What Will You Earn Based On Your Major?

The Lifehacker site Two Cents ran an article about a very cool online tool from the Georgetown Center For Education and the Workforce.  The site allows you to compare expected salaries from different college majors, and even do so across different states.

I love a good data visualization tool, and this site does a superb job of laying things out.  They group college majors into 15 main groups with 137 subgroups.  Additionally, they show data for bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees.



Additionally, there’s a full 214 page report included with the analysis.  The key findings are right up front in the report so I won’t copy here, but I dug through the report to pull out interesting nuggets for your reading pleasure.  So you don’t have to 🙂

  • Today, 35 percent of jobs require a Bachelor’s degree or higher
  • STEM majors not only have the highest wages, they experience the largest wage growth over the course of their careers
  • Business and health majors are the two non-STEM majors that lead to above average wages.
  • Overall, one-third of college graduates complete a graduate degree
  • Not only are biology and life sciences majors the most likely to earn graduate degrees, they also receive the largest wage premium from graduate degrees.


STEM Dominance

There should be no real surprise that STEM majors earn the most.  The financial independence movement and blogosphere is littered with STEM and former STEM majors.  Some of these folks made use of their higher salary and stashed a huge percentage of it away and exited the working world at a very young age.  A high salary can do that for you.

That brings us to what John over at ESI Money calls The Paradox of a Career’s Impact on Financial Independence.  The whole point of the FIRE movement is to get FU money and exit the traditional W2 working world, assuming you don’t like your job.

But when you don’t like your job you’re probably not doing much to better your situation at your job.  Which keeps your salary lower, and delays your path to FI.  It’s a cycle that penalizes itself and goes round.

So this tool can help you at least see real data as to how your major stacks up against others.  I’m not going to suggest that you switch careers from say sociology to biology just because the latter pays more.  If you’re passionate about sociology and that’s what gets you up in the morning then you should stick with it.

This tool will at least allow you to compare sociology salaries across states to see if geoarbitrage is a possible good move for you to make.

But if you’re now in college or starting out in the working world and still not sure what you want to do, a tool like this can be a tremendous help to perhaps choose a degree or a graduate discipline that can position you better for a nice big fat salary later on.

Interestingly enough, I pulled the graphic of the lowest earning majors out of the full report:

As an adjunct faculty member at a big university for over 15 years, I’m disappointed but not surprised that the chart above is mostly populated with education majors.  It’s another paradox I guess, we rely on teachers our whole lives to educate us so we can get a good job and get ahead, but we don’t pay them very well and incentivize them to jump into that knowledge-cycle to improve it.

Overall I found this tool and the associated report very interesting and insightful.  I don’t really need the info myself since I’m financially independent, but I wanted to expose it to ay of my readers who may need it for themselves or their kids.

Your turn readers – did you notice any of the data being way off in your experience?  Do you make way more or less than the report says you should be making based on your major and state of residence?  Chime in!

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23 Responses

  1. I only see STEM continuing to dominate college majors in the future for 2 reasons:

    1. It’s where the big money is
    2. It’s where the opportunities will be

    Almost every company in the world now has STEM job tracks within their company. It is beginning to touch every phase of business models, and it will only continue to do so.

    I am also surprised that 1/3 of college graduates complete graduate degrees. I thought that may be lower, but I also expect that number to grow in the future. The reason for this is that their is a BIG belief within my age group (millennials) that entry level positions now seem to require graduate degrees. We have all seen the unreal expectations for entry level job applications that read something like (3-5 years experience & Master’s degree). Whether that’s right or wrong, it just seems to be the belief among many of my peers.

    Great post!

    • Accidental FIRE says:

      I also thought the 1/3 graduate number was high, that one surprised me. And I agree, STEM skills will continue to increase in demand, the writing’s on the wall. Data science skills in particular are really needed. For artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation, those skills are core.

      Thanks for the comment Sean!

  2. Absolutely fascinating. My wife and I are at polar ends of the spectrum. I was a double major (chemistry and philosophy), but met pre-med recs to go to medical school. I earn a sizeable amount now after a mere 11 years in post-bac training. Now just trying to catch up to all of you non-medical FIRE entrepreneurs who invested in their 20s!

