This morning I stumbled across an article on Yahoo! Eduction with the provocative title "College Majors That Are Useless". Curiosity made me look at the article. What I saw made me double down on my morning coffee intake, since I assumed my brain was not yet functioning.
Two disclaimers are warranted. First, my majors were mathematics and mathematics (with a little statistics in between), so I have no personal attachment to the listed majors. Second, and somewhat contrary, I've spent almost 39 years at Michigan State University (the former Michigan Agricultural College), a land-grant institution with a very strong College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) and a respected agricultural extension service. While we are a typical, well-rounded university (strong in physics, education and a variety of other fields), we're very proud here of both our land-grant tradition and our strength in agricultural fields. (Note to snobs: Cornell University is another land-grant university.)
CANR is not hurting for majors, and I have not heard of any problems with placement of those majors, so I was rather shocked to see that the first, fourth and fifth "most useless" majors (agriculture, animal science and horticulture) all came from their domain. As a sidebar, we also offer the other two listed majors, apparel design and theater, albeit in different colleges. The article cites the "National Association of Colleges and Employers' (NACE) 2012 Job Outlook study", which is free to members (whoever they may be), and which apparently "surveyed almost 1,000 employers on their future hiring plans". Our library system does not have it, so I can comment on neither their methods of data acquisition and analysis nor the accuracy with which their findings were reported in the article. Naturally, that won't stop me from commenting on the article itself.
First, as a colleague pointed out to me, the article states that 24,988 agriculture degrees (baccalaureate? all levels?) were awarded (in the United States?) in 2008-2009. Amazingly, again according to the article, 24,988 horticulture degrees were awarded that same year. (I should have gone to commencement exercises. Do you suppose that the two majors paraded together in pairs, as if boarding the ark?) The article reports 89,140 degrees awarded in fashion design that year, which in another coincidence is exactly the number of theater degrees awarded. Two cosmic coincidences in the same article ... I wonder what the probability of that is?
For what it's worth, the article cites the source of the degree counts as The Daily Beast's list of "20 Most Useless Degrees". The first "useless degree" cited on that list, in what I consider to be a multilayered bit of irony (and with an apology to yet more of my colleagues), is journalism.
Second, referring to the NACE study, the article states that "[m]any areas of study, such as fashion design and the performing arts, didn't even make the list". Does this mean that two of the five "useless" majors were designated that way because there was little or no data in the study on them? The article does quote job growth or decline projections for all five majors, including fashion design and theater, obtained from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Third, the criterion of "uselessness" of a major is not clearly spelled out in the article. From the focus on numbers of jobs and projected trends in those numbers, I infer that "uselessness" relates in some way to job prospects. Operations researchers know that if you are going to develop a normative model, you need to define your criterion or criteria carefully. This is what drove me to blog about the article: not just that the criterion is at best implicitly specified, but that it is not tied to the data in any logical way that I can see.
Is a major "useless" if the number of related jobs is declining? That is suggested in the discussion of agriculture, the first (and therefore most?) "useless" major on the list. "... That means less [sic] jobs. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor projects 64,000 fewer jobs in this field over the next seven years." Okay, then why is theater (with projected job growth of 11% in the same time frame) third on the list of "useless" majors.
Is "uselessness" based on a glut of applicants? You might speculate that from the inclusion of fashion design, where the government says there were 22,700 jobs in 2008 (with a projected 1% growth over the next seven years) and the article claims that 89,140 students (all with a dual major in theater?) graduated with degrees. That would be rather scary if the only relevant job for someone with a fashion or apparel design degree were as a fashion designer (and assuming that fashion designers had a projected career span of more than three months). My impression, though, is that retail chains like to hire fashion/apparel design majors as buyers, because they bring an understanding of the product to their work. Similarly, agriculture majors are in demand for more than managing farms; food safety inspectors, sales representatives and marketers for firms selling agricultural equipment or products, buyers for grocery chains etc. may all benefit from that degree. In any case, if the ratio of jobs to graduates is the concern (and I assume that jobs here include occupied positions, not just open positions), then agriculture (25,000 degrees in '08-'09 versus 1,234,000 "agricultural managers" in 2008) would seem to be a pretty appealing choice. That's roughly one graduate for every 49 positions, which would be about replacement rate if you assumed 2% turnover per year. For comparison purposes, if you ran a company with a fixed number of positions, and your employees stayed for life and retired after an average of 40 years on the job, that would be 2.5% turnover. (By the way, in an article full of statistical "coincidences", I have to look at the first four digits of "1,234,000" and wonder if that's another one.)
I've ranted long enough, so let's just conclude this with two thoughts. The first is that I am, shall we say, unpersuaded by the article. The second, referring back to the title of this post, and tying into recent posts by Mike Trick and others, is that if I were trying to devise a new college major today, based on need, it would be titled something like "journalistic analytics", and it would focus not on parsing server logs at a site like the Daily Beast but rather on how to draw and present meaningful conclusions from the analysis of data.