LSE Degree Hierarchy: why do certain degrees seem to get a bad reputation?

By Suchita Thepkanjana

It seems to be widely recognised that STEM subjects are more valuable than social sciences – an idea that LSE as a whole resists. What is much less addressed, however, is the alleged hierarchy of degree programmes among the social sciences themselves that permeates everyday student experiences at LSE.

LSE presents itself as a safe haven for social science students, protecting them from the judging, critical eyes of the STEM-valuing outside world, all while forgetting that students themselves subconsciously – or maybe consciously – reinforce a stratification where certain disciplines are deemed superior to others.

Students interviewed by The Beaver unanimously placed Economics as the most respectable degree, alongside Finance, Law, and Mathematics and Economics. Carla*, a Geography with Economics student, even dubbed pure Economics the “King of the Kings”. Then comes the mid-tier, consisting of degrees like Management, History, Politics, and International Relations. Finally, relegated to the bottom tier, come Geography, Sociology, and Social Anthropology.

Overall, students seem to be in consensus about the ‘degree hierarchy’. The question remains: what is this ranking based on? What determines whether a degree is the “King of Kings” or barely deserving of any respect?

Perceived difficulty is a fundamental factor. According to Sadie*, a Geography student, the bottom-tier degrees are known as “soft subjects”, which stereotypes them as “easy, useless, silly, invalid”, and studied by people who can’t handle “difficult” degrees. Lauren*, a Law student, reasons that Geography, Sociology, and Social Anthropology are “the easiest degrees at the LSE [because] you can…waffle your way into a first-class”. Similarly, a Finance student, Nathan*, between long pauses and nervous chuckles, claims “if you’re taking Geography at uni, you probably didn’t do very well in school…[a Geography student] is kind of a jack of all trades but not very successful at it.” 

Furthermore, what defines a subject as ‘difficult’ is the presence of Mathematics: the more advanced the maths, the more challenging and, therefore, respectable the degree. Liam*, who studies Economics and Economic History, claims that “there’s a general vibe of: ‘look at me, I’m doing maths…Look at how hard it is, look at me using all these weird symbols’”. 

“Non-mathematics degrees get s*** on way more,” Liam says.

Anna*, who studies Mathematics and Economics, a degree infamous for its daunting modules, explains that if you study quantitative subjects, “you really can’t not do the work…whereas my friends who do more essay-based subjects can do a month of really relaxed work and not really have that impact their grade too much”. 

Students of non-quantitative subjects, however, feel that the stereotype that their degrees are ‘easy’ or reserved for less intelligent people is “unjustified”. Alice*, who studies Anthropology with Politics, actually achieved a full score of 7 in Higher Level IB Mathematics (known as the most difficult IB Mathematics course), which disproves the idea that students of humanities ‘simply can’t do maths’. She says, “I felt like I could have also applied to any degree and I’m sure it would have been fine… I’m not doing this degree because it’s easier… I’m doing it because I’m genuinely interested in it, and it feels a bit unfair that people think, ‘she got into LSE because she did an easy degree’”. 

Still, varying difficulty is not the sole explanation for such a hierarchy. In fact, what every student’s reasoning eventually came back to was employability and, eventually, future salary. In fact, the other factors students considered in their ranking – the presence of maths, the level of rigour and difficulty – all lead back to how the degree programme listed on a CV may shape a potential employer’s first impression. For some, employability is the ultimate motivation for choosing their degree, while for those studying infamously ‘unemployable’ subjects, it becomes the main reason for the vicious criticism they receive. 

Lauren chose to study law because it is a “safe bet” and would “increase [her] employability across sectors”. Similarly, Carla’s decision to add Economics to her degree despite having disliked it since high school, is “purely based on future employability”.

“Economics is carrying all the weight…[It] really increases the cachet of my degree”. 

The same reasoning applies to the ‘bottom tier’ of degrees, which one student jokingly named the “unemployed” category. Liam explains that this idea “stems from the broad reputation of … if you’re not going into finance, you don’t really get a job.” While this is an overt exaggeration, it nonetheless contains a painful truth: these degrees are often perceived as least vocational, and typically lead into jobs which are nowhere near as well-paying as investment banking or corporate law. 

Effectively, the unofficial degree hierarchy reflects how the real world actually works. The world seems to value quantitative, vocational subjects that revolve around big, money-making enterprises. And evidently, this valuation has been repeatedly and implicitly reinforced. 

Sadie, for example, was criticized by a family friend for studying Geography rather than Economics, who told her, “fake it till you make it, you might as well do something that makes you money”. He ended the conversation by challenging her: “in five years, I wanna see how far you are in life”. Carla, exhausted by the constant need to justify her decision to study Geography, now introduces herself as an Economics student instead.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that students have a pretty clear idea of what degrees are considered superior. Society has constructed the idea that life culminates in making money and constantly reminds us that our every decision should lead to that. Many have internalised this valuation of different disciplines, as well as the ultimate conclusion about what matters (prestige and money) and what does not (humanity). 

Sadie explains, “Because [subjects like] Geography, Sociology, or Anthropology…are inherently about people, people don’t really find that important to learn about or acknowledge. Humanity, culture-based stuff is so important but overlooked”. 

Alice agrees, claiming that Anthropology can actually “underpin every degree”. She points out that LSE even offers modules such as Economic Anthropology and Political and Legal Anthropology, demonstrating how humanities subjects can be applied to even the most mathematical and empirical fields. 

Ultimately, the so-called “soft” subjects have their own challenges: while Mathematics, Economics, or Law students are doing advanced calculus or chasing prestigious internships at globally-renowned companies, Geography, Sociology, and Anthropology students are working towards being taken seriously in the first place. It takes a different type of perseverance to study these degrees while knowing at the back of your mind that you are perceived as less competent, less useful, and less valid. And that ultimately, as Nathan puts it, “What happens after graduation, how much you’re making…That’s really all that matters”. 

While the world benefits from investment bankers, lawyers, and consultants, it also desperately needs academics, urban planners, social workers, journalists, and all the other so-called ‘unconventional’, non-money-making occupations.In a society that is so fixated on getting employed and earning enough to live a stable (or maybe even lavish) life, it is these commonly-overlooked humanities disciplines that focus on and remind us why life is worth living in the first place. 

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity 

Suchita examines how LSE students view different degree programmes


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