On the surface, the subjects of economics and business are fairly similar–they both involve the exchange of goods and services. And for the most part, professors agree that students who earn an undergraduate degree in either of these subjects go on to pursue the same types of jobs. However, these two subjects are taught very differently in the academic world. To start, business degrees are usually taught in a separate business school, while economics degrees tend to fall under a school of social sciences. So, how do you go about choosing one over another if they yield similar outcomes?
It all comes down to what interests you, what your intended career path is, and how specialized you want to be.
Difference #1: The concepts taught in an economics degree are more overarching than those learned in a business degree, as business schools are more aimed at teaching skills that are directly related to business career paths.
“Generally I would consider our business degree, and any business degree to be more of an interdisciplinary degree than an economics degree,” said Maia Young, Associate Professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine.
Young explained how to her, this interdisciplinary aspect of a business school shows in how that there are people from many disciplines coming together to teach about how they see business.
“For example, we have people in the business school who have psychology training, sociological training, economic training, or [information systems], so there’s a lot of different viewpoints that are coming together in the business school.”
On the economics side, there is a more of a “big picture” concept of how business and trade works, and how to determine optimal solutions.
“Economics is thinking about what is socially optimal, so issues of how markets work and how markets fail, and the social implications of tremendous pollution, or inequality or monopoly or infrastructure, things like that,” said Mark Witte, Director of Undergraduate Studies of Economics at Northwestern University.
Based on the general structure of what is taught, a different orientation of economic and business studies is obvious.
“Business is about what would make something profitable and feasible, whereas economics is more about the grand laws by which we think society works, how they may give us bad results or good results,” said Witte.
And of course, these two groups of students find different things interesting that apply more to one degree than another.
“If you’re really interested in real estate or accounting, then business would obviously be the direction to go. But, if you’re more interested in social problems of inequality or market failure or fish in the oceans or ruining the climate, or you’re more interested in thinking about how social choice mechanisms work for deciding what policies we pursue, then economics is more the way to go,” said Witte.
Difference #2: The study of economics is broad, and more theory-based, while business students usually become specialized in certain areas within the business school. This difference in specialization is clear when you look at some of the main subdivision majors of business schools: accounting, finance, marketing, management, etc., as opposed to the less sectioned economics degrees.
“Generally economics is considered a pure discipline and in the business school [coursework] is more applied, so the things that the students can take away from a business degree more directly reflect the functional units within a business,” said Young. “So, the application to the workplace is more evident because the curriculum really reflects both the challenges of bringing products and services to people and also it reflects the kind of work that people do in businesses.”
Business skills teach direct, marketable skills in specific areas of business. However, this means that students will have to decide what they want to narrow their focus to early-on in their academic career.
“Somebody who’s an economics major has more options, while someone who’s an accounting major aims to be an accountant. So, you have to know early on that that’s what you want to do. The open-endedness [of economics] appeals to students,” said Brian Jenkins, Assistant Teaching Professor of Economics and Department Director of Undergraduate Studies in the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.
As such, Jenkins explained how many students who know they want to go into the general field of business and economics, but aren’t sure what’s route they want to go can benefit from the theory and wide scope of business learned in economics.
“It keeps a lot of doors open, but at the cost of not specializing early,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins suggested that if a students wants to apply these theories to a specialization in order to carry both benefits, that the student should double major or minor in a complimentary subject.
Difference #3: While initial career prospects for both degree types are fairly similar, the knowledge brought in and therefore trajectory of the career differs. Professors from both sides said many former students went to work for consulting or financial firms, in sales or data analysis, or in other entry-level business jobs after college. However, the learning curve and desires of students for their long-term career paths vary between degrees.
One of the main differences in students that graduate from these different schools is that the business students usually want to jump right into their career.
“People who choose business are anticipating that they will be able to jump right in and apply what they’ve learned from school into their work setting,” said Young.
Business students are eager to get started in the professional world, while Jenkins shared that a fair amount of economics students go on to earn a master’s degree or a Ph.D. Those that do not, are well equipped to learn quickly and think critically, as well as choose from a wide range of first jobs. But, they may have to do more job-specific learning and training on-the-job.
“There’s a lot of economics courses that don’t have direct relevance, but you have to be creative, have the ability to think abstractly, and learn things independently and employers find those things valuable,” said Jenkins.
People who graduate from college with an economics or a business degree may start out in similar jobs, but their accumulation of knowledge is unique from one another in the themes and skills that were prioritized in their classes. Therefore, these students have unique strengths and weaknesses when they enter the job market–as well as further down the line in their career.