics majors scored appreciably higher (Figure III-5d).
Takers of the
Law School Admission Test
(LSAT) are much likelier than those of other professional school examinations to
have undergraduate degrees in the humanities. From 1996 to 2009, the humanities
share of LSAT examinees hovered around 20% of all test takers, according to data
provided to the HI by the Law School Admission Council (Figure III-5e). Over
this time period, humanities majors performed slightly better on the exam than behavioral
and social science graduates, and their average score was within one point of engineering,
math, and natural science majors (Figure III-5f).
From 1996 to 2008, according to data from the
U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income
and Program Participation, approximately
6–8% of all noninstitutionalized U.S. civilians with medical degrees had undergraduate
degrees in the humanities (Figure III-5g). In 2008, 22% of those holding
advanced degrees in law (LL.B., J.D., and Ph.D.) had majored in humanities (down
from the 2001 high of 28%). This proportion was larger than that for any other field,
and it would have been even greater if those with bachelor’s degrees in history—a
discipline considered by the HI to be part of the humanities field, but one that
the Census Bureau classifies as a social science—had been included (Figure III-5h).
1 The figure excludes the percentage of examinees who reported an undergraduate
major in biology. These students are the majority of MCAT test takers.
The AAMC defines the humanities field rather differently than the HI. The former
considers library science and the performing arts to be humanities disciplines but
treats history as a social science discipline.