Majors that pay: STEM — and government

Payscale’s Majors That Pay You Back starts with engineering majors: Petroleum engineers start at $98,000 and earn a median mid-career salary of $163,000.  Then comes other STEM majors such as applied math, computer science, statistics and physics.

Government is the top-earning non-STEM major, as measured by mid-career pay, at the 14th spot. Government majors start at $42,000 and hit $95,600 by mid-career, according to Payscale.

Economics is 15th and international relations is 16th. Then it’s back to STEM majors till urban planning pops up at #40.

Education is #110 with a median starting salary of $37,200 and mid-career median of $55,000.

Some of the lowest-paying majors — special education, Biblical studies, social work and child and family studies — make the list of Majors That Change the World.

Most new jobs don’t require a college degree, notes Cost of College. However, most of the fastest growing jobs — retail sales, home health aide, personal care aide, clerical worker — pay poorly.

About Joanne


  1. Important to note: “Salary does not include equity (stock) compensation, which can be a significant portion of pay for some executive and high-tech jobs. In addition, salary does not include cash value of retirement benefits, or value of other non-cash benefits (e.g. healthcare). ”

    The economic returns of pursuing careers in education and criminal justice are probably understated.

    It’s fun to consider different career paths. The biology major and the classics major earn about the same in mid-career. Linguistics beats nursing.

    • “The economic returns of pursuing careers in education and criminal justice are probably understated.”

      Because of the retirement benefits?

      • Because the retirement benefits are not included in the salary comparisons. Teachers (and police and fire) in our state have health and retirement benefits which are better than the norm. Any attempt to compare professions by their return on tuition should factor in the lifetime benefits. If there is a guaranteed retirement benefit which is the equivalent of a significant portion of one’s salary, that should be included in comparisons.

        The methodology overview should be read. Many, many graduates are not included. This is for BACHELORS’ DEGREE HOLDERS ONLY, which means that all lawyers, doctors, MBAs, etc. were excluded. That would depress the earnings of the liberal arts majors, as many of the most highly paid graduates earn graduate and professional degrees.

        “Only graduates who are employed full-time, not on active military duty and paid with either an hourly wage or an annual salary are included.

        “Self-employed, project-based, and contract employees are not included. For example, project-based graphic designers and architects, and nearly all small business owners and novelists, are not included.

        Note: The alumni sample considered for the military schools (e.g., The United States Air Force Academy) only includes those who are currently in the civilian labor force and does not include alumni who are active service members.”

        • It just occurred to me, as many teachers complete graduate degrees, this survey would exclude all teachers with further degrees. That would exclude many teachers, as many states have linked salary increases to the completion of graduate degrees.

  2. Is “government” the major once known as “political science”? A subset of “political science” majors who focus on issues of government?

    One of the problems with a list such as this is that, absent information about the size of the market, it’s not very helpful. And even with information about the size of the market you need to know something about the other candidates against whom you will be competing for jobs. “I was going to major in telecommunications, but now I think I’ll switch to petroleum engineering” is far from a guaranteed path to a substantial income.

  3. Foobarista says:

    No, “government” is an actual major, distinct from political science. It’s usually a sort of MBA-style “management” degree, but for “aspiring” bureaucrats.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Caught a billboard–missed the sponsor–pumping “career education” in fifteen weeks. Trades, office, IT.
    Good start, I suppose.

  5. It would be nice if they included the average number of hours worked. How about a career risk factor and a stress factor? I remember driving through a very fancy neighborhood with a friend and not seeing anyone. She called them “dog houses”; the owners were too busy at their jobs earning money to pay for them. Only the dogs lived there. My brother-in-law has a PhD in chemistry and is one of the scientists at Dow. When they restructured (they’ve done that a lot lately), he had to scramble to find a new position. The higher you go on the pay scale, the more specialized you become. This adds risk. This risk is greater for careers where the technology changes faster. You might be in demand, but not for a job anywhere near where you are currently living. Woe to those who end up in a legacy technology track. There is not much need for VAX VMS specialists. Things don’t look too good for Unix either.

    My sister-in-law, a retired high school English teacher, was extolling the benefits of becoming a high school math or physics teacher to my son as soon as he gets his college degree. He could start immediately on seniority (she said that depending on the demand, he could start above the bottom step) and he could try to quickly get his masters degree and PhD on the side. By the time he is 30, he could potentially max out their pay scale, which is nearing 6 figures. The ability to get to this point quickly has been a topic of discussion in our area. And, since he loves performing, he could spend his summers at music festivals.

    • Your point about specialization being risky is generally right, but Unix/Linux knowledge is more valuable now than ever. If you’re talking about deep Solaris knowledge, it may not be that useful as it isn’t doing that well these days, but most Solaris knowledge migrates easily to Linux (or FreeBSD for that matter). VMS and other proprietary systems, not so much.

      • “.. but Unix/Linux knowledge is more valuable now than ever.”

        There are big cracks in the armor. At my wife’s very large company, Unix is being scaled back for Windows solutions, and the big flap between HP’s Itanium and Oracle didn’t help. Early in my career, I bet correctly on C and then C++. At that time, it wasn’t clear what would win out. Now, I have issues about whether to spend a lot of energy on UML. Opportunities come to those who choose correctly.

        In any case, technology careers usually demand more hours and more technology risk.