Jeb Bush has misthought

According to the Washington Examiner, republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has said that doing a psychology major will mean “you’re going to be working a Chick-fil-A” and has encouraged students to choose college degrees with better employment prospects.

If you’re not American, Chik-fil-A turns out be a fast food restaurant, presumably of dubious quality.

Bush continued:

“The number one degree program for students in this country … is psychology,” Bush said. “I don’t think we should dictate majors. But I just don’t think people are getting jobs as psych majors.

Firstly, he’s wrong about psychology being the most popular degree in the US. The official statistics shows it’s actually business related subjects that are the most studied, with psychology coming in at fifth.

He’s also wrong about the employment prospects of psych majors. I initially mused on Twitter as to why US psych majors have such poor employment prospects when, in the UK, psychology graduates are typically the most likely to be employed.

But I was wrong about US job prospects for psych majors, because I was misled by lots of US media articles suggesting exactly this.

There is actually decent research on this, and it says something quite different. Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce published reports in 2010 and 2013, called ‘Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings’ where they looked at exactly this issue.

They found on both occasions that doing a psych major gives you employment prospects that are about mid-table in comparison to other degrees.

Below is the graph from the 2013 report. Click for a bigger version.

Essentially psychology is slightly below average in terms of employability. Tenth out of sixteen but still a college major where more than 9 out of 10 (91.2%) find jobs as recent graduates.

If you look at median income, the picture is much the same: somewhat below average but clearly not in the Chik-fil-A range.

What’s not factored into these reports, however, is gender difference. According to the statistics, almost 80% of psychology degrees in the US are earned by women.

Women earn less than men on average, are more likely to take voluntary career breaks, are more likely to be suspend work to have children, and so on. So it’s worth remembering that these figures don’t control for gender effects.

So when Bush says “I just don’t think people are getting jobs as psych majors” it seems he misthought.

Specifically, it looks like his thinking was biased by the availability heuristic which, if you know about it, can help you avoid embarrassing errors when making factual claims.

I’ll leave that irony for Jeb Bush to ponder, along with Allie Brandenburger, Kaitlin Zurdowsky and Josh Venable – three psychology majors he employed as senior members of his campaign team.

19 thoughts on “Jeb Bush has misthought”

  1. A little bit of American dialect for you – and this speaks to the occasional laziness of our speech. When we say “getting a job as psych major”, that often means to say that you’re getting a job as a psychologist or in the psychology field. I can only guess this was what Bush meant. Not to say that his statement was right; but when you’re talking about any serious US job (professor, high paid hospital staff, so on so forth) an undergrad degree in any social science or liberal arts isn’t going to get you anywhere. What he so conveniently ignores is that the bachelor’s degree in question is often not the final goal, but rather a jumping off point to important work later on. Simply getting work is no longer the prize; Americans are now required to set their sights on a much longer term, more flexible approach to survival and life goals. Sadly many graduates who settle for a bachelor’s degree will find dismal job prospects; a shocking number of Ph.Ds work as bartenders, retail managers, one has to be savvy and look far beyond the traditional path of getting a living wage. The old methods haven’t worked since 1998.

  2. For the record, Chick-Fil-A is not of dubious quality. It’s actually quite good, as those places go. Its ownership is also politically and religiously sympathetic to Bush, so they’re probably scratching their heads as to why they had to take a shot.

  3. The graph of median earnings on page 8 of the Georgetown report may add more perspective and context for his statement, which was not solely focused on employment but the _nature_of employment that psychology undergraduate majors are able to attain. The report does not comment on the nature of the work that undergraduate psychology majors are doing post-graduation, but it is clear that they are making significantly less than their peers who graduated with four-year degrees in engineering and quite a few other areas.

  4. Also of note, the official data from the National Center for Education Statistics includes several different majors under the broad umbrella of “business.” These majors include “business management, marketing, and related support services field of study, as well as the personal and culinary services field of study.” The “business” category therefore represents a variety of majors, whereas psychology, as far as I can tell from what the report states, includes just one…..

    1. Rachelncass, which of the “one” psychology major are you referring to? Is it the one that prepares students, depending upon their interests and talents, for careers as psychotherapists, counsellors, school psychologists, social workers, teachers, researchers (in the social or natural sciences), human resources, management, marketing or marketing research, law school, medical school, media and advertising, actuaries/data analysts, victim advocate, or college professor, farmers, librarians, among many others? In the last few years, I’ve had advisees go on to each of these, all having completed just “one” major.

    2. Ditto this. All of the “majors” ranked above psychology in that report are really multiple majors in a broad category. So the criticism makes sense. It is the most popular major in the US despite having below average career prospects with most people ending up in a wide assortment of fields only loosely related to their major.

  5. Since you obviously aren’t from anyplace where chik-fil-a exists, allow me to enlighten you. Chik-fil-a is the highest rated fast food restaurant in the US. It’s also the most profitable, bringing in more revenue per person day and per store than every other fast food chain in the US. Feel free to do the research. They are super clean, friendly, and very high quality. They’re growing like crazy, having just opened a store in new York city. The lines stretch around the block, with wait times of over 30 minutes as a norm. McDonald’s is dubious quality. Chik-fil-a certainly is not.

