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The dying breed of economics majors

All the unemployed people, where do they come from? Ask any of your Asian parents, and even they will definitively answer, “The (enter humanities major here) department.” But they would be wrong. Because, nowadays, more and more Princeton graduates with degrees in the humanities are successfully finding jobs in the financial sector.

In fact, many students at Princeton are purposefully opting out of the straightforward economics major and instead choosing to concentrate in the classics, philosophy, history, art history, comparative literature, etc., but still with the intent of graduating and then securing a job in the finance industry. Some of them choose to complete a finance certificate, but a fair amount will not even pursue that. And they are finding the same jobs as many of our economics majors.

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Having asked multiple humanities majors about their future career options, most casually respond that, if they do not end up with a job in their respective concentration, they can always go into finance as a backup. As a backup. Even science and engineering majors are ostensibly starting to consider finance as a secondary plan for their future careers and internships. This trend is perceptible among Princeton students.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the way the major of economics itself is regarded. That is to say, anyone here can do it. Not only that, but they can simply learn it on the job, without the formal education that many bother to go through. But that, to me, is a problem. Surely the economics major cannot be a vestigial part of the college system. Students spend four years toward learning about capital, demand, assets, investments. They write an entire thesis on the subject. How can that possibly equate to a humanities major, which involves less than half of the mathematics and economics course requirements?

Some will claim this trend is reminiscent of another moderately recent student tendency: Many pre-med students are also predisposed toward majoring in seemingly unrelated disciplines yet go on to become doctors, surgeons, etc. Perhaps being at a school such as Princeton and earning above-average grades is enough to prove one’s aptitude to a company or a school. But those students then go on to four years of medical school. On the other hand, those going into the financial industry are unique in that they transition straight from undergraduate to employee.

To go directly into employment with little to no prior knowledge of the subject, to not be well versed in the subject of one’s occupation, strikes me as strange. Would we put so much trust in a student who becomes a doctor immediately after graduation and without extensive medical training? Would we trust a lawyer who graduated without having lengthily studied our law system? We don’t. So why is this the exception? Why do we no longer expect the same standards of prior knowledge out of this select group?

We should also evaluate the employers’ role in this growing trend. Consider the recent Career Fair, held on Sept. 23: 38 employers listed themselves in the finance or financial consulting industry; of those 38, 29 specified which majors they would consider for hire for finance and consulting positions; of those 29, 22 listed “All majors.”

That means only seven employers specified exactly which majors they were looking for to fill their finance-oriented positions. And out of those seven, only three of those companies specified for only “Finance” and “Economics” majors. The other four also included the various engineering disciplines, mathematics, computer science and other general science majors in their lists. Thus, about 92 percent of employers in the finance industry are looking to hire students from most concentrations for finance positions, a fairly high statistic.

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Reputable finance companies like Credit Suisse are ready to hire you, the Princeton graduate, no matter what your major is. To me, that says that financial companies, and the people who work for them, no longer value an economics degree over a humanities one. Are we truly to believe that hiring undergraduates straight from unrelated disciplines, who have not bothered with economics courses, who did not even complete a finance certificate, is justifiable? Or is economics a dying major here at Princeton because students can in fact pick up the necessary skills and knowledge on the job itself? Is this growing tendency a result of the students themselves or of the changing practices of financial companies? Whatever their reasons, the trend is discernible. What the future consequences will be, beneficial or detrimental, we cannot be sure.

Kinnari Shah is a sophomore from Washington, N.J. She can be reached at kmshah@princeton.edu.

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