Money Matters: The Complete Guide to Choosing a Major

Your degree will pay off. But will it pay?

“Where are you going to school?”

It’s a question that many college students have heard. Often it comes from well-intentioned teachers or family members who are hoping to hear a big name — something prestigious, something that will guarantee a hefty salary down the road.

But if they want to know about salary, they might be asking the wrong question. A more important one might be this: “What are you studying?”

The major that students choose can have more of an impact on their future salary than the school they attend. And some majors outpace others by quite a bit: STEM majors on average make $24,000 more annually than human services majors.

So what are the highest-paying majors and what are the lowest? And how can students achieve financial wellness whether they choose a degree with a large financial return or not?

Here’s all the data students need to make an informed decision and prepare for their chosen path.*

STEM Majors

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM majors consistently top other majors for high-paying salary, which isn’t a surprise.

A student interested in STEM needs to possess strong analytical and problem-solving skills. If you’re kept awake at night wondering how the world functions and how technology can better human life, then this is the field for you.

Science

Students interested in an exciting career may find what they’re looking for in the sciences. From studying nature on Earth to outer space, science majors will explore all depths of the unknown. As a bonus, these fields tend to be secure and lucrative, especially as the world focuses on worsening environmental concerns.

1. Biochemistry

Popular jobs: certified clinical researcher, laboratory specialist, pharmaceutical quality manager, research and development manager
Median early career pay: $46,500
Median mid-career pay: $92,300

2. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Popular jobs: biotechnologist, elementary school teacher, quality assurance specialist
Median early career pay: $49,800
Median mid-career pay: $103,400

3. Biology

Popular jobs: administrative assistant, research assistant, biological scientist, physical therapist, veterinarian
Median early career pay: $43,200
Median mid-career pay: $77,200

4. Chemistry

Popular jobs: chemist, engineer, patent agent, research scientist
Median early career pay: $47,900
Median mid-career pay: $91,000

5. Earth Science

Popular jobs: environmental consultant, environmental scientist, geochemist, geologist, groundwater specialist, marine engineer, paleontologist, petroleum geologist
Median early career pay: $48,400
Median mid-career pay: $68,300

6. Exercise Physiology

Popular jobs: exercise physiologist
Median early career pay: $38,600
Median mid-career pay: $71,100

7. Management Science

Popular jobs: operations research analyst
Median early career pay: $58,400
Median mid-career pay: $100,400

8. Microbiology and Immunology

Popular jobs: medical technologist, natural sciences manager, pharmacist, research assistant
Median early career pay: $47,700
Median mid-career pay: $98,300

9. Neuroscience

Popular jobs: clinical researcher, community outreach, consultant, teacher
Median early career pay: $46,200
Median mid-career pay: $79,100

10. Physics

Popular jobs: engineer, hydrologist, natural sciences manager, physicist, research scientist, technology specialist
Median early career pay: $60,700
Median mid-career pay: $110,000

Technology

As computers find their way into everyday services, students who study technology will continue to be in high demand. Students interested in computers and technology need to be interested in technical skills, like how to code, how to develop software, and how to solve high-level mathematical equations.

1. Business Information Systems

Popular jobs: compensation manager, manufacturing manager, software engineering, training manager
Median early career pay: $58,600
Median mid-career pay: $105,600

2. Computer and Network Administration

Popular jobs: help desk technician, information security analyst, IT consultant, network administrator
Median early career pay: $52,500
Median mid-career pay: $83,800

3. Computer Graphics Technology

Popular jobs: applications developer, art director, design engineer, film and video editor, multimedia artist
Median early career pay: $45,900
Median mid-career pay: $83,000

4. Computer Science

Popular jobs: software architect, software developer, software engineer, user experience designer, web developer
Median early career pay: $68,800
Median mid-career pay: $113,900

5. Computing and Information Systems

Popular jobs: application analyst, data scientist, IT consultant, IT technical support officer
Median early career pay: $49,300
Median mid-career pay: $106,600

6. Cyber Security

Popular jobs: cyber security analyst, IT technician, network engineer
Median early career pay: $61,200
Median mid-career pay: $91,900

7. Geographic Information Systems

Popular jobs: GIS analyst, GIS specialist, GIS technician,
Median early career pay: $46,200
Median mid-career pay: $82,000

8. Informatics

Popular jobs: application analyst, data analyst, IT specialist
Median early career pay: $63,800
Median mid-career pay: $91,400

9. Information Technology

Popular jobs: computer systems analyst, information technology support specialist, network engineer, software developer, systems administrator
Median early career pay: $54,800
Median mid-career pay: $89,800

10. Multimedia and Web Design

Popular jobs: front end developer, lead applications developer, multimedia designer, production assistant, user experience designer
Median early career pay: $45,900
Median mid-career pay: $68,800

Engineering

Engineers solve real-world problems by developing solutions to improve products, technology, infrastructure, and systems. Engineers have a hand in every aspect of human life, from renewable energy to national security.

