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What do social science graduates do?

December 2020

Jobs that are often favoured by social science graduates - such as in law, psychology and finance - typically require professional qualifications, so it's unsurprising that further study continues to be a popular route for this group, as the latest edition of What do graduates do? shows


  • Geography
  • Law
  • Politics
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

For the purposes of this article, 'social sciences' refer to politics, sociology, psychology, law and geography - a diverse group of disciplines, but all of which involve the study of human society and social relationships. Recent years have seen an increased spotlight on the employability and destinations of graduates from these disciplines, along with those from the arts and humanities, and a growing challenge to the narrative that science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students are more in demand in the labour market.

As research by the British Academy has demonstrated, social science graduates are employable across a range of sectors and roles, with skills in demand in the current and predicted future economy.1 This is seen in the 2017/18 Graduate Outcomes data.

Just over half (51.7%) of graduates from social science disciplines were in full-time employment, of which geography had the highest number (58.9%) and psychology the lowest (47.7%). Conversely, psychology graduates were much more likely to be in part-time employment (11.3%) or combining work and study (14.1%). This is higher than the average for social sciences and across all subjects.

Combining work and study was a popular destination across all social science disciplines, with 12.6% of graduates doing this compared with the average across all subjects of 9.5% - and more were doing this than studying full time (10.2%).

Of those in work, 60.8% were in professional-level jobs, which is lower than the average for all subjects (74.1%). Of the social science subjects, the rate was higher for politics, geography and law students (70.1%, 74.8% and 73.3% respectively) and lower for sociology and psychology (49.9% and 50.8%). This could be because sociology and psychology students were more likely to go into social care, education or health-related professions - many of which require work experience and or further qualifications to access qualified or professional level roles. This also aligns with these subjects seeing the highest numbers of graduates working part time and engaged in unpaid or voluntary work.

Although a smaller proportion of social science graduates were in professional-level roles, we saw comparability with other subjects in the 'graduate voice' questions. For example 81.7% of social science graduates agreed or strongly agreed that their current activity was 'meaningful' - comparable to the average and higher than humanities, creative arts, technology, engineering and maths graduates. Meanwhile 70.9% felt their activity fitted with their future plans - again comparable to the other subject areas.

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Further study

Further study is a popular route for all social science disciplines - a continuing trend from previous years. The proportion of students engaged in a course of study, training or research as their main activity was higher for all social science subjects than the average overall.

This could be due to the non-vocational nature of the social science subjects (especially sociology, politics and geography), combined with the fact that common occupations for these graduates (e.g. roles in law, finance or in psychology) often require further study and professional qualifications. Law and psychology had the highest numbers in further study, although there was a lower proportion of law graduates in further study compared with previous years. This is likely due to the change in destinations survey date from six to 15 months after graduation, meaning that more 2017/18 law graduates would have completed the initial stage of their postgraduate qualification (i.e. the LPC or BPTC) by this point.

A Masters was the most popular type of further study, representing the largest proportion for all social science disciplines. Law graduates were more likely than others to be undertaking professional qualifications - 26%, significantly higher than the 14.9% average. This corresponds with the most popular destination for law graduates being the legal and accountancy industry, roles which often require professional qualifications.


Studying a social science discipline develops a set of highly valuable core skills and behaviours. These have been celebrated by research carried out by the British Academy in recent years, including their 2017 report The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) where they highlighted the following key skills (among others):

  • Communication and collaboration - describing, contextualising and conveying information for a range of audiences, understanding and working with others.
  • Research and analysis - designing and carrying out analysis.
  • Independence and adaptability - solving problems, working with complex and ambiguous information.

This report emphasises the distinct contribution that social science graduates bring to employers, thanks to their understanding of the human and social dimension in which these skills are applied.2 The value of social science graduates has also been recognised more broadly, with a recent survey by the Campaign for Social Science demonstrating the importance of social science knowledge and skills for private sector business.3 The ability to understand and engage with markets, clients and customers, to analyse and manage risk and long-term strategies, and to develop new products or ways of working, were all identified amongst the strengths of social science graduates.4


The broad applicability of social science skills is seen in the wide range of 2017/18 graduate destinations.

Roles in business, HR and finance were popular destinations across all social science disciplines, but most notably for politics (24.1%) and geography (21.3%) graduates. Marketing, PR and sales was the second most popular occupation for both politics (15.5%) and geography (13.1%) graduates. This appetite for roles in commerce was also reflected in the proportion of graduates in the business and finance industry, accounting for between 10% and 15% across all social sciences. Research into the value of social science skills for businesses emphasises curiosity, understanding of people and their behaviours, and the ability to analyse evidence and draw conclusions as strengths of these graduates.5

Clerical, secretarial and numerical clerk work were other common destinations for all social science graduates, but particularly sociology (16%) and politics (13.6%).

Graduates of politics (18.5%) and sociology (17.5%) both favoured roles within local and central government, demonstrating the continuing appeal of the public sector for these subjects.

Legal, social and welfare professions were unsurprisingly a key occupation for graduates of law (45.4%), as well as psychology (13.5%) and sociology (12.7%). Education and social care were popular industries for both psychology and sociology graduates, and at least one in five psychology graduates and one in ten sociology graduates went on to work in a childcare, health or education occupation. As health and social care remain among the most buoyant sectors of the graduate recruitment market, this is a positive trend.6

A lower than average number of social science graduates went into information technology roles - only 1.6%, compared with 6% across all subjects. As a rapidly expanding area of the economy with significant potential for new roles, it will be interesting to see whether this proportion increases.7


Of those who went straight into full-time work, politics graduates saw the highest average salary of £24,740 - also above the average for graduates across all subject areas. For psychology and sociology graduates the average salaries were £20,543 and £20,790 respectively. Salaries were higher for all subjects following further study, but most significantly for law graduates with an average salary after further study of £25,410.

Looking ahead

Evidence suggests that there will be a continued demand for social science skills and knowledge, which are recognised as key to the UK's future economic growth. The Campaign for Social Science recognises the social sciences as vital to achieving the UK's industrial strategy, whilst the British Academy has identified social science subjects (e.g. sociology, geography, psychology, and law) as forming part of the knowledge shortage to be filled in order to meet the economy's future needs.8,9

The COVID-19 pandemic has only emphasised the value of the social sciences, with the Academy of Social Science explaining the fundamental role of these disciplines in both mitigating virus spread and also informing our social and economic recovery.10 While it remains unclear how the labour market will develop over the coming months and years, we can be confident that a social science degree prepares graduates to maximise the opportunities that arise.

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Also in this series


  1. Qualified for the Future: Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills, The British Academy, 2020.
  2. The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, The British Academy, 2017.
  3. Vital Business: The Essential Role of the Social Sciences in the Private Sector, The Campaign for Social Science, 2020.  
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. UK Graduate Labour Market Update: 12 October, Prospects Luminate, 2020.
  7. Digital sector worth more than £400 million a day to UK economy, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, February 2020.
  8. The Importance of the Social Sciences for the Industrial Strategy, The Campaign for Social Science, 2019.
  9. Qualified for the Future: Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills, The British Academy, 2020.
  10. Statement on social science expertise and the Covid-19 pandemic, Academy of Social Sciences 2020.

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