Majors and Money

This is a break down of the majors at a sample college and the starting salaries for their graduates. What jumps out at you?

For me, the number of business majors is interesting. Also, I would have predicted a greater variation in average starting salaries between the majors, but they are all in that $40K range. History majors make about as much as bio majors. Am I missing something?

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33 thoughts on “Majors and Money

  1. That it’s not starting salaries that differentiate majors? I know a couple of routes that seem to generate larger starting salaries directly out of undergraduate degrees: engineering, CS, high level consulting analysts, and investment banker style jobs (and it matters who and where the employers are).

    Biology majors are usually going to grad or med school. And many majors can feed to law school (as well as a variety of “banker” “analyst” positions. That breaks down the relationships between undergrad majors and higher paid jobs.

    1. bj said,

      “That it’s not starting salaries that differentiate majors?”

      Yeah. Come to think of it, isn’t that more or less what medical residents make?

  2. Yes, a pure science major who gets work in a lab after undergrad won’t make that much. But if they go on to become a physician or PA or NP their earnings will be a lot higher.
    I have a frou-frou liberal arts degree but work on the tech side of the financial industry. I make better money than my friend with a degree in statistics and public health because she is paid by grants. She could work in finance with that background but she’d hate it.

  3. Just analyzing your numbers here (see answer to my personal quirk, in your other post :-)), CS, Engineering, Math, and Phys Sci all have starting salaries >1 SD above the mean, and Security, Parks, and Pub admin (all government paid, I’d imagine, and potentially jobs we might have called “blue collar” in the olden days) are mean.

    I think those look pretty much the way my instincts would have predicted. I think many people over-estimate the immediate value of straight up biology and psychology degrees (and, potentially other related science degrees, like in environmental studies, neuroscience, resource management, . . . ). If you look at the +1SD majors, they are all math heavy and also high on core requirements. That is, if you have a engineering degree, there’s probably a set of classes that hiring managers know you’ve taken.

    1. bj said,

      ” I think many people over-estimate the immediate value of straight up biology and psychology degrees (and, potentially other related science degrees, like in environmental studies, neuroscience, resource management, . . . ).”

      Right, so STEM undergraduate majors are being somewhat oversold to young people today. (I know we’ve all been exposed to STEM-mania.)

      It’s a particular subset of STEM undergraduate majors that pays well, as well as some advanced STEM degrees–it’s not all STEM undergraduate degrees.

      Related–one of my big pet peeves is when people talk about the lack of women in STEM, and it’s like healthcare and biology doesn’t count as STEM at all.

      1. I agree STEM majors are oversold; ironically, I think most if the ed reform people who push STEM majors were not, themselves, STEM majors.

        Many, many high school students think they want to be doctors, only to discover sometime in college that no, they don’t want to be doctors. This replenishes the supply of laboratory techs. Also, for entry level people in the non-laboratory parts of biology, employment can be on a project basis; i.e., you’re employed for a few months doing work for a grant-funded project, then your part is done or the grant runs out, and you have to apply to other things

        My oldest, liberal arts kid is discovering there’s a market for people who can write and communicate with others. I don’t know if she’ll decide to go for a graduate or professional degree at some point.

        As to the majors, they’ve lumped together “business, management and marketing.” That’s a wide territory to cover.

      2. Cranberry said,

        “I agree STEM majors are oversold; ironically, I think most if the ed reform people who push STEM majors were not, themselves, STEM majors.”

        Yep!

        “My oldest, liberal arts kid is discovering there’s a market for people who can write and communicate with others.”

        Yeah, and (ironically!) there’s traditionally been a space for those people in STEM.

  4. To elucidate some of the issues, one might want to know the standard deviation of the starting salaries. Also, one would want to know a little more about the school. For example, are the health-related degrees basically all nursing degrees (which I think would be the case at Emory) or something else?

    Actually, this distribution of undergraduate degrees looks sort of like Emory, with a big undergraduate business school and a big nursing program.

    1. I’m going to tell a story which I have told here before, on the chance that someone hasn’t seen it: One year Georgetown published average first year salaries for their majors. Nothing terribly remarkable, until … Art History $2 million.
      There were six of them that year, and one was Patrick Ewing.

  5. For me, the number of business majors is interesting.

    You’ve not taught pre-calculus and business calculus to business majors, have you?

    Suppose you want to go to college, but you don’t actually want to write papers or do any mathematics? What’s left? Business schools attract the sort of undergraduate who wants to go to a state university and join a frat and go to the football games and drink non-stop from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon every week of the semester.

    It’s not rocket science.