1. Aerospace Engineering

Popular jobs: aerospace systems engineer, aerospace engineer, C# developer, web developer
Median early career pay: $68,700
Median mid-career pay: $113,900

2. Biomedical Engineering

Popular jobs: biomedical engineer, biomedical technician
Median early career pay: $66,000
Median mid-career pay: $110,300

3. Chemical Engineering

Popular jobs: chemical engineer, process engineer
Median early career pay: $71,800
Median mid-career pay: $126,900

4. Civil Engineering

Popular jobs: civil engineer, staff engineer, structural engineer, transportation engineer, water resources engineer, geotechnical engineer
Median early career pay: $60,400
Median mid-career pay: $101,100

5. Computer Engineering

Popular jobs: computer network architect, software engineer, systems engineer, programmer analyst, software architect, quality assurance engineer
Median early career pay: $72,600
Median mid-career pay: $120,000

6. Electrical Engineering

Popular jobs: electrical engineer, electronics engineer, hardware design engineer
Median early career pay: $69,900
Median mid-career pay: $118,100

7. Industrial Engineering

Popular jobs: industrial engineer, systems analyst, supply chain consultant
Median early career pay: $66,400
Median mid-career pay: $111,300

8. Marine Engineering

Popular jobs: calibration engineer, marine engineer, naval architect
Median early career pay: $72,600
Median mid-career pay: $126,500

9. Mechanical Engineering

Popular jobs: applications engineer, energy engineer, engineering group manager, engineering supervisor, manufacturing engineer, mechanical design engineer, mechanical engineer, project engineer, research and development engineer
Median early career pay: $65,800
Median mid-career pay: $108,700

10. Petroleum Engineering

Popular jobs: petroleum engineer
Median early career pay: $82,700
Median mid-career pay: $183,600

Math

Logic and quantitative reasoning are the backbone of a mathematics degree. Mathematics students learn how to solve challenges that will pay off over the course of their careers.

1. Actuarial Mathematics

Popular jobs: accounts payable clerk, business analyst, database administrator, investment consultant, marketing analyst
Median early career pay: $54,700
Median mid-career pay: $158,100

2. Economics and Mathematics

Popular jobs: actuary, bank examiner, economist, financial planner, statistician, teacher
Median early career pay: $63,200
Median mid-career pay: $126,900

3. Computational and Applied Mathematics

Popular jobs: actuary, banking software engineer, broker, business advisor, civil engineer, computer engineer, computer programmer, logistician
Median early career pay: $65,200
Median mid-career pay: $117,300

4. Mathematics

Popular jobs: account management manager, financial analyst, secondary school teacher, software engineer, production supervisor
Median early career pay: $58,200
Median mid-career pay: $100,100

5. Mathematics and Statistics

Popular jobs: actuarial analyst, business analyst, certified accountant, data scientist, sales assistant
Median early career pay: $57,100
Median mid-career pay: $104,200

HASS Majors

No decision in this world is purely technical (sorry STEM majors). Instead, professionals must rely on social, cultural, political, economic, ethical, and environmental knowledge in this interconnected world. That’s where HASS majors come in.

HASS stands for humanities, arts, and social sciences. Majors that fall within these categories allow students the opportunity to expand their knowledge in a multidisciplinary way.

Humanities

Students in the humanities are considered “humanly scholars,” meaning they study aspects of culture and creative life. The humanities might be right for you if you’re passionate about people, ideas, communication, and creativity. These degree types often nurture open-mindedness and thoughtfulness in students.

