Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Undergraduate Degree Ranking by Starting Salary

PayScale has issued its College Salary Report, which ranks 75 undergraduate degrees by the median starting and mid-career salaries.  Here are the Top and Bottom 10:


Undergraduate Degree


Starting Salary





Aerospace Engineering




Chemical Engineering




Computer Engineering




Electrical Engineering












Mechanical Engineering




Computer Science




Industrial Engineering




Environmental Engineering












Fine Arts




Hospitality and Tourism
























Elementary Education




Social Work



(Hat Tip: Francine Lipman.)

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This is kind of like those selection-bias deceptive stories you get in your 401k manager's glossy every year, about how if you invested $1000 in small-cap stocks 50 years ago, you'd be rich rich rich right now. Well, yes, if you invested in that fraction of small companies that went on to prosper, instead of throwing away most of your money on stock that turned to worthless paper when the company dried up and blew away. (And of course if you can predict ahead of time which company will be an IBM and which a Pan Am or Enron, then you don't need the stock market to make a good living.)

Yes, if you major in physics and actually get a job in physics then your salary will be pretty good. But most people who start off majoring in physics have to change career paths, go on to get MBAs or go to medical school or what have you, since the competition for those high-salary jobs is very stiff indeed.

Really, it's very likely this list is just a crude equivalent of an IQ test. You simply have to be pretty smart to pull off a major in the top majors on this list, and, duh, over time smarter people tend to make more money.

Posted by: Carl Pham | Sep 9, 2009 4:13:31 PM

This probably overstates the engineers superior position, as well as understates the performing arts inferior position (using "superior" and "inferior" in terms of these rankings).

A large majority of those jobs are in some of the highest cost-of-living urban areas - SF bay, LA, NYC - which says that the engineers aren't making all that much more, and that the drama majors are close to poverty.

Posted by: bud | Sep 9, 2009 3:01:52 PM

dbc, it might be interesting to see but I'll bet that the degree of difference just gets worse.

Posted by: ksp | Sep 9, 2009 7:47:26 AM

It isn't just "choice" of major. You would also see a strong relationship between average total SAT score for students in these majors and median starting salary for the major.

Posted by: krb | Sep 8, 2009 8:30:55 PM

Reading the fine print: "This chart is based upon PayScale Salary Survey data for full-time employees in the United States who possess a Bachelor's degree and no higher degrees and have majored in the subjects listed above."

It would be interesting to get a similar table for people who continued their education. Maybe social workers with master's degrees are paid more competitively compared to engineers with master's degrees?

Posted by: dbc | Sep 8, 2009 6:12:50 PM

Tim Armstrong/1L,

The problem is that you also need to factor in the inverse relationship between one's facility with math and one's facility with people (ya know, that whole "socially awkward math nerd" thing). That can put a real big damper on the partnership track.

Posted by: Michelin Man | Sep 8, 2009 5:31:17 PM

While it may be true that, as the PayScale article says, "the engineers and scientists fair better financially" than English majors, but at least the English majors know how to spell "fare."

Posted by: Seamus | Sep 8, 2009 5:15:08 PM

Um, OK.

Patrick Ewing was a fine arts major when I was at GU; that year they did markedly better than the other grads.

Posted by: Reg Dunlop | Sep 8, 2009 4:40:58 PM

This just tells me that my wife, a structural engineer, went into the wrong type of engineering. This also tells me, a music major, that I made a smart decision in going to law school.

Posted by: Cory | Sep 8, 2009 4:06:02 PM

Wouldn't you like to see the chart "lawyer salaries ranked by undergraduate GPA"? I bet it would have some of the same features as the above. Patent lawyers would probably rank pretty highly. Is there a general lesson here about success in life correlating positively with one's facility with/tolerance for math?

Posted by: Tim Armstrong | Sep 8, 2009 1:52:46 PM