    The smart kids who want to go work after college actually study things like math or engineering or finance or economics or even English or history. I’m pretty sure that even companies that would want to hire undergrads to do marketing or advertising or PR would, in most cases, rather hire someone with a liberal arts degree than a business degree. At least the English or history major is more likely to actually know how to read or write.

    History majors make about as much as bio majors. Am I missing something?

    Unless you go to med school or grad school, you are either a lab tech or some kind of field worker (both of which don’t pay extraordinarily well) or you are in the same pool of applicants for generic jobs as the history majors.

    1. “History majors make about as much as bio majors. Am I missing something?”

      You’ve been sold a bill of goods that humanities majors are useless.

      I’m with Jay.

    2. “I’m pretty sure that even companies that would want to hire undergrads to do marketing or advertising or PR would, in most cases, rather hire someone with a liberal arts degree than a business degree.”

      Isn’t that an empirical question?

    3. “The smart kids who want to go work after college actually study things like math or engineering or finance or economics or even English or history.”

      I think it depends on what values you have for “smart” and “work.” I agree that, if you are going to Berkeley or Emory or the like, majoring in math or even English will look just as good to prospective employers like JP Morgan or Google as majoring in business. But the situation might be a little different at College of Charleston, for example. Those in charge of hiring entry-level accountants at GM or Aetna or Wal-Mart may well restrict their interviewing to business majors.

  6. Consider that if you get percentage raises throughout your career, a couple thousand difference in starting salary is magnified over time.

  7. Consider that if you get percentage raises throughout your career, a couple thousand difference in starting salary is magnified over time.

    You assume people will remain employed by the same company over time? I would not assume that. I also know engineers who have been laid off for various reasons outside of their control, or who changed jobs and were able to negotiate an increase in pay.

    This is an interesting project: https://projects.newsday.com/databases/long-island/sat-majors/?order=percent_of_all_test_takers_DESC&offset=0

    The SAT scores, by major, from 2017 for New York students.

    “Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services” is the second most popular intended major (11.5% of test takers), behind only “Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences” (17.2% of test takers). Despite Jay’s jibe about the math skills of business majors, both math and English SAT scores are above average.

    What’s astounding to me are the LOW percentages of student intending to follow what I would consider traditional liberal arts majors (non-STEM). With the exception of the hardy “undecideds” (9.5%), I see:

    Philosophy and Religious Studies: 0.2%
    Foreign Languages and Literatures, General : 0.5%
    History, General: 0.9%
    English Language and Literature / Letters : 1.1%
    Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities: 0.7%

    Ah, heck, looking at liberal arts, STEM-side, I see:

    Mathematics and Statistics: 0.8%
    Physical Sciences: 1.5%
    Social Sciences: 1.7%

    Which adds up to 7.4% of students declaring an interest in traditional liberal arts majors at the end of high school.

    1. Despite Jay’s jibe about the math skills of business majors, both math and English SAT scores are above average.

      Yes, well, I didn’t say they were stupid, but rather lazy and anti-intellectual.

      But, anyway, if you sort the table on that column, most of the groups below them were either planning to major in even less intellectually demanding subjects (“Parks, leisure, and recreation,” anybody?) or were planning to study the trades. Not that there is anything wrong with studying to be an electrician or a mechanic (and both are more useful and should be more remunerative than studying marketing) but the SAT is above all a liberal arts college readiness predictor, so there is no reason that someone who wants to be an electrician should be motivated to do well on the SAT (or take all those Kaplan courses to run up their score).

      The business majors scored below pretty much every group of liberal arts/math (actually itself one of the seven liberal arts)/science/engineering students.

      An anecdote. When I was a graduate student I was given the chance to teach the sophomore level discrete math course, which was a requirement for both the computer science major and the business IT major. It had a prerequisite of integral calculus, which could be from the math/engineering or business tracks. The course was only CS and MIS students (no math majors) and when the grades came down they were perfectly bifurcated. Every CS student got an A or a B and every MIS student got a C or a D. I like to think I was, in my small way, doing my part to make sure that these bubbleheads were derailed from working in IT support management or project management in some way that would intersect my (and your) life.

      You’re welcome.

      1. “Every CS student got an A or a B and every MIS student got a C or a D. I like to think I was, in my small way, doing my part to make sure that these bubbleheads were derailed from working in IT support management or project management in some way that would intersect my (and your) life.”

        That reminds me of my dad, who used to teach community college math, and was the main barrier preventing some very iffy individuals from getting nursing jobs at the local hospital.

      2. I’ve had the same experience teaching CS, math and business students in a humanities discipline. The CS and math kids are smart, usually know how to write, and can read texts well, though it may not be their thing. The business students are the ones who are struggling. Not always, but it’s a fair generalization.

