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Indicator III-4 Earnings and Job Satisfaction of Humanities Majors
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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Updated (3/20/2012) with data from the 2009 American Community Survey (ACS).

A similar analysis has since been conducted by the Census Bureau using 2011 ACS data. Please note that the Bureau conceptualizes the “humanities” somewhat differently than does the Humanities Indicators (HI). The report supplies earnings estimates for two sub-sets of disciplines included by the HI in the humanities field, “literature and languages” and “liberal arts and history”. Additionally, Census has released a report that examines lifetime earnings by field of degree and occupation.

Earnings tend to be greater and unemployment lower among older college graduates. For a comparison of recent college graduates and more experienced graduates, see the 2012 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The Center’s findings are based on an analysis of 2009–2010 ACS data.

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 dimensions.

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.

Figure III-4a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

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 TBHs.

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 ADHs.

Figure III-4b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

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.

Figure III-4c, Full Size
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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.

Figure III-4d, Full Size
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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.

Figure III-4e, Full Size
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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 majors.

Figure III-4f, Full Size
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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, 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 12 months.

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.

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