accounting

Picking a college major in the fall? Don't choose business.

August 22, 2013: 10:05 AM ET

It might seem like a practical choice, but a bachelor's in business is a ticket to underemployment, one study says.

FORTUNE -- Here's a quick quiz: Which college major is more likely to lead to a job waiting tables after graduation, business or drama? The latter is the obvious answer -- especially if you spend much time in New York City or Los Angeles, where your average waitperson is just killing time between auditions -- but it's business.

According to an analysis of 10 popular college majors by PayScale.com, using the 40 million job profiles in its database, theatre grads are toiling at jobs that don't use their skills at a rate of 6.9 times the general working population. But business majors fare even worse. They are 8.2 times more likely than average to be underemployed.

It's a simple case of supply exceeding demand -- too many candidates with undergraduate business degrees are chasing too few management-track openings. While the economy is slowly but surely creating more jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' July employment report showed that most of them are in retail stores, restaurants, and bars, where bachelor's degrees are usually not required.

MORE: Ford's long, hard road to rebuild Lincoln

That's not to say that students should shun business courses. On the contrary: A bachelor's in general business administration is no longer enough, PayScale says. Now, getting a foot in the door of the corporate world takes specialization in a high-demand area like accounting or finance, or going after an MBA, or (ideally) both.

Thanks in part to TV shows like CSI and NCIS, the number of criminal justice majors has soared in recent years. "Graduates imagine solving crimes and keeping the world safe," the PayScale report observes. The good news is that many grads do end up with jobs as police officers, paralegals, and security guards, which the report notes are at least related to criminal justice, adding, "The real crime here is that [these jobs] can be held without paying for a four-year degree." That earns criminal justice majors an underemployment rate of 6.9 -- tied for second place with their thespian peers.

The rest of PayScale's 10 most underemployed majors and their scores: Anthropology (5.8), liberal arts (5.6), history (5.5), psychology (5), biology (4.9), English (4.6), and economics (3.1). Getting anywhere interesting with any of these will probably require stopping off for a couple of years of grad school first, PayScale notes.

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Even a bachelor's in economics, with its relatively low score of 3.1, will most likely lead to a job as a customer service rep, bank teller, or retail sales associate -- again, positions that don't generally call for four years of college. "Many economics students have big dreams of saving the economy," says the PayScale report. "So it can come as a shock to realize the economy might keep them from realizing their career plans."

One consolation, however slight, for grads laboring at jobs where they aren't using their education: At least they're working somewhere. In July, unemployment among 18-to-29-year-olds stood at 16.1% for the second month in a row, the highest sustained jobless rate for this age group in nearly 70 years.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story repeatedly referred to PayPal as the publisher of the analysis on college majors cited in this piece. The publisher of this particular report was PayScale.com. 

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