In the heady days of undergraduate study it was easy to forget the minor matter of getting a job at the end of it all. But now that the issue of graduate unemployment is firmly on the agenda, prospective university students will be more anxious than ever to ensure that their choice of degree pays off when they graduate.
Unsurprisingly, of the top five degrees for future earnings, four are vocational. Medicine, dentistry, chemical engineering and veterinary medicine graduates all took home, on average, over £24,000 in their first year after leaving university. The only exception is economics, which comes in at fourth place. So what is it that makes a degree in economics more profitable than any other social science subject?
Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, believes that his subject gives students a wide range of skills. "The advantage of economics is that it mixes mathematical and humanities skills, which is very useful to employers. There are many different opportunities available, such as the Civil Service, banking, accountancy or consultancy," he says.
The high-flyer Mark Knox, 25, is a good example of this. He went straight into a job with the Government Economic Service after completing a Masters in economics at Warwick. "I chose economics because I knew it wouldn't close any doors to me afterwards. The range of jobs you can do with it is amazing. In my job at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform I've been given responsibility from the start."
And it seems that tough economic times have made the subject even more popular. "Applications have gone up a lot this year," says Oswald. "The financial crisis has made people realise how fundamental economics is to the world."
For scientifically-minded students, engineering continues to be a good choice. Chemical engineering has suffered from a lacklustre reputation in the past – it has an image of being less applicable to real life than other types of engineering. But the subject has been slowly gaining in popularity recently – no doubt helped by the high starting salaries that graduates can expect.
One notable change from last year's results is an apparent drop of over £1,500 in the average starting salary of medicine graduates. According to the British Medical Association, the pay of junior doctors in their first year after graduation is made up of a basic salary of just over £22,000, with supplements given for working long and anti-social hours. However, take-home pay has been dropping for several years as NHS trusts adapt to European limits on working hours.
Surprising too is the high rank of social work in the tables. It scrapes into the top 10 subjects for graduate salaries, above business studies and computer science. In addition, just under 70 per cent of social work graduates were employed in graduate jobs – a higher percentage than for many other courses.
Ian Johnston, former chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, says that social work is a good course choice for students. "Nationally, there are higher vacancy rates in social work than in many other sectors," he says. "Social work can be misrepresented in the media and it's not for the faint-hearted, but it is extremely rewarding."
For some subjects, further study is a common next step for graduates. Almost half of all law graduates continued on to further study, reflecting the fact that undergraduate law students have to complete a year-long legal practice course or bar vocational course to qualify in their field. Further study is also popular with science graduates, with almost 40 per cent of chemistry, physics and astronomy graduates opting to stay on at university.
The average unemployment rate for students in the survey, who were polled six months after graduating, was six per cent, with computer science, East and South Asian Studies and art and design graduates reporting the highest rates of unemployment.
These results may give some guidance to students on what to expect after graduation. Yet, traditionally, the popularity of courses is often unrelated to salary expectations or the prospect of getting a graduate job at the end of it.
Communications and media studies, for example, continues to be one of the most popular areas of study, even though it consistently ranks relatively low in both tables.
Prospective university students would do well to heed Mark Knox's advice on how to land their dream job at the end of their course. He says: "Think very carefully about the skill set you get from a course, because that's what's important when it comes to applying for jobs. But it is also important to make sure you enjoy the course so you get a good grade at the end of it."
So, along with writing essays, sitting exams and joining societies, students should keep an eye on their goal, and think about how to sell their skills in the job market afterwards.