Episode 485: What's Your Major?

Sep 12, 2013
Originally published on September 11, 2013 6:07 pm

Sure, some college degrees lead to higher paying jobs than others. But what's shocking — at least, it was shocking to us — is just how big the gap can be.

The most lucrative majors typically lead to jobs with salaries over $100,000 a year. The least lucrative lead to salaries of around $30,000.

On today's show, we run the numbers. We talk to people who majored in the most- and least-lucrative subjects. And we hear from an economist who says, when it comes to income, choosing a major is more important than choosing a college.

For More:

* The Most (And Least) Lucrative College Majors, In 1 Graph

* Why Women (Like Me) Choose Lower Paying Jobs

Music: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings's "Money" and Pink Floyd's "Money." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook/Spotify/ Tumblr. Download the Planet Money iPhone App.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


So, Alex, we all know that people with a college degree do better.


Yeah, if you have a bachelor's degree you're much less likely to be unemployed, you earn more money.

CHOW: And we all know that some degrees earn more money than others. For example, science majors - the conventional wisdom goes - earn more than English majors.

BLUMBERG: But what we didn't know until recently is exactly how much more, and, boy, is it a lot.

ERIN FORD: I make 110,000 right now.

CHOW: Erin Ford (ph) is 24 and graduated from the University of Texas two years ago.

BLUMBERG: Just two years ago?

CHOW: Yes. And she graduated with the highest-earning major out there - petroleum engineering. She works for an oil and gas company. According to this big study done by a guy named Anthony Carnevale - he's an economist at Georgetown - the median earnings for people with petroleum engineering degree - $120,000.

MICHAEL GARDNER: What? Wait, repeat that? You said 120,000?

CHOW: Yes.

GARDNER: That is insane.

CHOW: That is Michael Gardner (ph).

BLUMBERG: I know how he feels.

CHOW: He's a recent graduate in one of the lowest-earning majors - psychology. He's 22 and graduated from City College in New York last spring. He'll be earning a third - just a third of what Ford earns when he starts his job later this month as a case worker for foster care kids.

BLUMBERG: And think of that - a third. You know, you spend the same amount of money going to college. You spend the same amount of time in classes. You do the same sorts of stuff. You study, you take exams. But depending on what your major is, your earnings can vary enormously. The lowest-earning major in Carnevale's study - $29,000. That's the median income versus the highest, which is $120,000. I knew there was a variation, I just didn't know it was that big.

CHOW: It's a huge spread. And think about it, you're making this choice when you're, you know, 18, 19, 20 years old.

BLUMBERG: I mean, calling it a choice is actually dignifying it a little bit more. Like, I think a lot of us just sort of slide into our major. There's no choice, there's not much thought involved at all.

CHOW: And economists say you really shouldn't be sliding into this choice, it's one of the biggest economic decisions you're going to make in your life. And this point was driven home to me when I was talking to Carnevale. My major in college had a pretty high earning potential - applied math. The median salary there is $76,000 a year. And then I went and got a postgraduate degree which also boosts your earnings. And then I sort of threw all that earning potential away when I took a job in public radio. So I asked Carnevale, I want to know how much money I'm potentially leaving on the table.

So I majored in applied math. I have an MBA.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Oh, you left a lot of money on the table. You left probably as much as $3 to $4 million on the table.

CHOW: Three to $4 million?


CHOW: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Lisa Chow.

BLUMBERG: I'm Alex Blumberg. Today on the program - hard cold data. How much money are you missing out on by majoring in English? And if you do have an applied math degree, are you getting paid the stats say you should be getting paid?


SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) You know what we need, though. Money, where have you gone to? Money, where have you gone to?

BLUMBERG: All right. So this information about what individual majors can actually earn, this is pretty new data. It only became available to us in 2009 when the Census Bureau for the first time started asking a new question.

CHOW: They started asking what your undergraduate major was. And, you know, they had always been collecting information about your earnings so that now they could actually compare what people majored in and what they went on to earn.

BLUMBERG: And so this economist, Anthony Carnevale, looked at this data, started crunching all these numbers. And he came up with a list, the best-earning majors and the worst-earning majors. So without further ado, let's just get to the top 10, shall we?

CHOW: Yes. OK, I'm going to read this list and, Alex, tell me if you can spot a theme here.

BLUMBERG: At number 10...

CHOW: So number 10 is mining and mineral engineering. The median income is $80,000 a year. Number nine, metallurgical engineering, number eight, mechanical engineering, number seven, naval architecture and marine engineering, number six, electrical engineering, number five, chemical engineering, number four, aerospace engineering, number three, mathematics and computer science, number two, pharmacy pharmaceutical sciences and administration and number one, petroleum engineering at a median income of $120,000.

BLUMBERG: So I'm still working on trying to spot the theme.


BLUMBERG: Applied math and engineering. That gets you a lot of money.

CHOW: Yeah, not bad, huh?

BLUMBERG: Yeah. All right, and let's compare that to the lowest-earning majors out there.

