Personal Finance

Degrees With Low Salaries: How to Beat the Odds

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Last updated on July 22, 2019 Comments: 12

Eleven years ago or so I began my career with my bachelor’s degree in hand. Once I stabilized a little, I had a job with one of the top organizations in the world. It was a non-profit organization, and despite its prestige, it was a non-profit organization with staffing nightmares and horrific cash flow.

My salary was less than the starting salaries listed in PayScale’s recent survey of the college degrees with the lowest starting salaries, though it would be somewhat more competitive when adjusted for inflation. On the other hand, I worked in one of the highest-earning locations in the country, so the average pay throughout the country for my type of job was most likely significantly lower.

Had I become a high school teacher, as I had at most times throughout my life intended, I would have been paid more and have had more comprehensive benefits. I had a change of heart, and it cost me at first.

Here is my approximate starting salary along with the survey’s lowest median starting salaries.

1 Social work $31,800
2 Athletic training $32,800
3 Recreation and leisure $33,300
4 Art $33,500
5 Interior design $34,400
6 Religious studies $34,700
7 Horticulture $35,000
8 Education $35,100
9 Culinary arts $35,900

In these fields, not only is the starting pay a sacrifice, but salary growth as one progresses through their career is limited. I can think of a few ways to get around this problem and make these degrees and pursuits into a career that is more lucrative than salary surveys would indicate, but it’s not easy.

  • Become a recognized expert in your field. The best of the best in any field can be rich.
  • Write books on your topic. While even best sellers don’t make authors wealthy, it does provide an income above your work itself, and it can lead to other projects.
  • Sell products and seminars teaching others how to succeed in your field. I am not a fan of this technique, but there are a few names that spring to mind.
  • Create a television show. Some of the most popular series have increased the fame and fortune of industry stars. See what The Biggest Loser has done for Jillian Michaels or $40 a Day has done for Rachael Ray.

It’s not easy, but with a goal of being extraordinary at what you do, not adequate or mediocre, and with some ancillary skills like self-promotion and marketing, even a career traditionally considered low-paying can become a path towards wealth.

Source: College degrees that don’t pay, CNN Money, August 6, 2010

Article comments

Anonymous says:

**Regarding my previous post, I apologize for sending the unedited version. It is a long enough piece as it is and I appreciate the reader’s interest. This version is much more readable with some minor edits. MJE (ed. if you would like to remove the previous post in lieu of this, I would welcome the move)

I feel compelled to write. As a long time social worker, with a license, who practices out of a non-profit community mental health agency, in Florida, a right to work state, I make well below any other professional health care worker, teacher or public employee. That’s the ballgame. I knew it when I started this career. I was led to pursue it by my values, my own experience with people who helped me when I needed it and a cursed inability to work for anything or anybody that was not “right work”, in line with my ethics.

I do worry now how I will make it in my older years and my plan is to work a long time. When I am able to restrain my consumer-culture driven fear and envy, I’m cool with that because I like my work; it has many fringe benefits. Chief among them is that I feel closer to being the person I want to be: contributing, creative and, yes, loving, or better said: “heart-connected”‘. What’s even more remarkable is that I am called to be up to the challenge of fulfilling these characteristics more when I am working than when I am home, clunked out on the couch tubing out, like a lot of other folks.

I think there are a couple of major points worth making: Despite mdb’s obvious slant, it is a social choice to underfund services to those in need and reflects a devaluization of, primarily speaking, people with disabilities. Physical, and especially mental disabilities, have been stigmatized in many cultures across the globe. It has been said, and I believe it is true, that the measure of a family is how it treats the least of its members; the measure of a society is the same.

It takes no less brains, training, talent or dedication to conduct effective therapy with someone than it does to be an accountant, banker, broker or businessperson. It is a matter of focus of those skills and characteristics. In my view, our cultural priorities are like an upside down pyramid: social services, teaching, arts at the bottom and war at the top. A simplification but it is hard to argue the descending scale.

A trip to Disney, the new car, cell phone, clothes, big girls’ and boys’ toys, indulgences of all sorts, while great fun when you are there, don’t bring an end to suffering, yours or anyone elses; don’t allow for lasting joy; don’t connect you with your children or your parents, brothers, sisters, Aunts, Uncles, friends, neighbors or the larger world – creatures: eagles, yes, eagles – our great American symbol – dolphin, coyote, sparrow, butterfly, ant.