    1. As a humble UK psychology masters graduate I’m not even clever enough to work out where this weird name Chik-fil-A comes from. Sounds like the name of a virus to me.

  6. Did anyone point out that Chik-fil-a was a Freudian Slip by Jeb? Also Jeb was busted picking up a cocaine shipment, according to the top CIA drug smuggler, Barry Seal, who got assassinated after he threatened to out the Bush Dynasty, after the IRS went after Barry Seal.

  7. I was a psyc major, and I can say for sure that none of my undergrad psyc peers who didn’t go to graduate school find a psychology relevant job. Most of them became assistants or secretaries, and quite a few worked in food service industry immediately after graduation.

    In that sense, Bush was right. But his delivery of what he meant was awful.

  8. I’m not sure what, exactly, defines “a job in the field of psychology.” Psychology is much more than the mental health field. In a sense, any job in which there is interaction with other humans would be relevant to the field of psychology. Psychology majors are often described by employers as being mindful of others’ perspective, understanding the thought processes of decision-making, and presenting information in a way that is easy to understand. Studying Psychology also prepares one for research fields, as measuring abstract concepts such as intelligence or verbal skill involve a rich understanding of scientific method.
    Psychology courses are often required or suggested for a wealth of other majors – not many advisors of students wishing to work in journalism, education, law, or marketing would suggest, say, organic chemistry as an elective, but courses in (the apparently value-less) psychology are often suggested (if not required).

    Apart from me defending the field and major, I feel I should mention that Jeb! has misunderstood the point of education. Colleges are not vocational schools. The ultimate goal is not to learn some corpus of job skills to make a person employable. The “skills” being developed are how to think critically, to evaluate, consume, and integrate scholarly work, and to communicate ideas. This education, it is hoped, makes a person capable of enjoying a richer life, of not merely having to be told what is correct by an authority figure, and of being a better world citizen.

  9. I think of higher education a little like the Mr. Miyagi concept in The Karate Kid. Stay with me:
    Waxing the car and painting the fence were not the end goal. Daniel was not trying to become better at waxing cars and painting fences. But by practicing these things, he developed strength and muscle memory that made him better at karate.
    It’s similar in the classroom, to an extent. The goal might not be to apply Philosophy or, maybe, Latin American studies to your career directly. But my practicing reading and digesting information, thinking logically, writing and communicating your ideas – you become a stronger employee at whatever it is you might be doing.
    Surely some specialist positions like ‘surgeon’ or ‘biochemist’ require specialized training and education, and for that there are postgraduate programs. But the bachelors level education has most of its value not necessarily in training content, but in training process.

    This is something the Bush family view of education has never agreed with. Teaching to the test, and certifying “I have completed process A, B, and C, and am now qualified for job X and Y” are outdated if not completely incorrect. It would have made Daniel-san a fence-painter instead of a karate champ.

  10. One reason why Psychology majors may have a lower-middle average income, relative to other fields is that, I believe they are more likely to go into “helping” fields like education, social work, case management, etc. These fields are undervalued when it comes to income. Couple that with a massive proportion of the majors being women, who are paid less for the same jobs, and we would expect Psychology majors to earn below average, for systemic reasons, not at all to do with being “employable.”

  11. Thank you for the article! It was an interesting read, and I learned more. I’d never heard of the availability heuristic before.

  12. I have a BA, MS, and Ph.D. in psychology, as well as two post-doctoral training fellowships under my belt. I worked 15 years as a low paid Research Professor, and I’m currently finishing up a very low paying, non-renewable visiting professorship. Despite my experience, I cannot find a full-time job. My research position ended the second I didn’t have funding, even though I had brought in literally millions of dollars over my research career. I’ve applied for about 30 different positions over the past 3 months, and I have not received a single call. My visiting professorship will end very soon — with no hope of renewal. When I apply for positions that require only a bachelors or masters degree, they say that I’m too qualified. If I apply for tenure track positions, they say they have at least 100+ applicants. You people can justify a degree in psychology all you want, but there isn’t a day that goes by (NOT A SINGLE BLESSED DAY) that I don’t regret majoring in psychology. My nephew just graduated with a BA in computer science, and he was offered $80,000 (with a sizable sign-on bonus) in his first year. I spent 9 years getting my degrees, 4 years postdoctoral training and about 20+ years experience in the field, and I’m currently pulling down $40,000 a year. Do I sound a little bit bitter? You bet I do! Go ahead and major in psychology. I wish you luck; you’re gonna need it.

    1. PM – I have the same degrees, and make six figures. I have also applied to and received jobs that “only” require a Masters, and was hired anyway – once at higher (than MA listed) pay. Also – there are different (as you know, but some readers might not) sub-disciplines within psychology. I/O, experimental/cognition, usability engineering – these are better markets today than, say, clinical psych (i.e., the one everyone wants to do).
      Academia is difficult and competitive regardless of the subject/field. These same stories of hyper-competitiveness are told by people outside psychology as well, and have been since time immemorial.
      Finally, none of what you say falsifies the empirical data reported in this article. You provided an anecdote, which true and common though it may be, does not disprove that on average, psych majors are employed at rates and wages comparable to other majors – and for the sake of making a point, is in contrast to my personal anecdote.

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