What’s the best way to pick your college major? Follow your passion, of course!
On the other hand, a little money never hurt anyone either. What you major in can have a dramatic effect on how much money you end up earning over the course of your career.
Fortunately, if you’re wondering which majors are more likely to bring in the green, there are places you can go to find out. In particular, PayScale collects information about people’s jobs and salaries with the aim of compiling data on how factors like what college you attend and what you study affect your job satisfaction, earning prospects and so on.
Although this data is limited by how many people are willing to disclose their salaries and other details to PayScale, the information that has been put together is enlightening. For example, according to PayScale’s data, Harvard alums are only the third-highest-paid grads. Second-highest-paid are alums of Harvey Mudd and highest-paid are … alums of SUNY Maritime College.
Now, as far as college majors go, some of the results are predictable: it turns out the old stereotype that humanities majors earn less than STEM majors is true. In fact, all the highest-earning college majors are STEM subjects.
Not all high-paying college majors are created equal, however. Some pay a lot right away – as in, you can be making six figures the week after you graduate. Some don’t pay as much right away but have the potential to earn more and more over time. PayScale takes this into account by looking at majors’ early career pay, how much alums make 0-5 years after graduating, and mid-career pay, how much alums make 10 or more years after getting their degrees.
They also look at what percentage of alums think the work they’re doing has high meaning, or makes the world a better place. After all, most people don’t want to do a job they feel terrible about, even if they’re getting paid well to do it.
With that in mind, here are the 15 highest-earning college majors, along with their early career pay, their mid-career pay and the percentage of alumni who say their work has high meaning.
1. Petroleum Engineering
Turns out there’s a lot of money in the oil business. According to PayScale’s data, petroleum engineering majors are the only ones making six figures on average right out of college, with an early career salary of $101,000.
They do even better after 10 years, with a mid-career salary of $168,000. And they even find their job quite meaningful, with 71% saying they’re making the world a better place – hard not to be optimistic about things when you’re making six figures straight out of school, I guess!
2. Nuclear Engineering
Nuclear engineering is serious business, and it pays like it: nuclear engineering majors are making $68,200 out of college and $121,000 by the time they reach the middle of their career.
Interestingly, nuclear engineers are somewhat split about whether their work splitting atoms is making the world a better place, with 58% saying what they do is highly meaningful. Regardless, I think we can all sleep a little better at night knowing the folks in charge of putting together nuclear weapons and building nuclear power plants are being well compensated.
3. Actuarial Mathematics
Actuarial mathematics majors are all about analyzing risk, so as they could probably tell you, here’s something that’s decidedly not risky: majoring in actuarial mathematics. It’s actually a pretty good bet.
The average early career pay for actuarial math majors is $58,800, and the average mid-career pay is $119,000. A middling 48% of actuarial math majors think they’re making the world a better place.
4. Chemical Engineering
Petroleum engineering and nuclear engineering not your thing? No problem – take a crack at chemical engineering! The starting salary is $69,500, and you’ll end up making $118,000 by the time your career is in full swing. Plus, if you’re like 61% of other chemical engineers, you’ll feel like your job is making the world a better place.
5. Electronics and Communications Engineering
Electronics and communications engineering majors go on to nab jobs like IT Consultant and Radio Frequency Engineer (the latter of which nets a whopping $113,500 on average – and there I was thinking radio was a dying medium). Overall, if you study electronics and communication engineering you can look forward to a starting salary of $65,000 and a mid-career salary of $116,000 as well as a 55% chance of finding your work meaningful.
6. Computer Science and Engineering
OK, we all knew it was just a matter of time before software developers showed up somewhere on this list. Turns out they have early career salaries of $69,100 and mid-career salaries of $115,000 on average. However, they’re on the lower end of things as far as believing their work makes the world a better place – only 43% of computer science and engineering majors hold this view.
7. Electrical and Computer Engineering
Electrical and computer engineering majors fare similar to their friends on the computer science and engineering side of things, with early career salaries of $67,000, mid-career salaries of $114,000 and a high meaning percentage of 53%.
8. Systems Engineering
Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary majors that potentially opens up jobs in a lot of different fields. Fields that tend to pay well, I should add. Systems engineering majors can expect average starting salaries of $67,100, average mid-career salaries of $114,000 and a high meaning rate of 60%.
9. Aeronautical Engineering
My personal feeling on this one is similar to my feeling on nuclear engineering: I’m glad to hear people designing planes, like people putting together nuclear bombs, are being paid well. To be more precise, they’re being paid to the tune of $65,100 when they’re starting out and $113,000 when they’ve been doing things for a while. They also have a 61% likelihood of finding their job meaningful.
10. Computer Engineering
So you might have noticed by now that one of the takeaways if that if you major in something related to computers, you’re probably good. In this case, computer engineering majors (many of whom go on to become software developers) are definitely good in the sense that they start out making $68,400 and end up making $109,000. 48% of them think their work is making the world a better place.
11. Mining Engineering
Mining engineering majors have an average early career salary of $71,500 and mid-career salary of $109,000. The most interesting thing about these folks though is that they apparently love their jobs: 79% of them believe they’re making the world a better place, more than any other major in the highest-earning 15.
12. Electrical Engineering
Another highest-earning majors, another branch of engineering. Electrical engineering majors make $66,500 when they’re getting started and $108,000 once they have some experience under their belts. 55% of them find their work highly meaningful.
13. Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering
Mechanical and aeronautical engineering majors get started with a nothing-to-sneeze at $61,000 per year and end up with an even more respectable $108,000 average annual salary. The percentage who find high meaning in their work is 58%.
14. Aerospace Engineering
These folks make $64,800 when their careers are just taking flight and end up with an astronomical $107,000 once their careers have achieved lift-off. 57% find their jobs meaningful, even if they do have to constantly put up with people at parties saying “oh, so you’re a rocket scientist?”
15. Computer Science and Mathematics
Computer science and mathematics majors make $62,900 a year starting out and $107,000 thereafter. However, they don’t do so well in the finding-their-jobs-meaningful department: only 36% would go so far as to say they’re actually making the world a better place.
To find out more about how your major affects your earning potential and to look up information on other majors, check out PayScale’s data on the highest-paying bachelor degrees.
By Niels V.