1. Advertising

Popular jobs: advertiser, advertising sales representative, event planner, graphic designer, market research analyst, photographer, writer
Median early career pay: $43,700
Median mid-career pay: $86,400

2. ASL

Popular jobs: audiologist, employment counselor, sign language interpreter, social worker, speech language pathologist
Median early career pay: $39,200
Median mid-career pay: $73,300

3. English Literature

Popular jobs: copywriter, english teacher, publishing assistant, social media assistant, writer
Median early career pay: $43,600
Median mid-career pay: $78,300

4. European History

Popular jobs: anthropologist, archivist, history teacher, research analyst, librarian
Median early career pay: $49,000
Median mid-career pay: $94,600

5. Film Studies

Popular jobs: advertising art director, community arts worker, marketer, runner broadcasting/film/video
Median early career pay: $41,100
Median mid-career pay: $84,900

6. French Literature

Popular jobs: language instructor, translator, sales representative
Median early career pay: $42,700
Median mid-career pay: $92,600

7. International Relations

Popular jobs: diplomatic service officer, government social research officer, intelligence analyst, international aid/development worker, policy officer, public affairs consultant
Median early career pay: $48,800
Median mid-career pay: $92,900

8. Journalism

Popular jobs: content marketer, copywriter, editorial assistant, grant writer, journalist, reporter
Median early career pay: $42,600
Median mid-career pay: $75,800

9. Philosophy

Popular jobs: journalist, public administrator, researcher, teacher
Median early career pay: $48,200
Median mid-career pay: $86,000

10. Spanish Language

Popular jobs: bilingual educator, cultural events coordinator, international relations consultant, foreign exchange trader, travel agent, national security agent
Median early career pay: $43,500
Median mid-career pay: $70,100

Arts

Dancing, singing, creating⁠—art⁠ is what makes us human. Interested in a career as a fine artist or a gallery curator? Art majors can follow several different career paths after honing their technical abilities to complement their interests.

1. Dance

Popular jobs: carts administrator, choreographer, dance instructor, dance movement psychotherapist, dancer
Median early career pay: $41,100
Median mid-career pay: $57,300

2. Fashion Design

Popular jobs: costume maker, design assistant, fashion designer, retail buyer, stylist, visual merchandiser
Median early career pay: $43,800
Median mid-career pay: $80,500

3. Fine Arts

Popular jobs: curator, fine artist
Median early career pay: $39,200
Median mid-career pay: $64,000

4. Illustration

Popular jobs: fine artist, illustrator
Median early career pay: $42,300
Median mid-career pay: $64,800

5. Interior Design

Popular jobs: interior and spatial designer, production designer, visual merchandiser
Median early career pay: $42,100
Median mid-career pay: $66,700

6. Painting

Popular jobs: art gallery curator, community arts worker, exhibition designer, fine artist, graphic designer, printmaker
Median early career pay: $37,100
Median mid-career pay: $61,200

7. Photography

Popular jobs: fine artist, photographer
Median early career pay: $41,200
Median mid-career pay: $61,700

8. Sculpture

Popular jobs: sculptor
Median early career pay: $36,500
Median mid-career pay: $55,400

9. Textile Design

Popular jobs: clothing technologist, color technologist, fashion designer, textile designer
Median early career pay: $44,400
Median mid-career pay: $81,600

10. Theatre and Drama Studies

Popular jobs: actor/actress, art director, art therapist, cinematographer, drama teacher, dramatherapist
Median early career pay: $42,400
Median mid-career pay: $79,800

Social Sciences

Social sciences examine and explain human behavior in a variety of ways, including how the mind works, why crimes are committed, and how societies are formed. Social sciences allow us to look inward in an attempt to understand what it is that differentiates human beings from other organisms.

This degree type might be right for you if you’re interested in analytical courses and critical thinking. For instance, economics is one of the most popular majors due to the fact that students practice solving problems in the business world and dealing with the national economy. Plus it helps that this skillset is highly transferable to a wide array of high-paying career options.

1. Anthropology

Popular jobs: anthropologist, diversity officer, foreign language teacher, professor
Median early career pay: $42,300
Median mid-career pay: $65,000

2. Economics

Popular jobs: auditor, business manager, economist, insurer, pricing analyst, retail merchandiser, statistician, stockbroker
Median early career pay: $57,100
Median mid-career pay: $105,700

3. Finance

Popular jobs: accountant, budget analyst, credit analyst, financial analyst, financial planner,
Median early career pay: $56,000
Median mid-career pay: $96,500

4. General Business

Popular jobs: accountant, business manager, consultant, financial planner, human resource specialist, personnel manager
Median early career pay: $46,500
Median mid-career pay: $80,400

5. Geography

Popular jobs: cartographer, emergency management, environmental planner, land surveyor, urban planning
Median early career pay: $45,800
Median mid-career pay: $72,000

6. History

Popular jobs: anthropologist, history teacher, lawyer, researcher
Median early career pay: $44,000
Median mid-career pay: $77,200

