Personal Finance

Choosing Your Major and Your Career For Earning Potential

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Last updated on July 28, 2019 Comments: 14

If your goal in life is to earn as much money as possible, then you need to determine before you graduate high school what high-earning career path is best for you. You’ll need to weigh your skills and aptitude to decide the collegiate degree that provides you the best chance for professional success as well as a quick return on the money you (or your parents) invest in your education. You’ll need to get your foot in the door of your industry early, during college or even during high school, perhaps for little or no pay at first.

It’s undeniable that your first job out of college, and the salary that goes along with it, will set the course of your career. Start with a high salary and you’ll consistently be further along than others throughout your life. If you start your career at 25 years old, earning $30,000, you’ll retire at 65 having earned almost $850,000 more in total income over someone who started at the same time earning $23,000, if you’ve both received the same 5% annual raise. (This example is from Free Money Finance.)

With higher starting salaries in a fast-paced career like investment banking, the gap will be much larger.

Managed well, more money means more flexibility to do more things with your life outside of your job — if that career doesn’t work you to death or drive you insane.

However, there are a number of reasons why these tactics might not be the best option.

  • It requires an early decisions at a stage when someone might not be fully aware of their talents and aptitude.
  • A decision to embark on a life-long career requires a level of maturity that a number of students in high school — and even college — just don’t have yet.
  • Chances are good that careers will change once or more throughout a lifetime, sometimes requiring a salary reset.

Some time ago, I polled Twitter users to determine who find themselves in a career related to their original major or college degree. The results were about half-and-half. Here were some responses (keep in mind that Twitter responses are limited in length):

Mmmeg: Majors were classical studies (Latin) & Spanish linguistics, minors linguistics & foreign lang. ed. I work at a fashion site. I was also a jazz performance major for a semester.

frugalbabe: degree in psychology, minors in math and econ… working in the health insurance industry.

PenelopePince: B.A. in Interdiscplinary Studies: Linguistics, Spanish, French, Madarin & German; Minor in Music. I own a pet clothing business.

uppervalleymom: BA in Government, MS in Evaluative Clinical Sciences (public health-y) working PT at business school now, but was in nonprofit exec dir

guppie: B.S. in biology, working in web development

The point is that there is a good chance the decision you make as a high school student or college freshman might not have as much bearing on your career path as you hope. I prefer this advice from author Dan Kadlec, on the occasion of his daughter’s recent departure for college:

Don’t get caught up in talk on campus about which majors are the best stepping stones to financial success. You’ll hear plenty of that from kids who want or may be under pressure to get a quick return from their education. Forget them. Many of those kids will end up disliking their jobs and muddling through so-so careers.

You can make a great living doing almost anything, as long as you love it. So take risks. Explore. Switch majors. Get your head out of the books and do something surprising. There’s time. But find your bliss and pursue it.

Go ahead and get fluent in Spanish and study abroad if that makes your heart sing. Your knowledge and experience will pay off later on, I promise – just as you’ll be rewarded for the joy you bring to tasks that excite you.

It’s good to see advice pertaining to education and career choices that isn’t focuses solely on “financial return.” You can try to analyze your return on investment (ROI) but a good education is about more than just earning power.

A letter to my college-bound daughter, Dan Kadlec, Money Magazine, September 4, 2008.

Article comments

Anonymous says:

You can make a great living doing almost anything, as long as you love it. So take risks. Explore. Switch majors. Get your head out of the books and do something surprising. There’s time. But find your bliss and pursue it.

I’ve never heard of anyone making a great living flipping hamburgers

Anonymous says:

@Meg I hear ya. My dad had the same attitude as yours basically. He worked for the Postal Service, and that was a “good job” to him b/c it was stable with good benefits. So, given those values, he wanted me to get a “good job” too and that meant science/technology, which was OK at the time as I was always oriented in that direction anyway and loved computers. I had two cousins, brothers, who were opposites it turns out. #1 went to RPI on Navy ROTC. So that was double good : going to a right-thinking school, and having the cleverness to get the government to pay for it. Cousin #2, in contrast, went to Williams College, which was/is very expensive, and got some sort of non-technical, liberal-artsy degree. My father would shake his head at this, expressing sorrow for the foolish kid’s father, having to reach deep into his pockets to pay for some worthless (in a perceived earning-power sense) degree. And this was particularly upsetting given the stellar cousin #1, who was clearly imbued with enough good sense for both of them combined.

