Which Majors Lead to the Most Well-Paid Jobs? Examining the Long Game

In our report on the Top 25 Highest Paying Majors, we found that the list was dominated by engineering majors. However, this list was based on entry-level salaries, or how much these undergraduate majors earn for their first job right out of college.

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A high entry-level salary, however, does not always equate to the best-paying job at the mid-career level. Why? For one reason, some jobs have caps in place that limit how much you can make without going on to get a master’s or Ph.D.

Or there may be more qualified people than jobs in the field, which can lead employers to offer lower starting salaries. Then, after you have proven your worth, your boss may give you a nice, big raise

On top of these factors, graduates from certain schools may make significantly more money than their peers. For example, graduates with an English degree earn an average starting salary of $37,793. But graduates with an English degree from Harvard earn an average starting salary of $46,000.

That is almost a 22% difference in pay! You may be thinking, “Of course, that’s Harvard.” But the Ivy League schools are not the only ones that lead to higher than average paying jobs. If you would like to investigate the top schools for other majors, you can research more in College Factual’s Majors Section.

We will focus on the following factors to get a better idea of which majors are associated with well-paid jobs both now and in the future.

  • Early Career Salaries
  • Mid-Career Salaries
  • Biggest Percentage Change Between Early-Career and Mid-Career Salaries
  • Jobs With the Highest Growth Rates

Note: The original study on high-earning majors was published in 2016. Since that time, we have updated the data, so the numbers here may differ from those in the initial article.

Majors With the Highest Early-Career Salaries

First of all, let’s look at the majors with the highest entry-level salaries with updated average salary figures. These numbers only include people whose highest degree is a bachelor’s.

Just for reference, we will include the average mid-career earnings for these majors in the chart.

 Majors with the highest early career salaries. Data is from  Payscale .  Early career refers to the first five years in the workforce.

Majors with the highest early career salaries. Data is from Payscale.

Early career refers to the first five years in the workforce.

Here is the graphical representation:

 Majors with the highest early career salaries. Data is from  Payscale .

Majors with the highest early career salaries. Data is from Payscale.

Right off the bat, you can see engineering dominates this list. In fact, all of the majors on this list are engineering fields. This is not the case with the other lists that we will look at in this study.

Also, even if you are just glancing at the data, it is easy to see that the mid-career salaries are not in descending order here. For example, systems engineering has the second highest mid-career salary of all the majors on this list while it only has the fourth highest early-career salary.

Majors With the Highest Mid-Career Salaries

Now, let’s turn our attention to the majors with the highest mid-career salaries.

As mentioned earlier, there are several reasons why majors may have a much higher average mid-career salary that an early-career one. One of them is that we are still only looking at people whose highest degree is a bachelor’s.

Again, just for reference, we will include the average early-career salaries for the majors in this chart.

 Majors with the highest mid-career salaries. Data is from  Payscale .  Mid-career is over 10 years after graduation.

Majors with the highest mid-career salaries. Data is from Payscale.

Mid-career is over 10 years after graduation.

Here is the graphical representation:

 Majors with the highest mid-career salaries. Data is from  Payscale .

Majors with the highest mid-career salaries. Data is from Payscale.

Now, the first thing I noted when reviewing this list was that it was not just a wall of engineering majors. Actually, it is not even all STEM! Public Policy comes in at fourth place with an average mid-career salary of $118,000.

With that being said, engineering still makes up over half of the top ten majors on this list, and petroleum engineering tops both lists. But we can already see there is a lot of variance between early and mid-career salaries. It seems that getting a little experience under your belt can make a ton of difference in terms of how much money you make.

Majors With the Biggest Percentage Change Between Early-Career and Mid-Career Salaries

Now, let’s look at the data in a slightly different way. Instead of just viewing the data in terms of the highest early-career and mid-career earnings, we can see which majors have the largest opportunity potential when compared to their initial salaries.

That is, we can determine which majors have the largest percentage increase between early-career and mid-career average salaries.

Why does this matter?

Well, if you have the chance to take a $30,000/year job with the potential to make $60,000/year by mid-career, or to take a $30,000/year job with the potential to make $120,000/year by mid-career, the second option is obviously more attractive.

So, in some cases, you might be happy to take a lower-paying job right after college if you know your earnings potential is going to triple, or even quadruple if you work hard to prove yourself during your early years.

Here are the majors with the biggest percentage difference between early- and mid-career salaries.

 Majors with the biggest percentage change in early to mid-career salaries. Data is from  Payscale .

Majors with the biggest percentage change in early to mid-career salaries. Data is from Payscale.

There is not a single engineering field on this list. That does not mean that engineering (or any other major not listed here) has limited salary bumps. Remember, this study only includes people whose highest degree is a bachelor’s. It is possible that other majors might rank higher if included masters and Ph.D. degrees.