This world, the REAL world, is magic! Here’s the problem: it’s FREE. Nobody can make money off of your being conscious and aware of your inner world and your natural interaction with the world around you. Capital cultures have a need to detach you from that world of innate meaningfulness, so that they can create value and meaningfulness for you – to purchase. That’s okay, but let’s be clear: watching the ballgame on TV or seeing the Grand Canyon in HD is not real – playing in the ballgame, hiking the Grand Canyon, using your body, its senses and your mind to appreciate it as you breathe is FREEDOM.

So, my very long and somewhat(!) rambling point is that the value or undervalue of these professions has been created – largely by a partriarchal, capitalist culture that does its best to devalue feeling because a feeling worker, a thinking worker was considered trouble and, in that perspective, rightly so. Like the cold formula commercial says, ‘I ain’t no sissy and I can’t afford to be sick’, so I suck this stuff down, supress my symptoms, deny my pain and need for rest – and get to work. The human being is way less important than the human doing. Moreover, there are plenty more doers to take the place when one falls. These are early capitalistic ideals. Many fought and died to raise the worker to the level of a human being. It’s part of our cultural ethic. That doesn’t make it right … or good. Yes, those two values – notice the word: ‘value’ – are still important in creating a fulfilling life and a career that contributes something a little better to the planet for your having walked on it, consumed its precious resources and spread your inevitable shit around its surface.

I am not saying that capitalism is bad, it’s not. It has been great in engaging our energies and has tapped our primal motivations to do so. It’s just not a very highly developed style of consciousness.

We might just be smart enough to move onto a new form of capitalistic enterprise, one that takes a broader, longer view, unlike our current lemming-like perspective, which, nose-to-ass (any ass), runs right over the cliff and ‘wooowhee!, what trip this is!’, right up to the splat.

Developing a new style, tweaking this one, can be done. I believe we, this country; you, this generation; us, working together (underline) will do it. However, We, You, Us and I, will have to be willing to investigate our values and be willing to fight, yes, strong words for turning big wheels in new directions, with determination and persistence. Fighting, with our very culturally conditioned selves first and then with many aspects of the culture itself, to live up to those values.

But take heart because it will grow you and your heart is you and you will know you are on the path because you will FEEL it. Teach, Create, Care, Give, Dare to Sing! Sure make money, be prosperous, but do so with nobility, with consciousness. Don’t THINK BIG and grow rich. THINK BIGGER and live, love and laugh; Be a Man/Be a Woman of this Earth! We only get one, there is only one you…Priceless.

Yours in {common}Health, Wealth & Beauty, for all; no exceptions

As a start check out Peter Barnes’s “Capitalism 3.0”

(not an advert, a recommendation – besides its a free download!)

Anonymous says:

My wife is an elementary school educator. Depending on what list/survey you look at, the statistics show that her career is 2nd worst to 8th worst (as shown above).

Thankfully, we are in a district where the teachers get paid better than what’s shown above. I was actually surprised when they hired her. She started off at $41k. Not too bad for a school teacher. Unfortunately, as Flexo mentioned, it’s hard to move up the ladder. The projections show that, after 30 years in teaching, she’d be making roughly $55k in today’s dollars.

Anonymous says:

I would stay instead of writing books, one should focus on getting published. Smart articles are a great way to become a noted expert in your field. And its easier to get an article published than it is to get a book deal.

Anonymous says:

Not everything is about money. Teaching pays 1/5 of what I-bankers make out of college, but which one is more rewarding?

Anonymous says:


It might be worth taking a crack at what one “should” study in school, at least from an economic point of view. I’m an applied math guy, and math/engineering/computer science are all things that tend to be perennial members on the top-salaries-out-of-college lists.

This sort of follows mdb’s post (what to avoid) by saying “here’s what to study.” But some people just don’t have the knack, patience, or desire to study/do the things I’ve mentioned. So if you don’t like numbers, and you should avoid careers on the list, then what are your other options? By and large, what can people study in school that has real-world value?

Anonymous says:

The best use of this list is as guide for avoiding useless degrees. What demand is there for an “expert” in religious studies? How many Rachel Rays can be supported? There are less than 100 each of celebrity chefs, trainers, etc. in the country. How many people get these degrees every year? The numbers will never be in your favor if you get a degree like this. I would add anything with the suffix “studies” or “history” should be avoided at all costs.