    My wife is an early child-hood teacher which is number 1 on the worst wages. Kind of interesting that we are on polar ends of the spectrum. That said, it’s one of the reasons I am glad I earn a solid income. It allows my wife to follow her dreams as she pleases. She also has my income as an “FU” source to be the administrator she always wanted when she was teaching. Teachers really do not get paid what they should for what they have to deal with.

    Really interesting post!

    • Accidental FIRE says:

      That’s wild how you’re a “polar opposite” couple when it comes to salaries according to the study. When people ask you what you do, do say “I’m the FU source”? 🙂

      • You know it. 😎

        She is just so underpaid. All teachers are. And while I write about burnout in the medical world it is just as bad as a teacher where she works. So anything I can do to let her do things the way she sees fit…am all about it. Including being the source of her FU fund.

        • Accidental FIRE says:

          That’s great, sounds like you two have that part of your relationship nailed down. My experience as an adjunct teacher at a college is actually pretty good. I’m paid pretty well to be honest so I can’t complain.

  3. Susan @ FI Ideas says:

    Interesting tool. I gave it a try on Computer Engineering, a field I quit 7 years ago. Oh no, I could be earning so much money! I shouldn’t have looked, ha ha. That’s ok, I’m happy without the cubicle. Absolutely no regrets. That larger salary bought me my early freedom and for that, I’m grateful.

    • Accidental FIRE says:

      Yes, those large salaries serve more of a purpose than simply buying nice vacations and expensive cars. Freedom can be bought!

  4. Doc G says:

    I went for biology all the way since I knew I was going into medicine. I was so starry eyed and idealistic, I would have done it even if the data said I would be making peanuts!

  5. millionairedoc1 says:

    I’ve been contemplating this- should I push my kids into a STEM major or something that will be “lucrative”? or Should I let them pursue their interest, whatever that may be? I’ve decided on letting them pursue their interests. I believe passion and interest is more important than doing something you don’t necessarily love, just for the sake of a bigger paycheck. With enough creativity, entrepreneurship, and financial knowledge, you can make money with any major.

    • Accidental FIRE says:

      I don’t have kids Doc but I’d say ya gotta let them go in whatever direction they want to, because inevitably they’re going to wind up there anyway. No need to delay the road to their passions or happiness.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Hmph, it says I should be earning about $10k more than I am…price I pay for not currently working in my field AND for working at a non-profit!

    For years I’ve been thinking about going into teaching if all else failed. But this tool has just confirmed I’m going to need to wait until I’m FI to ever do that. It’s an embarrassment how little we pay the people responsible for educating and molding future generations.

    • Accidental FIRE says:

      You still have a ton of time in your career to increase your salary. Talented and hard working people tend to rise to the top so just keep at it, time is on your side!

  7. Kat says:

    I was a history/religious studies major in college and now I work in a STEM field. I’m still new to it, so my salary isn’t up to par (getting training in exchange for a lower salary), but I’m liking what my numbers look like compared to what my major’s numbers are. Don’t regret studying that for a second because I’m still a nerd for both of those subjects and can talk anyone’s ear off about them, but I’m okay with the higher paycheck I get from this path.

  8. Technically environmental science is a STEM field, and it pays reasonably well (though not like tech/engineering). The bigger thing is that I LIKE what I do – that’s worth a lot more to me than a huge salary.

  9. Mr. Groovy says:

    Hey, AF. Nice post. The only thing I question is the statistic that says 35% of today’s jobs require a college education. Is it “required” because college taught you valuable skills or because employers use a college degree as a screening device? I have degrees in journalism and public administration, but I got a job as a data analyst. My boss told me years after I was hired that they liked my database experience, but they never would have interviewed me if I didn’t have a college degree.

    • Accidental FIRE says:

      Great point! They should specify but my guess is that it’s used as a screening device. We all know people who are very successful despite not having a degree, besides the famous ones like Steve Jobs etc. It’s a shame because I’m sure there’s tons of folks who miss out on great careers because they don’t have a piece of paper. And companies who screen like that miss out on their talents. You’re experience proves that!

  10. steveark says:

    Exactly why I picked chemical engineering as a major. Fortunately it also turned out to be incredibly interesting and rewarding. Most of the time I thought to myself “I’d pay them to get to do this kind of work!” I never told my boss that of course.

    • Accidental FIRE says:

      That’s so cool that you love you profession so much. I love mine too, but as I advanced they pushed me more an more into management. I really enjoy doing the technical work though.

      Thanks for the comment!

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