STEM is Hot: But is it Hot for Everyone?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – collectively known as “STEM” have some of the highest paying jobs out of the hundreds of majors you could choose from. However, does majoring in STEM guarantee you a posh lifestyle with a six-figures of income? Not necessarily.

Looking at the Numbers

STEM encompasses a large number of fields of study including popular majors like computer and information sciences, biology, engineering and mathematics. However, several less popular majors also fit within the STEM category such as agriculture, architecture and conservation.

According to “The Economic Value of College Majors” by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, STEM majors are some of the most popular choices for college students and offer some of the highest earnings over other degrees.

However, within the various STEM majors a wide gap between highest and lowest paying majors emerges. For example, majors within Biology, Agriculture and Conservation typically earn the least in early career wages – all between $36-38k per year.

On the other side of the fence are majors within Computer and Information Sciences and Mathematics – each have early average career wages of $50k and $48k respectively. The highest average early career salary is for Petroleum Engineering at $89k per year. That’s more than double the lowest paying STEM major.

Looking at the Differences

Why is there such a drastic difference in early and mid-career salaries for different STEM majors? Let’s look a bit closer at the highest (Petroleum Engineering) and lowest (Biology) average early career salary majors.

Salaries are typically based on two criteria – supply and demand. Specific careers have demand for a specific skillset or base of knowledge. The more demand there is for that position the higher the salary is likely to be. There is currently a huge demand for computer science graduates with continued internet growth and the emerging “Internet of Things.” You can see this demand reflected through the rather high average early career salaries of computer science graduates.

The other factor is supply. How many people graduate with the skills and knowledge to perform in a certain industry or career? In the case of petroleum engineers, only about 1,400 students graduate each year with this major. With the US’s heavy reliance on petroleum, demand is high for this type of skillset while supply is low. This explains the huge average early career salary.

On the other hand if we look at biology majors, we can see over 100,000 students graduate every year with a major in this field. Especially popular is the “general biology” major with about 74,000 graduates each year. There just isn’t enough demand to keep up with this large supply of graduates. Unfortunately, general biology major’s average early career salary reflects this.

How to Choose?

With all of this info surrounding pay and majors, it may be difficult to pick out what major works best for you. Do you go for the one that has a higher starting and mid-career wage or do you follow your heart and do something you’d enjoy doing?

I’d say go for the latter. If you major in something you have no interest in doing, you aren’t going to be able to find and hold a job doing that work. Employers will find you lack passion and passion is something critical to succeeding in a career. Find a major that will lead you to fulfilling work – something you can see yourself doing. If you find passion in what you do, the money will likely follow.

A quick example of this in action – as an Information Technology leader I’ve seen my fair share of resumes. What’s interesting is that I can typically see how passionate someone is about the position they are applying for based solely on their resume. I’ve hired numerous people who majored in liberal arts but turned out to be some of the most technically competent people I’ve ever met. On the other hand, I’ve interviewed many people who have the technical know-how but lack the passion to succeed. I’m not saying choice of major doesn’t matter – it does, but major alone will not guarantee you a solid career!