#1 went on to be a nuclear engineer. #2 went on to some sort of social services job in the upper midwest. I imagine that #1 makes more money, but I can also easily imagine that #2 might be happier and more fulfilled. The above story was mentioned frequently during my highschool years, and I’m sure the propaganda sank in. In fact, now that I think of it, my dad actively tried to dissuade me from considering the University of Rochester (NY), talking about how I’d freeze my butt off (I’m from VT, I’m used to it) but now I think perhaps it might be because UoR is not known as an engineering school, at least not exclusively.

So yes, parental influence is certainly a risk factor in choosing an educational path. If I had kids I think I’d encourage them to ignore perceived future “earning power” — really, how can you ever know so far in advance how much a kid will end up earning? Maybe halfway through her education in “liberal artistry” she’ll decide to go to med school? Or not. I would instead encourage kids to go to a well-rounded university irrespective of their current interests. That would lay the groundwork of thinking skills, and also expose them to a variety of academic/professional areas of study that could change their course in life completely.

Anonymous says:

@Infidel: oh yes, I went to an engineering school too and remember the sneering over anything relating to liberal arts! I loved my humanities courses even though they were quite meager at my school. My father was an engineer too, so I heard the sneering all throughout my childhood and during the years when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after high school. To him, college was purely to get a degree and qualify for a job. The schoool he pushed me to go to (the only one that gave me a full ride since my family had no money saved up) had no campus life whatsoever because it was primarily a commuter school, but my family didn’t think campus life was important. Only the degree was important. I lived at home during college. Of all the things I regret, not pushing back against my parents’ pressure is the biggest. I should have talked to more people before letting myself get pushed into a school and a major that did not suit me at all.

Anonymous says:

@Anca: I’ve actually found a liberal arts education to be a benefit: frankly I think everyone should have the broad spectrum liberal arts education. But I agree: most of my friends who went on in University to pursue “artsy” degrees like philosophy or art, or history are finding it very difficult: how many philosophers and art history majors does could the market possibly need at this point?

@Flexo: I completely agree with your post: you simply can’t afford to go into a major just because you think it’ll get your rich quicker. There’s no get rich quick scheme in life, and it certainly isn’t via your choice of major.

Now there are going to be some majors that will offer higher earning POTENTIAL on average, but practically anyone can become wealthy doing anything so long as they live below their means, keep an eye on the future and invest wisely. It’s not all about being a doctor or a lawyer anymore, as I discuss in this post (I hope linking is kosher here: if not just disregard!)

Great post!

Anonymous says:

I agree with MoneyGrubbingLawyer. I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is like a small MIT but without the Nobel Prize winners in Economics, Medicine, Peace &etc. The attitude there was “you [at some other college] are majoring in Liberal Arts, ha ha ha, [sneer], I bet you’ll get a great job when you get out [not]!” It was 110% about getting a “good job” in those days. The non-technical curriculum of the Institute was appalling. The students hated and reviled the “humanities and social sciences” classes that they were forced to take. They wanted no part of an education … they were there for technical career training and that was it.

In contrast, I spent my last semester on an exchange program at Williams College, one of the best liberal arts colleges in the US. As I recounted the above description to dorm-mates there [actually it was a huge, gorgeous, Tudor-revival ex-frat-house (fraternities were banned)], they reacted with amazement … “A job?? Huh?, What? We’re here for an *education*!” They knew that they’d find decent, rewarding employment after they graduated, based on the deep and broad education they’d acquired. Whew, a breath of fresh air, the “RPI attitude” turned on its head! And one of the very surprising things that I found was that the CS classes there were actually quite good, their Astronomy classes excellent. Not what I expected at a [sneer, sneer] “liberal arts” college.