        My guess would be the data came from a flagship state university, one where the degree name will get you some traction. There are a lot of jobs out there that require communication skills and an ordinary ability to show up, learn things, and work, so you can be hired no matter what your degree if you interview well, have connections, etc.

    2. That is a bad graph, using a stacked bar graph for math/english scores. But, a kind of interesting set of data, though I’d argue that basically all of those average scores are about average.

  8. No, I’m not assuming that people remain employed by the same company. Having a higher salary (and at $40k, $4000 is a large amount) means that when I change jobs I can more easily argue for a higher salary from the new employer. This is why those that are graduated into a poor job market have such a hard time recovering in terms of income. Whether or not you stay with one employer, a higher starting salary leads to higher pay over time.

    1. I agree that we are being cavalier in dismissing differences ranging between 36K & 62K (and, yes, even 4000 at 40K is a lot). This data does suggest, though, that the 1K starting salary difference between History & Bio majors shouldn’t be a critical variable in deciding between the two. More important, potentially, is which major you are better suited to and what you would do with the majors both in the short and long term.

      1. bj said,

        “This data does suggest, though, that the 1K starting salary difference between History & Bio majors shouldn’t be a critical variable in deciding between the two. More important, potentially, is which major you are better suited to and what you would do with the majors both in the short and long term.”

        Right. Some of these discussions make it sounds like you can just slot different people into different majors at will, whereas there are people who are bright, but hopeless at foreign languages, or bright but would hate being a doctor, or whatever. You couldn’t just stick all of Jay’s business majors into an engineering program and get good results. Students aren’t just widgets.

  9. My kiddo told me the other day that a lot of her classmates imagine a FIRE world (i.e. Financially independent, “retire” early) in which they work for 5-10 years in a job that pays well (and, yes they are children, and haven’t done the math) and then “retire” to spend their time on pursuits they think they will enjoy (creative work, teaching, . . . ). They are a privileged bunch who think they need a lot of money to live the lives to which they have become accustomed, but, I recently had the insight that they have also, potentially, absorbed the riskiness of work in general & unremunerative-ness of work that has meaning. The sentiment might explain some of the trend of unemployed/underemployed 20 something men.

    I know that I expected to work that was personally rewarded, and did, for a long time. I wouldn’t have seen it as a goal to “retire” early when I was 17.

    It all makes me sad (including the perception of business majors). But, maybe I shouldn’t be so demanding that “love of learning” be a requirement for everyone I interact with. It would be annoying to teach them, though.

  10. bj said,

    “My kiddo told me the other day that a lot of her classmates imagine a FIRE world (i.e. Financially independent, “retire” early) in which they work for 5-10 years in a job that pays well (and, yes they are children, and haven’t done the math) and then “retire” to spend their time on pursuits they think they will enjoy (creative work, teaching, . . . ).”

    That’s something like the Mr. Money Mustache vision, isn’t it?

    https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/about/

    Years ago, one of my in-laws (no further detail to protect the guilty) was talking about retiring to the beach by 40. Some issues with that:

    –He’s a workaholic–his idea of relaxing is working his second job.
    –He dislikes vacations because he’s not making money.
    –He’s closing in on 50 now and has to be filthy rich now, given the disparity between income and expenses, but is showing no sign of willingly leaving his job.
    –I’m not sure he even likes the beach.

    “then “retire” to spend their time on pursuits they think they will enjoy (creative work, teaching, . . .).”

    Awful thought–what if they don’t actually enjoy their dream job? A lot of people discover they don’t enjoy teaching.

    “I know that I expected to work that was personally rewarded, and did, for a long time. I wouldn’t have seen it as a goal to “retire” early when I was 17.”

    I think FIRE is more of a guy dream.

    Another issue is that there’s a big grass-is-greener factor, as well as a need for an occasional change of pace. People who are working often want to quit working, while people who are not working (like long-term SAHMs) often want to get back to working.

  11. No, not moneymustache, because they don’t want to live “frugally”. There’s a book called the “the number” that’s more relevant, I think, to these kids fantasies (though it’s aimed at 40 somethings). The title is the “number” that you believe you would have to save in order to retire. The author points out all the “costs” of retirement, including amusing yourself. It’s one thing to retire and live a frugal middle class life. It’s another if your job gives you a lot of status, produces your social group, allows you to travel, engages your intellectual and other skills, and otherwise amuses you.

    I do agree that FIRE is more of a men’s dream, because at least some women (including me) never think of themselves as being the sole support of their families.

    1. bj said,

      “No, not moneymustache, because they don’t want to live “frugally”.”

      Yeah, you can’t sustain an upper middle class lifestyle indefinitely on 5-10 years of savings.

