Majors and Money

Last week, a study published by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce provided a list of the highest paid majors, using Census data to examine post-college career paths over the past 40 years. More than three million bachelor’s degree holders were surveyed in the study and asked questions about the current positions, salaries, and what major they chose in college.

Engineers topped the list, with students who majored in petroleum engineering making, on average, $120,000 per year. The top is further populated by other specializations in engineering, science, and math. Rounding out the bottom of the salary list, you’ll find majors like early childhood education, counseling psychology, and studio art, ranging between $29,000 and $40,000 per year in earnings.

Studies that equate majors with money can be both helpful and harmful, especially for students making these choices and parents fretting over them. Is it surprising that the petroleum engineering major is making more money than the elementary education major? Probably not. Does earning potential in a career have a very real impact on the lives of students after college? Of course. So even though there’s an element of “well, duh” when looking at the earnings listed in the Georgetown rankings, they are also helpful. Some students who go on to become engineers and computer scientists are making a lot of money. Some who chose fields in education, counseling, the arts and humanities are making less. (keyword in both cases: some)

It is important for you to be educated about the career fields you are considering and how they relate to your goals, aspirations, AND financial realities. Knowing information about the earning potential of your career choices can help you to make sound and rational decisions about your future. Further, such information helps you manage your expectations about starting salaries, which many students don’t take into consideration until they are well into the application and hiring process as seniors.

However, the Georgetown data can also be harmful, if taken only as a black and white snapshot of major-to-career, particularly for liberal arts majors. A quick look at the outcomes data we collect through the senior career survey over the years shows that William and Mary students’ majors often aren’t predictors for their career choices. English majors become lawyers. History students have successful business careers. Business students work for non-profit organizations. These realities of post-graduate life make the major choice a lot less black and white and a lot more gray.

Given our economic situation in the U.S. and the cost of higher education, career development and in-depth research about career options are more critical than ever. So use the Georgetown study to your advantage. Know where you will stand financially as you begin a career in your chosen field. Understand that pursuing a particular major doesn’t define you, but it does give you a skill set and you have to be capable of articulating what that skill set is. And above all else, know what is important to you and what you value. Acknowledging your needs and desires, as well as reconciling them with the economic realities of career fields, will help you as you make major and career decisions.

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