So yes, I’ve gone on to a relatively lucrative computer geek career, and I don’t have many regrets there. But I *do* regret not having had the rich, broad intellectual experience that a non-vocational-training university would have offered. Most of us have only one shot at that college experience. Don’t squander that time by focusing primarily on future earning power.

Anonymous says:

Even better, get multiple majors! I am BS Chemistry / BA English. I couldn’t decide which path I wanted to take, so I took both of them. I am an analytical chemist for the moment, but my options are always open. Eventually, I want to go back for a MBA, but that can wait a few years.

Anonymous says:

I am currently in my 2nd year in college, I am studying to be a spanish teacher, however int the past few months i have really been second guessing the teaching part. I know that I still want to study spanish and in some way use it in what i choose as a career but I am still uncertain as to what career that is. I wish people would be more supportive, I cant help it that my opinions and wants changed. I still love spanish I just dont want to be a teacher anymore. Is that so wrong??

Anonymous says:

“You can try to analyze your return on investment (ROI) but a good education is about more than just earning power.”

That’s news to me. Maybe I’m hanging around the wrong people. My parents told me that increasing earning power is the only reason to go to college. Maybe that’s why they also told me which major I was allowed to study and made me go to a commuter school (read: cheap) rather than the large state university I wanted to attend. It certainly wasn’t up to me.

Anonymous says:

I’m “guppie” on twitter from above. I’d like to add that I had a minor in history and went to my college based on its pre-law program.

Things change and then you adjust. Not the end of the world. No big deal.

Anonymous says:

I think there just needs to be a balance between practicality and idealism. You could love doing something, but if you are horrible at it you won’t make any money from it and you wouldn’t be able to survive. In college you have a lot of freedom to learn things you want to learn so it is possible for a liberal arts major to take computer science classes and become a web developer. So in one sense I guess I agree that a college major will not ultimately determine your career, but people need to use their time wisely in college to explore what they want to do.

Anonymous says:

I majored in Mechanical Engineering after thinking about going for Automotive Industrial Design, but I knew that engineering was a more probably ticket into the auto industry which I always knew I wanted to be a part of. It worked, and then I migrated into marketing because I found it more interesting, and then I did my MBA part time. I’ve been in marketing Product Management ever since. So my lesson is to do a major that can more likely get you into the industry you love and then you can move around to a different discipline within a company with experience and subsequent education. If you’re passionate about what you do, you’re more likely to succeed and/or make more money.

Anonymous says:

It is unfortunate that many students entering university view it as little more than a vocational training program designed to get them from Point A (high school) to Point B (career). Education should be about expanding one’s mind and learning for the sake of learning. Study what you love; if what you love changes, so should your studies. Following your passion will prove much more rewarding than simply following the promise of money.

Anonymous says:

I agree that you shouldn’t decide your future career when you’re in high school, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to identify what majors could lead to high paying jobs and make sure you at least expose yourself to those subjects in college. If you’re not sure what you want to do, take a computer science class, a business class and an engineering class. Maybe you wont like them and liberal arts is the right path for you, but it would be silly not to at least give the high paying majors a look.

I get the feeling that a lot of people assume that the more a job pays, the less rewarding and enjoyable it is. That’s absurd. The amount of money you make has nothing to do with how much you enjoy a job and some people happen to enjoy things that are very profitable. If a high school / college student isn’t sure what they want to do, they should find out if they’re lucky enough to be one of those people.

Anonymous says:

Advice like this always annoys me because it doesn’t allay any of the fears involved. How will a degree in [insert Liberal Arts major here] help me find a job that will pay bills and student loans? What if I major in what I want but don’t end up happy and poor, but unhappy and poor? What if I get halfway through my major but don’t have enough money to change it to something I’ll like better?

I find that there is a huge disconnect between high school and college, and college and the real world. There is little real help in getting from one to the next with as few bumps as possible.

I guess I actually found a third way — I found a high-earning career (civil engineering) that is related to what I originally wanted to major in (environmental studies). Whether or not that is the career that will most make me happy is uncertain. As I neared the end of my degree I wanted to switch majors but it would have been costly and I wasn’t certain what I’d rather be doing.