So, some people with majors that have comparatively low-paying salaries have lots of opportunities to move up quite a bit in earnings. In other words, you can still make the big bucks without being an engineering (or even a STEM) graduate.

Jobs With the Highest Growth Rates

Another thing to take into consideration when estimating your salary potential is the growth rate of jobs related to your major. This can have a huge impact on your future earnings.

Think about this scenario. From the data above, we know that mining engineering has a high average early-career salary as well as a high average mid-career one. But what would happen if droves of people flocked to this major?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), mining engineers have a projected 8% growth rate from 2016-2017, which is right on par with the growth rate of 7% for all jobs. If the number of mining engineering majors grows at a faster rate, pretty soon there would be more graduates than jobs.

This circumstance would lead to more people competing for the same jobs, which is likely to lower the average salary for the entire profession. Basically, the supply of mining engineers would be greater than the demand. As such, people would be willing to work for less money just to get a job in their chosen field.

On top of that, unemployment for the career would rise, and graduates may be forced to take lower-paying positions in other fields.

So, which jobs have the highest growth rates? The BLS has compiled a list.

 Jobs with the predicted highest growth rates between 2016-2026. Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jobs with the predicted highest growth rates between 2016-2026. Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Not all of these jobs require a bachelor’s degree. Some only require an associate’s degree or specialized training. Others, such as solar photovoltaic installers, simply require a high school diploma and some on-the-job training. In addition, some, such as physician assistants, require a master’s degree or higher.

How to Look at the Numbers

All of these jobs have MUCH higher growth rates that the average all jobs growth rate of 7%. It’s easy to see why many of them are becoming so much popular than they’ve been in the past. For example, the nation’s focus on renewable energy can account for the top two jobs on the list, while most of the health-related jobs is due, in part, to our aging population.

Some of the careers are linked to specific degrees, and others are not. So, it is hard to assign a single major to most of the jobs on the top ten list. However, we can look at software developers as an example.

Software developers typically have a degree in computer science – a major that did not show up in any of our lists related to salaries. However, majors in this field do tend to make more than many college graduates, with average entry level salaries of $55434.18 and average mid-career salaries of $98324.77.

Since the growth rate of software developers over the period 2016-2026 is 31% – that’s more than four times the all-job growth rate – these average salaries will almost certainly increase at a faster than average rate.

Due to this, in a couple of years, we may see computer science edge into the top 10 salary categories. In any case, majoring in computer science is likely to lead you to one of the highest-paying jobs in the country.

Other Things You Can Do to Increase Your Chance of Landing a Higher-Paying Job

While potential salary is a factor that many students like to consider when deciding on a major, it should not be the sole one. Think about what other factors are important to you as well as taking into account your individual strengths and interests.  

Using College Factual’s Majors Matcher or other similar tools is a good place to start. In addition to helping you narrow down which majors are a good fit for you, they may also suggest ones that you did not know existed or ones that you had not considered before.

No matter which major you choose, these tips can help prepare you to get jobs related to your major that payer higher than average salaries.

1. Minor or Double Major

When you list a minor or a double major on your resume, you are likely to get more interviews that people who do not. This, in turn, can be used to negotiate for more money and lead to higher salaries.

Be careful, though. These options often extend your degree length for 6 months or more, which can end up costing you more in tuition and fees.

2. Make Good Use of Free Electives

If you do not have the time or the free credits to work on a minor or a second major, you can still take specific courses to broaden your skillset. Most majors let you take a few free electives, so you can sign up for these courses without pushing your degree completion date further away.

Employers are likely to give your resume a second look if you mention that you took an extra class or two in some subject that is useful for the job but not typically required in your degree program. These classes include statistics, project management or similar business courses, and foreign language courses.

3. Internships

Internships are not just for business students. There are opportunities for pretty much every major you can think of. Depending on your major, though, you may have to search a little harder.

If you do not know where to start looking for potential internships, ask your professors. They may have outside contacts or great ideas that can help you find the perfect opportunity.

You can also call local businesses and organizations that hire people with your major. If they are impressed with your hard-working attitude, they may even create an internship for you.

4. Study Abroad Programs

Take advantage of your school’s study abroad programs if you can. If you do not think you can afford them, contact the program’s director and explain the situation. Financial aid may be available.

On top of giving you a first-hand learning experience about a new culture, participation in a study abroad program will show that you are able to adapt to new and foreign environments. That is a treasured skill in today’s global world, and it can definitely make your starting salary jump up a few pegs.

5. Your College’s Career Services Center

Despite the fact that college career centers offer a ton of resources for undergraduates, fewer than 20% of students utilize the center for advice on finding a job.

Counselors at career centers can help you improve your resume, strengthen your interview skills, and learn how to best approach salary negotiations. When you do not use these free services, you are letting a lifetime of extra paycheck dollars slip away.

Don’t forget – most career services centers have a job board and can help you find internships, too!


Get started in your search for the right college major for you with Majors Matcher.