CHOW: OK, so the 10th-lowest-earning major is health and medical prepatory programs. Number nine is visual and performing arts. Number eight is communication disorders sciences and service. Number seven is studio arts. Number six is drama and theater arts. Number five is social work. Number four is human services and community organization. Number three is theology and religious vocations. Number two early childhood education. And number one, the lowest-earning major is counseling psychology at $29,000 a year.

BLUMBERG: So I feel like if most of us would've had to guess who earns more, you know, a mining engineer or a studio arts major, we would have guessed mining engineer. But it is just really stark to see the actual numbers attached to these majors. And we should point out to people

BLUMBERG: this is undergraduate degree holders only. If you're a studio arts major and you went on to get another degree, you do not show up in this data. Doctors and lawyers, people who need an advanced degree, they're not showing up in this data, although we'll get to them later.

CHOW: And this is most people who go to college. I mean, most people who go to college do not go on to get a graduate degree.

BLUMBERG: The vast majority of people. And so one of the really cool things about getting your hands on this study is you get to dig into it and just find out - like, I think a question that a lot of people have, what does my major earn, right? Like, I want to know. So let's take me, for example. I majored in political science.

CHOW: Right, not a real science, Alex.

BLUMBERG: As is reflected in the earnings data.

CHOW: You, according to the study, should be earning 59,000. That's the median income for political science majors.

BLUMBERG: And that's higher than the median income for all majors combined, which is 54,000. So poli-sci majors are doing a little bit above average.

CHOW: Slightly above average.

BLUMBERG: Slightly above average, which is where I aspire to be. And one other thing to point out here, this is not for recent graduates or anything. This is for across your lifetime. If all you have is a political science degree and you don't go on to get an advanced degree, the median income is $59,000 a year.

CHOW: Right, and it's totally unrelated to your field. So if you were a political science major and then went on to work on Wall Street to make millions of dollars, you're still included in the political science category, so everyone, you know, whether you worked on Wall Street or worked at a think tank.

BLUMBERG: Or got a job in retail making $12,000 a year, you all count. As long as you had a political science degree, you're counted in the political science data. And then there's one other question that occurs to me out of this data. So clearly, you know, math and science generally do better. They're higher. And then applied math and science, especially engineering, does way, way better. So if you want to just maximize your earnings, it's clear you should go into those fields, right? But what if you're just, like, not a science person or a math person. You know you're only cut out for humanities subjects, but you still want to earn some money. What's the best major for you in that scenario?

CHOW: It turns out U.S. history is the highest-earning liberal arts and humanities major. The median income there is 57,000.

BLUMBERG: And we talked to Carnevale about why this might be that U.S. history majors earn more than, say, English majors or philosophy majors. And what he was saying is basically there's a more definite career track for U.S. history majors. Basically, there's a lot of jobs in government, in U.S. government, that would favor a U.S. history degree. And there's also something else that you can see in the data that might explain some of these variations, and that is pure supply and demand.

CHOW: The supply and demand dynamics play out for petroleum engineering majors, the highest-earning major out there. There are 15,000 in Carnivale's sample compared to psych majors - 1.3 million psych majors out there. So petroleum engineers, it's only 1 percent of that psych.

BLUMBERG: And you can see that there's high demand, there's an oil boom right now in this country. There's low supply, and it shows up in the salary. But it also shows up in the job search itself. So, Lisa, when you talked to our two recent graduates, the psychology major and the petroleum engineering major, one of the most interesting comparisons was how long it took them to find a job and how hard it was for them to find a job.

CHOW: So let's start with our psych major Michael Gardner, who we met at the top, who couldn't believe how much petroleum engineering majors made.

GARDNER: What. Wait, repeat that?

CHOW: It took him a long time to find a job with that psych major. He was working a part-time retail job at Home Depot and calling employers almost daily.

GARDNER: Every single day when I was at work I'm I'm thinking, I just hope I really don't get stuck hoping and praying. Like, the next day I'd wake up, check my voicemail, make sure I didn't get a voicemail from anybody, you know, checking emails or making sure that I was followed up with and stuff like that. And employers will not follow up with you at all.

BLUMBERG: Now, compare that with Erin Ford's experience. She's the petroleum engineering major. Companies were coming to her. She was recruited on campus for an internship. And it wasn't one of these unpaid internships either.

FORD: You get paid better than any part-time job a student's going to have in the summer.

BLUMBERG: And at the end of her summer, Ford was offered a full-time job before she even started her senior year.

FORD: It was really - a really easy process.

BLUMBERG: And, you know, Lisa, it's interesting when you starting talking about the supply and demand question because you would imagine that it would work both ways, right? You would imagine that people would move into different majors once they see the earning potential that these majors have. And so, for example, you would imagine more people would become - petroleum engineering and fewer people would become psychology majors.

But that's what's especially weird to me about psychology. The psychology major is fairly unique in that it is both very, very popular and also very, very low-earning. Like, it's the fifth-most popular major out there, but it's also one of the lowest-earning majors out there. And if you look at the other popular majors, yeah, there are a lot of people but they earn OK. Like, they're business degrees, nursing degrees, accounting degrees. They're degrees where there's a big demand for them and they actually earn also. Psychology sort of stands alone.

