In Being John Malkovich, anti-hero Craig Schwartz whines, “Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate.”  The Great Recession has made a lot of college graduates feel like Craig Schwartz.  If you major in philosophy, history, or puppetry, you probably won’t land a job as a philosopher, historian, or puppeteer.  If philosophy, history, and puppetry majors find a job, it’s usually an unrelated field.  Labor economists call this “mismatch.”

This week I’ve read all the leading academic research on mismatch.  The single most enlightening piece: John Robst’s “Education and Job Match: The Relatedness of College Major and Work” (Economics of Education Review 2007). 

In self-reports, roughly 55% of college majors say their job and major are “closely related,” 25% say “somewhat related,” and 20% say “not related.”  These self-reports probably understate the severity of mismatch; after all, it’s embarrassing to admit that you couldn’t find a job that uses your skills. 

In relative terms, though, self-reported mismatch seems meaningful.  Robst reports three robust laws of major mismatch.  The first two are precisely what you’d expect:

1. Vocational-sounding majors like engineering, computer science, health professions, and architecture have low mismatch; “Mickey Mouse” majors like English, foreign languages, philosophy, and liberal arts have high mismatch.

2. Mismatch leads to lower income.  People with “somewhat related” majors earn 2-3% less.  People with “not related” majors earn 10-12% less.

The last result, though, puts all the empirics in a new light:

3. The more vocational your major, the larger the negative effect of mismatch on earnings.  The least vocational majors suffer little or no financial harm from mismatch:

Individuals who majored in business management, engineering, the health professions, computer science, or law all face more than 20% wage penalties for working outside the field of study. The wage effects are insignificant in liberal arts, English, and are statistically significant but small in the social sciences and education.

Philosophy/religion/theology majors average 20% higher income if they don’t use their major on the job!

For “Mickey Mouse” majors, then, mismatch is a red herring.  Mickey Mouse majors aren’t imprudent because you’re likely to suffer from mismatch.  They’re imprudent because Mickey Mouse majors earn markedly lower incomes whether you’re mismatched or not.