Demand grows for Economics major

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Spring commencement is fast approaching and Vikki Han, like many of her fellow seniors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is eager to begin charting her career path.

The sluggish job market won’t help matters, but Han is nonetheless confident she’ll land a fulfilling position somewhere. She is eyeing startup companies, while also contemplating working abroad – possibly in Singapore, where she spent the fall semester of her junior year.

As an economics major, she feels she has plenty of options. It’s more a matter of choosing the right one.

“I’m having a challenging time figuring out what I want to do after graduation, but not because I don’t feel like I have the tools or I’m not equipped with the right sort of education,” says Han, who is also majoring in Chinese. “More so because I feel like I can do so many things with what I've learned.”

In a sputtering economy, students are flocking to economics like never before. Many, like Han, are attracted to the versatile set of analytical and applicable skills that often prove valuable in the job market.

“This is going to give you a broad background,” says Joel Cohen, a senior and the president of the Economics Student Association. “You will have a business background, but more general than the business school, as in you’re not focusing on one specific area of business like accounting, marketing or finance. You’re getting more of a broad range of all these things and really focusing on the problem solving in business rather than the direct application.”

Cohen and Hahn are part of a growing group of undergraduate students flocking to the Economics major. Six years ago, there were roughly 300 economics majors. That number grew to 987 declared majors in spring 2012, and the department expects to surpass 1,000 majors by the end of the spring 2013 semester.

The major’s growth now places Economics in the top five most popular majors on campus, trailing only the Biology major as measured by bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2011-12.

So why is the economics major in such demand?

Scholz

For starters, department chair John Karl Scholz believes the turbulent economy and stagnant job market has forced students to think more pragmatically when making academic decisions.

“From eight years ago to now, the character of economics hasn't changed that much,” he says. “It’s just, I think the tough economy makes those issues perhaps a bit more salient.”

Scholz also points to two internal factors as reasons for the major’s increased popularity.

First, he notes the department works hard to match faculty members with compatible courses. For instance, Econ 101, one of the department’s two introductory courses, requires an instructor who is well suited to teaching a 450-student lecture.

“My colleagues take their teaching very seriously. When we provide a good, rigorous classroom experience, students are more likely to take additional economics courses,” he says. “I think that’s mattered.”

So too, Scholz believes, has the quality of the department’s staff. He calls the group, including undergraduate adviser Susan Hering, “as good at what they do as anyone in the University.”

The department has also taken strides in career advising, hiring a career coordinator with support from the Economics Advisory Board in 2008, and the department has tapped into its alumni network – its LinkedIn group has more than 2,300 members – to help provide students with job postings, internship opportunities and mentoring sessions.

Students like Hahn are using those resources in their career searches. Shortly after declaring the major, she found herself in a panic: Would the course load prove too difficult? What would she do for a career? She visited the undergraduate advising office, where then-career coordinator Bethany Nelson – Jennifer Buelow now holds the position – talked with her for an hour about the range of possible careers, from business, banking and finance to international trade to public policy. And there are plenty of others.

Han may not have settled on one path just yet. But she knows she has options, thanks to her economics education.

“It’s taught me how to think differently and solve problems,” she says. “It’s not just math and it’s not just the economy. It’s a lot more than that.”