Student Survey: Most Popular Courses at Grad School? | Top Universities

Student Survey: Most Popular Courses at Grad School?

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated March 16, 2021 Updated March 16, 2021

As part of a global student survey, QS asked grad school applicants to identify which subjects they were interested in applying for. Find out which were the most popular courses, and how the results of the survey compare with global trends in grad school enrolments.

Student survey results: Most popular subjects

In the results of the 2012-13 QS student survey, which gained more than 4,000 responses from grad school applicants worldwide, the most popular courses were those in business and related subjects, including finance & accounting, economics and administration. International relations, computing, communications, law and engineering also made the top 10.

Top 10 Subjects for Grad School Applicants, 2012-13*


% of grad school applicants interested in this subject

Business & management


Finance & accounting






International relations






Electrical engineering




General engineering


To a large extent, this sample does reflect the most recently available data on graduate level enrolments – though there are a few key points of deviation.

Business dominates most popular grad school majors

In giving strongest preference to business and related subjects, respondents to QS’s student survey are definitely representative of the broader picture. In major study destinations such as the US and UK, business and related subjects are well established as the most popular grad school majors.

For example, in the UK, almost a quarter of full-time postgraduate students in 2011-12 were taking courses in business-related subjects (including accounting, finance and management) – making this by far the most popular subject group at graduate level.[1]

Similarly, in the US, business accounts for the largest segment of graduate-level students. As of 2010-11, some 26% of master’s degrees awarded were in business.[2]

The reasons for this are not too difficult to fathom. Graduate-level business qualifications (including MBAs but also other Masters in Business) are in high demand among employers, and are increasingly popular among those seeking either to progress within their current career, or break into a new sector. A recent GMAC survey of MBA and other Business Masters students in 33 countries worldwide found that 60% had already received a job offer before graduating – so it’s easy to see why business is such a popular graduate-level option.

What’s missing and why? Education & teacher training courses

In both the US and UK, the next most popular group of courses at graduate level are those in the education field, which includes teacher training courses. In the UK, 13% of postgraduate students were studying in this category, while 25% of US master’s degrees were awarded in this field.[3]

The latest QS student survey does not reflect this trend; only 4.4% of respondents said they were interested in applying for graduate-level courses in the education field.

One possible explanation for this may be offered by the fact that the QS survey was completed by students attending the QS World Grad School Tour, which has a significant focus on overseas study. Typically, students who attend World Grad School Tour events are at least considering studying outside of their own country – and it may be that students are less likely to go abroad for certain types of graduate course, including teacher training courses.

This theory does seem to be upheld by statistics from the International Institute of Education (IIE) on the most popular courses for international students (at all levels) in the US. In 2011-12, only 2.2% of international students in the US were majoring in education – still more than humanities (2.1%), but far less than the majority of subject areas (see table).

Most popular subjects for international students in the US, 2011-12**


% of international students

Business & management




Mathematics & computer science


Social sciences


Physical and life sciences


Fine and applied arts


Intensive English


Health professions








Other fields of study




So while enrolments data from the US and UK shows education to be among the most popular grad school majors, both the QS student survey and the IIE data suggest that education is not among the most popular subjects to study abroad.

What about STEM subjects?

Finally, what about STEM subjects? Along with the FAME (finance, accounting, management and economics) group, the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are those most frequently mentioned in relation to areas with highest and fastest-growing demand for highly qualified graduates. Surely then, these will be some of the most popular subjects to study at graduate level?

This does seem to be the case. In the QS student survey, STEM subjects received 62.4% of all responses to the question about subject of interest (NB. respondents were able to choose more than one subject). The most popular STEM subjects were computing/IT, engineering, and environmental studies.

Top 5 STEM Subjects for Grad School Applicants, 2012-13*


% of grad school applicants interested
in this subject



Electrical engineering


General engineering


Environmental studies


Manufacturing/production engineering


Overall, however, the QS survey revealed a very diverse picture of grad school applications. There were respondents interested in studying everything from area studies to zoology – quite literally the A to Z of subjects.

*Based on responses to QS’s international survey of grad school applicants attending QS World Grad School Tour events in 2012-13. Respondents were able to select as many subjects as they were interested in. The survey gained 4,155 responses.

[1]                      Based on data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA),

[2]                      Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics,

[3]                      UK data from HESA refers to 2011-12; US data from NCES refers to 2010-11.


This article was originally published in August 2013 . It was last updated in March 2021

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Written by

The former editor of, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'


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