      “It’s one thing to retire and live a frugal middle class life. It’s another if your job gives you a lot of status, produces your social group, allows you to travel, engages your intellectual and other skills, and otherwise amuses you.”

      Right.

      My family has a) a lot of workaholics and b) an overlapping group of people with a strong sense of vocation.

      I would really discourage my kids from believing that “my real life is starting in 10+ years.” It’s just such a sad way to live.

      “I do agree that FIRE is more of a men’s dream, because at least some women (including me) never think of themselves as being the sole support of their families.”

      For myself, I’d say that some of the things that makes it more of a guy thing are that women may be more aware a) of the social benefits of employment b) the opportunities for outsourcing of domestic chores made possible by extra income and c) women are more likely to think of home itself as a place of work, rather than a place of leisure.

      1. “I would really discourage my kids from believing that “my real life is starting in 10+ years.” It’s just such a sad way to live.”

        So wholeheartedly agree. It’s true about graduate students, too.

        This is a another take on a related issue — of thinking that doing something now (even something that you don’t really want to do, or when you’d really rather do something else) leaves your options open:

        The Trouble with Optionality”
        https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2017/5/25/desai-commencement-ed/

        “The comfort of a high-paying job at a prestigious firm surrounded by smart people is simply too much to give up. When that happens, the dreams that those options were meant to enable slowly recede into the background. For a few, those destinations are in fact their dreams come true—but for every one of those, there are ten entrepreneurs, artists, and restaurateurs that get trapped in those institutions.”

  12. I’m re-reading Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog right now. It’s a classic on the subject of behavioral reinforcement, and interestingly, she discusses the phenomenon of high-paid workers being unable/unwilling to leave their work place, even when they really don’t need the money anymore.

    “Conditioned reinforcers become immensely powerful. I have seen marine mammals work long past the point of satiety for conditioned reinforcers, and horses and dogs work for an hour or more with few primary reinforcers. People, of course, work endlessly for money, which is after all only a conditioned reinforcer, a token for the things it can buy–even, or perhaps especially, people who have already earned more money than they can actually spend, who have accordingly become addicted to the conditioned reinforcer.”

    1. Yes, although there are certainly people who use money as a marker of success, independent of what it can buy. Or who believe that figuring out how to make more money has linked social good (Buffet, for example, says he fits in this category when he argues that his skill is trying to figure out, in a free market, how to invest to make companies, products, . . . . more efficient).

      Two of the saddest money based life plans I’ve seen recently is 1) a Harvard graduate who dropped out of Harvard Med to run a test prep site. Presumably there were reasons other than making money, but seriously, what a waste. 2) a Stanford grad (who I know of because he is the son of a truly brilliant woman, an engineering professor — I am presuming from his other work that he is similarly brilliant and creative) who has started a blockchain startup.

      1. I’m actually for a guy dropping out of Harvard Med if he wasn’t passionate about medicine, but yeah, those two career paths did sound pretty sad, especially the blockchain (!) startup.

        I had to google blockchain. Terrible, as expected.

        But it’s not over until it’s over. As long as they stay out of jail (which may be an issue for the blockchain guy!) there’s still hope for a productive adulthood.

      2. Two of the saddest money based life plans I’ve seen recently is 1) a Harvard graduate who dropped out of Harvard Med to run a test prep site. Presumably there were reasons other than making money, but seriously, what a waste. 2) a Stanford grad (who I know of because he is the son of a truly brilliant woman, an engineering professor — I am presuming from his other work that he is similarly brilliant and creative) who has started a blockchain startup.

        (1) seems superficially like a bad move, although I do a priori trust the judgement of someone who gets themselves into Harvard Med, all things being equal. (2) will be fine. If his startup goes pear shaped then he can always go back to Googlezonflix.

  13. Yes, true about young adult #2. Young adult #1 seems to be doing well financially.

    But, my complaint isn’t that the kids will suffer, but that the world will. I’m don’t think we should *make* #1 cure cancer (you know, freedom and all that), but he seemed like the kind of person who might have, and, instead, he’s teaching kids (via a online prep startup) how to score 800’s on the stupid grammar section of the SAT. I can only hope that kid #2 will find himself back to something that provides value to the world (and, since I consider Google, FB, and a lot of other things a net value — I’m pretty broad), I’m hopeful.

    1. I feel like a guy who isn’t passionately/obsessively committed isn’t going to cure cancer, so I’m OK with a non-passionately committed guy bailing.

      I can’t imagine he’ll stay with the SAT prep business, as it sounds super boring.

      Would we be happier if he were to branch into something like improving online language instruction or developing better educational software? I feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement.

      Or, how about better computerized diagnostic assistance for doctors?

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