Here’s a question: Is it worth pursuing college degrees in fields with statistically low salaries and high unemployment if you love the topic? That depends. How quickly are you looking to retire?
Also, how much are you prepared to struggle to pursue your passion?
The debate rages on, and its a hotly contested one. Nobody wants to spend their entire working career in a field which they despise or do not excel. But by the same token, who wants to struggle with unemployment and low salaries their whole life? What is the happy medium?
Here’s the problem: Unless your passion happens to involve hard sciences or numbers, then it probably has something to do with creativity. Liberal arts. While it’s possible to make big bucks in liberal arts, the numbers clearly and unanimously prove that it’s much more difficult.
Research routinely indicates that science and engineering degrees provide much higher salaries and better employment prospects than other degree programs.
For example, according to PayScale.com, a Petroleum Engineer leads the pack in salary potential. How does an early career salary of $96,000 sound? Other degrees, like Chemical Engineering, Computer Science, Physics, and Math programs all offer commanding salaries right out of college.
Here are a few degrees that stuck out to me:
|Major||Early career pay||Mid career pay|
|Computer Science / Engineering||$71,200||$116,000|
But wait – not all of us are natural engineers. We aren’t all good at math. Heck, I suck at math. What happens now?
I do not believe that everybody should major in engineering, right?
That’s right. I definitely don’t believe that.
Engineering and other technical degree programs are not right for all of us. But, I do believe that there are strategic choices out there to maximize our earnings potential – regardless of our area of interest.
For instance, if one loves photography (as I do), one does not necessarily need a photography degree to excel in an artsy career. Another degree might be a better choice.
The secret to choosing a high-paying degree/career
Here’s the point: Related “harder” degrees very often provide enough educational background to get your foot in the door for higher paying and more dependable positions that will set you up for higher salaries and job stability throughout your career.
For example, one does not need a degree in Computer Science to make a lot of money performing the same job.
I am the perfect example.
As a youngster, I had no interest in retiring early. In fact, it never entered my thought process. My goal was money. A high salary. Nice things. Huge house. Luxury cars. You know, stuff. Consumerism. I wanted it all.
Thus, I came to this debate from a different perspective, but the strategy still applies.
I knew damn well that a degree in my true passion – Photography – would most likely set me up for a career where I struggled to find work and pay the bills. I didn’t want the struggle. Not many businesses hire people with degrees in photography.
I needed a better option.
I wanted a high paying office job that I can depend on. Something easy enough to do on a daily basis, but also not in a field I hated. I didn’t have to LOVE the field, necessarily. I just didn’t want to HATE it.
Computer work pays handsomely. I knew that. I enjoyed working with computers enough to research my degree options somewhere in the computer field. Math was never my bag in school, so a degree in computer science or any type of engineering field was out of the question.
I would have failed hilariously. But, I needed something close. Something that a future employer might say “Eh, good enough” to and hire me for a position working in some way with computers and, of course, the salary to match.
Finally, I found the perfect degree program: Information Technology.
Information technology was the “sweet spot” degree
A degree in IT provides exposure to a wide array of computer-based topics but flies above the nitty gritty of any specific technical area like computer code and complicated algorithm work.
The course work touched on computer science topics, but also networks, system administration, tech support and the business side of managing IT systems.
Perfect. Not a lot of math, but enough background to get my foot in the door and start a career doing something in a high paying position, something that a degree in photography never would have provided for me. I chose a “close enough” degree that provided me with options and prospects.
A few years after joining the workforce, I flirted with a 6-figure salary. Then, I blew passed it. I never truly enjoyed the work, but it paid extremely well. I liked it enough to keep doing it for 10 or 11 years.
Combined with my wife and her salary as an aerospace engineer, it provided plenty of resources for us to retire in our 30s.
College degrees help you to earn a living, not pursue your passion
My belief is simple: We all have different abilities and passions.
But when it comes to earning a living, I believe in setting myself up for success. Earning a living is the #1 priority. My focus was on sustainable and dependable resources to support myself and my family. Enough to buy food and provide shelter, clothes and, yes, even a little entertainment.
Degrees are what we use as a basis to earn a living. The more we earn, the more we save. Financial independence can be achieved earlier in life.
And then, early retirement becomes more and more achievable.
Is it possible to earn lots of money with a degree in Art, or English, or Social Services? Yes. But, the odds are against you. It’s that simple.
I understand if money is not your primary concern. Your ethics might stand as a more influential driving factor in your career choice, and I honestly respect that.
But in general, reaching financial independence will probably take longer. Early retirement could get delayed. Unemployment may be a concern.
Dave Ramsey once said on his radio show: “Getting a PhD in German Polka History is not a good plan. There isn’t much of a market out here for that. Get a degree in an area that has some practical use in the market place.”
This is sound advice.
To me, providing for my family is my #1 responsibility. If my job or career cannot financially support the best interests of my family – regardless of my natural abilities, I have a problem. And to that end…
This might not be popular to say, but I will say it anyway:
Forget your “passion”. Choose a career with a high-income potential and low unemployment rate – relating as closely as possible to what you love.
This article was originally published January 2017 but has been fully updated and revised.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.