The 15 majors that earn the highest salaries

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, editor

Despite the focus on STEM degrees, liberal arts grads can end up earning the same salaries as STEM grads, according to PayScale's recently released 2017-2018 College Salary Report.

To create the report, PayScale researchers analyzed salary data submitted to their website by users; the sample used for this report included 2.3 million college graduates. The researchers used a maturity curve to map salaries for graduates in each major after five years in the workforce (early career salaries) and after 10 years in the workforce (mid-career salaries).

STEM degrees are often touted as the most lucrative for grads. But Payscale researchers found that 69% of occupations pay similar salaries to individuals with bachelor's degrees in liberal arts and those with degrees in STEM. "By mid-career," they write, "whether you majored in STEM or the humanities usually doesn't matter."

It's undeniable that engineering majors take most of the top spots on Payscale's ranking of majors by mid-career salary. The top 15 majors in the ranking, along with their mid-career pay, are:

1: Petroleum engineering, $175,500

2: Actuarial mathematics, $131,700

3: Actuarial science, $130,800

4: Nuclear engineering, $127,500

5: Chemical engineering, $124,500

6: Marine engineering, $123,200

7: Economics and mathematics, $122,900

8: Geophysics, $122,200

9: Cognitive science, $121,900

10: Electrical power engineering, $119,100

11 (tie): Aeronautical engineering, $118,800

11 (tie): Electrical and computer engineering, $118,800

13: Computer systems engineering, $118,000

14 (tie): Bioengineering, 116,800

14 (tie): Computer science and engineering, $116,800

Related: Less than half of college seniors feel prepared for a career

How is it possible for both of these things to be true—that engineering majors can dominate a salary ranking, while at the same time, 69% of occupations pay STEM majors and liberal arts majors the same salaries?

Here are a few potential contributing factors:

Humanities majors see more salary growth: According to PayScale researchers, salaries for humanities majors grow faster than those for STEM majors. While they may not earn as much as engineers early in their careers, they often do catch up.

Students' career choices play a big role: Career choice has a much bigger influence on earnings than major choice, according to David Attis, managing director of research at EAB. This can explain PayScale's finding that STEM and liberal arts majors can earn the same salaries—when they work in the same occupations.

Not all fields are a good fit for all students: The engineering majors populating the top of the list probably have very few people going into them, Attis points out. This means that PayScale's salary estimates for those fields are probably based on a smaller, less diverse group of students than you would find in other majors. However, the solution isn't to encourage everyone to major in engineering, Attis argues. Engineering requires high levels of aptitude in mathematics and other skills, and it isn't a good fit for every student. Instead, he suggests, colleges should focus on getting each student into the right major for that student.

STEM fields have straightforward career paths: As I've written about before, in some fields, the credentials and careers are very closely correlated—the path from one to the other is obvious. What do engineering majors do? They become engineers, a traditionally high-paying job. What do philosophy majors do? That's a longer answer—they become presidents, business leaders, journalists, teachers, humanitarians, and more. Some of these jobs pay well and some don't.

Career success ultimately lies in the hands of students themselves—and they may not define success as earning a high salary.

One of the ways colleges can help is by treating liberal arts majors more like STEM majors by incorporating more robust career development resources into the liberal arts curriculum. In this way, colleges can help humanities students understand the wide range of career options available to them, choose one path to focus on, and develop the skills they need to achieve their goals, whatever those goals might be (PayScale rankings, accessed 9/7; PayScale methodology, accessed 9/7; Leslie, Payscale CareerNews, 8/31).

How one university repackaged their English program—and saw an 80% increase in enrollment

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10 leaders who show that college major isn't everything

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