7. Linguistics

Popular jobs: english as a foreign language teacher, lexicographer, proofreader, speech and language therapist
Median early career pay: $47,900
Median mid-career pay: $73,500

8. Politics

Popular jobs: diplomat, political assistant, political journalist, politician, public affairs consultant, speech writer
Median early career pay: $48,100
Median mid-career pay: $93,600

9. Political Science / Public Law

Popular jobs: clerk, criminal investigator, judge, lawyer, legal assistant, paralegal
Median early career pay: $47,500
Median mid-career pay: $77,300

10. Sociology

Popular jobs: guidance counselor, human resources representative, market research analyst, media planner, policy analyst, psychiatrist, therapist
Median early career pay: $42,600
Median mid-career pay: $66,200

10 Tips for Money Management

What to do if you choose a lower-paying major

1. Take out fewer student loans.

Majors that don’t guarantee a high return on investment aren’t often worth going into copious amounts of student loan debt. Just don’t do it. While worthwhile in a number of ways, majors with low-paying career choices won’t earn you enough money to live well while repaying debt. Consider alternatives to student loans, such as work-study, grants, and scholarships.

2. Start an emergency fund.

Are you working while in college? Can you pick up a part-time job or a creative side hustle? This is the time to start squirreling away money into an emergency fund that you’re not allowed to touch until after graduation and real-world emergencies hit.

3. Rely on a budget.

Take stock of your expected take-home pay and determine a reasonable budget. Be prepared to minimize post-graduation expenses. The biggest way to blow money unnecessarily is on an apartment rent that eats up too much of your income. Keep costs low by considering living at home or with a roommate until your salary takes a leap after a few years.

4. Be flexible with your career path.

The truth is that every degree-seeking student has applicable skills to get a career that will pay them their worth. Maybe your dream is to be a self-employed artist. Consider putting that art degree to use in a creative way as a freelance graphic designer while you work on your own art projects. Just because your goal is to be one thing or make a living by doing one thing, the reality is that you’ll need to be flexible with how you earn an income until you make it big. Your dreams don’t and shouldn’t be put on the back burner, but it is definitely possible to balance money-making work and a passion in a fulfilling way.

5. Remember your why.

For those who go into traditionally lower-paying fields, there must be a reason why you chose to sacrifice one thing for another. Perhaps you’re not getting paid a lot, but if the work you do is a personal passion or a worthwhile contribution, then by all means go for it. Just remember that you’re sacrificing luxuries or a certain lifestyle for something dear to your heart. That should help the sting of living frugally until your finances become stable.

What to do if you choose a higher-paying major

1. Put that starting bonus toward student loans.

Many high-paying industries, such as tech, healthcare, finance, and consulting offer large starting bonuses to entice skilled recent graduates. Instead of squandering this money on living large, consider putting all or some of it to paying off a large chunk of the student loans you most likely had to take out to afford your degree.

2. Aggressively pay off debt.

When it comes to debt, there are two advantages to paying it off aggressively. First, it allows flexibility later in life and career by reducing monthly fixed expenses. Second, eliminating debt of any kind is always a safe bet. It helps to reduce the risk and uncertainty of carrying debt (credit cards, student loans, car loans, etc.) for several years. Basically, you can’t go wrong when you make the decision to pay off debt.

3. Save for the short-term and long-term.

If you’re making a large paycheck now, just think about what you’ll be able to afford with a few months or years of saving. Maybe you’d like to buy your first car. Or maybe homeownership is a huge goal. No matter, what you’d like to buy make sure that they’re a smart financial decision, sit on it for a few days, and then allocate part of your income to a high-yield savings account, preferably through direct deposit.

4. Invest in professional development.

If you have the money to do so, why not re-invest in yourself? Spend a little on networking events, online courses, or save for graduate school. Any money that can be used to up your value in the future is a sound investment.

5. Be consistent about retirement.

With an ample salary, make sure that you’re consistently and aggressively contributing to a retirement fund, whether through work or on your own. If your company has a 401k match, take advantage of it. In fact, surpass that percentage and make sure you’re on track to replace your salary come retirement years.

Bottom Line

Choosing a major comes with many considerations — and money is one of them. To make an informed decision, it’s important for students to research their future income. This way, they know what to expect after they graduate and can pick a major that best suits their needs and interests.

*All majors and corresponding median salary information taken from PayScale.com.


How does your major fit into your career trajectory? Tell us over on Twitter at @OppUniversity.