CHOW: So when you dig into the data, you do realize that a lot of psych majors, they take an extra step. They go on to graduate school. Forty-three percent of them go on to graduate school, and they get a big boost in their earnings from that. They actually - it launches them into the mid $60,000 range.

BLUMBERG: Yeah, and you can speculate, like, maybe some psych majors were planning on going and getting their Ph.D. Maybe some psych

BLUMBERG: majors were, like, oh, my God, I didn't realize I would earn so little and they go back to law school or whatever. But a lot of them, almost half, go back to school and get an advanced degree, which is more than in a lot of these other majors.

But that raises a question to me, which is let's say you got a psych major out there and this is one of the psych majors that was not planning on going and getting, you know, an advanced degree, thought I'm majoring in psychology, I'm just going to get a job when I graduate, graduated and found out that their earning potential was pretty low, wouldn't that person have liked to have known earlier? And it makes me wonder, like, what if in the course catalogs, you know, you had here's what your major, here's the requirements and also here's your median income expected from the data. You know, wouldn't that be helpful for people.

CHOW: And I asked our psych major Michael Gardner that exact question. Would it have influenced his decision?

When you were a freshman, if I had given you a list and right next to every major there was a number and that number showed you the typical salary, would that have influenced your decision?

MICHAEL GARDENER: It still wouldn't have, and I'll tell you why. I came into this school knowing where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I didn't necessarily know the road, how to get there or, you know, the steps that I will have to take. But nothing can turn me away from counseling. Honestly, I don't mind the money. It's more of a fulfilling thing for me.

CHOW: Not only does he not mind the money, $36,000 a year doing something he loved sounded awesome, especially after working retail for so long.

GARDENER: I was like ding, hello because when I was working at Home Depot, even working 32 hours, I was still making under 20,000.

BLUMBERG: Lisa, I can actually relate to this. You know, when I graduated with my degree in poli-sci, like, I hadn't done the math certainly. I wasn't thinking rationally about future income, but I did have a sense that, you know, I was graduating with a degree where it wasn't like employers were going to be lining up in demand for my skills, right? So I sort of knew I was going to have to hustle to find a job.

And like Gardner, I bided my time working the service sector. When I first graduated, I was - I had a job as a caterer for a while. And then I finally got a semi-professional job at a social services outfit. I was helping Russian refugees. And I remember when I got my starting salary, it was $17,000 a year and it felt like I'd hit the jackpot.

CHOW: That's the difference between you and me, Alex. So with my applied math major, I felt like a sucker getting my first job at $20,000 a year. I was working at a small newspaper in New Hampshire. And my applied math friends, you know, they went on and worked at consulting firms and investment banks. And they were making 70,000, you know, plus bonuses and all the rest.

BLUMBERG: Yeah, I guess if I'd had your friends, I would have felt like a sucker, too.

CHOW: I actually felt betrayed by my own interests. I really liked being a journalist, but it was totally messing with my income. And Carnevale says that happens all the time. Passions trump economic interests for a lot of people.

CARNEVALE: You're doing something that I suspect you need to do. The urge to speak, it seems to me, is something that - pretty fundamental.

CHOW: Right, right.

CARNEVALE: Although if I were your dad, I'd have given you a very hard time about the math and the - going into communications.

CHOW: (Laughter).

Thankfully, my dad didn't give me a hard time.

BLUMBERG: You're happy with the choice you made?

CHOW: Yes, I love what I do.

BLUMBERG: And we are also happy that you made this choice. But, you know, looking at the study, one of the biggest takeaways for me is that the way we sort of think about education and the value of education, we're not thinking about it totally accurately. A lot of people think, OK, I need to get a degree and what I need to do is I need to go to the best school I can go to and that will give me the best prospects. Carnevale says for most people out there, if you go into a fairly uncompetitive state school, for example, but you major in the right major, you're going to earn a lot more than if you go to a more competitive school but major in poetry or studio art.

CHOW: And you might be wondering, you know, what about the Harvard and Yales of the world? Now...

BLUMBERG: And they are different.

CHOW: Yes, they are different. Carnevale told me that you're making a lot of connections at Harvard. You're also being influenced by a different type of peer group at Harvard. And he says so if you major in English at Harvard, you have other options that other English majors probably don't have.

BLUMBERG: You can go and work at an investment bank, for example, because you met somebody who also works at an investment bank. And that might - that's an option to you as an English major. But, he says, if you do go and teach, you're going to make the same as a Harvard-educated English major as you would as a - you know, some other state-school educated English major.

CHOW: Right. We obsess about the schools we apply to. And we really don't spend much time thinking about what we're going to major in, when in fact what you major in has a bigger determinant on your earnings than what school you went to.

BLUMBERG: A far bigger determining.


BLUMBERG: So in keeping with the news you can use theme of today's show, we will post a link to Carnevale's study about the economic value of different majors on our website, planetmoney.com.

CHOW: You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Spotify or email us at planetmoney@npr.org. I'm Lisa Chow.

BLUMBERG: And I'm Alex Blumberg. Thanks for listening.


PINK FLOYD: (Singing) Money, get away. Get a good job with more pay and you're OK. Money, it's a gas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.