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Print Editions Saturday September 30th, 2023

Top 10 concentrations claim over half of students

Economics, biological sciences and international relations lead most popular fields

The University offers 79 concentrations, but 54 percent of concentrations completed in 2012 represented the 10 most popular concentrations that year, according to data obtained by The Herald from the Office of Institutional Research.

Economics has been the most popular concentration since 2009, followed by biological sciences and international relations, according to the data, which spans from 1984 to 2012. Nine of the top 10 concentrations in 2012 were in life sciences, social sciences or physical sciences, with English the lone humanities representative.

Social sciences concentrations constituted 39.8 percent of those completed in 2012, life sciences represented 21.5 percent, humanities were 20.8 percent, physical sciences covered 17.6 percent and independent concentrations made up the remaining 0.3 percent.


Growth in the market

The most popular concentration in 2012 was economics, with 220 degrees — not including joint concentrations the Department of Economics offers with other departments — being completed, wrote Louis Putterman, director of undergraduate studies in the economics department, in an email to The Herald.

“The growth after 2008 or 2009 has been particularly substantial,” he wrote.

Student interest stems from “stories of large fortunes being made on Wall Street” or “genuine intellectual interest” about the economy’s inner workings, Putterman wrote.

The recent recession has affected both the job market and concentration trends, said Thomas Doeppner, associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Computer Science, which had 54 completed concentrations in 2012.

“The number of concentrators trailed economic events in recent years,” Doeppner said. “As the economy gets better, we get better.”

The number of completed concentrations in computer science has seen two high points of more than 70 concentrators since 1984: in 1987 at 71, and again in the early 2000s, peaking in 2003 at 76, according to the data. Doeppner attributed the latter high point to the dot-com boom.

Completed concentrations dropped to 27 in 2007, a dip that held through the recession with 28 degrees being earned in 2009, which Doeppner said reflected an incorrect belief that there were few job opportunities in computer science at that time.

He added that the department expects 68 students to complete “pure” computer science degrees this year, which would be the highest number in a decade.

Another growing concentration is Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations, formerly known as Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship.

“We started with a handful of concentrators in the beginning, around 2005, and now we have 70 to 85 students the last few years,” said Brendan McNally, associate director of BEO. Concentrators end up doing a variety of things, including creating startups, he said.

“Creating a company and having a lot of flexibility to do what you want is becoming more popular, and that’s true among Brown students as well,” he said.

Students may lean toward business or economics over humanities because the companies that make themselves visible through on-campus recruiting tend to represent those fields, McNally said.

“I think students feel pressure to go for brand-name companies because they don’t realize there are other companies out there,” he said.


Different disciplines

The value of humanities degrees compared to sciences degrees has recently become a topic of national debate. Undergraduates in Florida may soon have to pay more in tuition to study some fields in the humanities than to study engineering or life sciences if Governor Rick Scott’s suggestions are taken up, the New York Times reported. Scott wants students to obtain more “job-friendly” degrees, according to the article.

“I think it’s terribly misguided,” said Mark Cladis, chair of the Department of Religious Studies. “Some public officials are making fun of humanities, and I think that is very shortsighted,” he said.

Forcing students to pay extra for a humanities degree “sends a terrible signal” to students and makes them feel penalized, he said.

Placing a higher price tag on studying humanities shows a lack of understanding of how many employers are interested in liberal arts majors, said Andrew Simmons, director of the Center for Careers and Life After Brown.

“I hope they do a little more research on what a college education has to offer and get out of this box that only the STEM fields are the ones that matter,” he said.

In a speech to the National Humanities Alliance in Washington last month, President Christina Paxson declared that academics need to do a better job of defending the value of the humanities.

“Support for the humanities is more than worth it,” she said in the speech. “It is essential.”

Twenty years after the number of concentrations completed in religious studies peaked at 34 in 1991, the number dropped to 8 in 2011, according to the OIR data. Since then, it has risen again to 18 students in the class of 2012.

One recent downward trend in the humanities has been the number of concentrators in comparative literature. In 1990, comparative literature peaked at 57 concentrations completed, according to the data. There were only 27 in 2012, but that number is expected to rise again to 40 for the class of 2013, department faculty members said.

“I find that ... among my friends who are science concentrators, there’s a stigma against humanities concentrations, that they’re a joke,” said Allison Schaaff ’14, who is a pre-medical student concentrating in comparative literature. She added that she thinks people feel pressure not to concentrate in humanities because they believe such degrees may not lead to employment after college.

“I didn’t feel completely free to concentrate in comparative literature until I decided I was also going to be a pre-med. I think my experience speaks to that pressure,” she said.

Students are concerned about finding a job right after graduation, Cladis said. “They want to find a pretty direct route to that, so they’re tempted by concentrations that seem to provide that,” he said.

Though social sciences are the largest discipline at Brown, another concentration that has seen a decline in the past few years is sociology, which fell from 44 concentrators in the class of 2007 to 14 concentrators each in the classes of 2010 and 2011.

From 2011 to 2012, the number of completed life sciences and physical sciences concentrations increased by 76 and 62, respectively, according to the OIR data. The rising popularity of the neuroscience concentration contributed to the life sciences growth — 22 more students completed a neuroscience degree in 2012 than did in 2011. Since 1984, the number of completed neuroscience degrees has more than doubled, from 33 in 1984 to 85 in 2012.


Many paths to success

Georgetown University researchers released a report in 2011 that placed an economic value on different majors. Their analysis showed that while petroleum engineering majors made an average of $120,000 a year over the course of their careers, counseling psychology majors earned around $29,000 a year.

But there is no way to tell if a concentration will lead to a high-paying career, Simmons said.

“Students have a perception that certain concentrations are going to look better than others,” he said. “The reality is that employers are more interested in the variety of skills and experience you bring to the table.”

Future career or financial concerns should not affect students’ “passions or choices,” Schaaff said. “When you go to Brown, what your major is doesn’t really matter in the long run. There are all kinds of ways to get your foot in the door.”

No one can predict which courses of study will lead students to earn the highest salaries, Simmons said. “Most students at Brown that I’ve met are not talking about lucrative careers. They’re talking about meaningful careers.”


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