Post-college dissonance and disguised unemployment

About 14 days ago, the American job exchange published the results of its latest survey of college graduates who intend to look for a new job in the next six months ( A key question in the study was whether respondents regretted the specializations they chose in college.

Journalism, sociology, humanities and general studies, and communications topped the list of most regretted college majors. After all, 87% of those who got a degree in journalism said that if they could turn back time and space, they would choose a different direction. The figures for dissatisfied students in sociology, humanities and general studies, and communications were 72%, 72%, and 64%, respectively.

The graduates who were most satisfied with their college studies were those who had majored in computer and information science (72%), criminology (72%), engineering (71%), and nursing (69%). This is of course an American survey, but the results could also be relevant for India. The conclusions clearly point to some universal economic realities. The men and women who are happiest with their degrees are the ones whose jobs pay the best. Completing the top 10 list of least regret college majors are health, business, finance, psychology, construction and human resource management. In contrast, the list of most regretted people is heavily biased toward the humanities: education, political science, English literature, and so on.

Computer scientists, engineers and MBAs have far better job and earnings prospects compared to journalism, sociology or English studies, notwithstanding the recent round of layoffs at big tech companies like Meta, Amazon and Google. Most liberal arts graduates may end up in jobs that are not very closely related to their degree unless they choose a career in science. After all, how much does a philosophical foundation help you in an advertising or banking job?

It’s also about the return on investment. In recent decades, a number of private universities have emerged in India that focus on the humanities. They are also very expensive – tuition and dorm costs can add up to 15 lakhs a year. However, it is unlikely that a liberal arts graduate from these schools would start her career with a salary exceeding 5 lakhs per year. From a financial point of view, this is not a big investment.

Most of these students come from wealthy families. Many of their parents may also have been exposed to the general tendency of the Indian middle class to be pushed into the profession of engineer or accountant by parental pressure. I know dozens of alumni from Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other elite engineering institutes who want their children to be relieved of such stress and even encourage them to study liberal arts. It is a common remark among these people that one of the flaws in their training was their lack of adequate exposure to the liberal arts.

But a liberal arts degree alone may not pay off. And the young people in this family income bracket are largely cushioned from economic strains. Many of them don’t feel the pressure to be financially successful that previous generations felt at their age. It’s not uncommon for wealthy parents of Gen Z people to complain that their offspring don’t seem interested in a “steady career” with a steady income. Trying to find their groove in life — vloggers, stand-up comedians, bakery owners — they remain financially supported by their parents, some of whom suffer from a vague guilt that they didn’t give their children enough time and attention when they needed it. The result: while children with expensive education have a lot of free time, the parents are very busy earning money.

Further down the family wealth scale, we see an explosion in the number of PhD admissions to universities across the country. According to the latest All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) by the Indian Ministry of Education, enrollments for PhD students increased by more than 60% between 2015-16 and 2019-20, from 126,315 to 202,449 ( Of these, about 42,000 researchers worked in areas of the liberal arts, from philosophy and religious studies to various foreign languages ​​and music.

But how many of these graduate students are pursuing a real and useful science? How many are there because they couldn’t find a job and are making a comfortable living on the monthly PhD grant while they seek real employment or prepare for the civil service exam? According to salary research website, the annual doctoral salary in India ranges between 0.3 lakh and 10.7 lakh, with an average of 4.1 lakhs.

Do we need 825 PhDs in Fine Arts, as AISHE reports? How many of the 2,378 doctoral students in political science can our universities and think tanks accommodate? And what is the quality of the research carried out? Is it what economists call “disguised unemployment”?

The unavoidable truth is that the world sees more economic value in yet another mobile game than it does in a groundbreaking historical analysis. And it’s sad to see that so many college graduates are confused or uncertain about their future and regret what they studied and what they devoted three years or more of their lives to.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express and founder and editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.

Get all the business news, market news, breaking news and latest news updates on Live Mint. Download the Mint News app for daily market updates.

More less