Degree programs and high salaries: How much do you love money?

56 thoughts on “Degree programs and high salaries: How much do you love money?”

  1. This truly is one of the great questions when it comes to handing money over for higher ed. I wrote a similar post a few weeks back about passion vs money. When I was choosing a major, I didn’t even consider the salary I would earn as a graduate in that field. I stood in the “pick a major line” debating whether I should pick history of psychology, without even a consideration as to what I would do with either degree. In my defense, I was the first in my family to go to college, so I had zero guidance from anyone around me.

    I ended up picking psychology. Thankfully, along the way I also earned a concentration in Biology. After graduation, I worked in my psychology field earning less than $10/hr until I decided to leverage my biology concentration. I build an entire career out of that concentration. It was the only way I could earn a good living right out of school.

    It’s sad that so little guidance is given to children choosing their lifelong career. Looking at earning potential should be at the top of the list. Of course, why would I expect that in a public system that teaches nothing about finances? Ugh.

    Mad Money Monster

    1. More power to you for turning your minor into a lucrative career, MMM. I think there is a lot of emphasis placed on doing what you love, and while I can see that from an emotional standpoint, careers, making money and providing for your family is often very different.

  2. Well said Steve. A degree is just the price of admission, a way of opening doors.

    Life is certainly much more comfortable at the earnings levels a degree enables.

    Where they go once you’ve gone through that door is entirely up to the individual.

    1. Thanks Slow Dad, and you’re spot on. It is entirely up to the individual. We have a lot more control over our lives than many of us would care to admit.

  3. Great post, Steve. There are 3 legs on the “Stool To Wealth”, Spend Less, Earn More, and Invest The Difference. Too many people focus on “spend less”, though as you correctly point out “earn more” can be the easier route to FI. I thought I’d be in advertising, but ended up in manufacturing. I haven’t loved it, but working my way into the management ranks was my path to “earn more”, and it’s worked well.

    The degree is nothing more than a ticket in the door. Once you’re “in the house”, focus on how to move to the upper floors. Finding something tolerable, that pays well, will set you up to do something you love when money isn’t required anymore.

    1. Exactly right, Fritz – the degree is the piece of paper that gets your foot in the door, but once you’re in, there are generally ways to position yourself so you’re doing productive work that you can stand. Sometimes, hobbies should remain hobbies. They are much more fun that way!

  4. I’ve always thought a prerequisite in your first year of college should be a class focused on determining your career path based on job prospects, salary, advancement opportunities, growth, etc. Actually, this should be a requirement for high school seniors.

    Everyone is different. Some people can truly be happy scraping by doing something they love. Others won’t. For most people, when you take a hobby or something you really enjoy and make it your job, then it becomes just like any other job. Sometimes it’s better to find a job that pays the bills and keep your hobbies your hobbies.

    1. That’s an excellent idea, Go F Yourself. That would be a class that I’d hope a LOT of younger folks would take a lot from. Basically, a class on the realities of life. After being raised to believe that they are perfect little angels who deserve trophies for coming in 5th place, most of those kids could probably use a bit of a reality check anyway.

  5. I chose a career with a high income path and don’t regret it for a second. I’ve found if your doing your passion to make ends meet often that passion dies. There is just so much other non fun crap you have to do to get by. Take tour photography example. It’s great when you get to choose your subject and editing. But what if your stuck taking pictures of parts for a website like one of my co-workers. No editing, no exciting backdrop, just a circuit board on a blank background all day everyday for years. What about if you had your own business managing all the financials? Hobbies are great as hobbies and even as side hustles. I wouldn’t want to depend on mine for food.

    1. Amen to that, FTF. Passions often do die if you’re forced to do them under the confines of someone or something else. You’ve described the problem with turning your hobby into a job incredibly well. You might like it going in, but once corporate America gets a hold of you, you might be looking for other passions.

      And that’s sad!

  6. Lot of respect for anyone that pursues their passion at the expense of lower pay – it is a tough ride in the beginning.

    We both took higher pay over preferred jobs (not sure those two words belong next to each other)- thankfully we stumbled upon this FIRE thingy and won’t have to do this until we are to old to enjoy our time away from work

    1. Looks like you two definitely made the right choices in your lives. I think I did too. If only we could know THEN what we know NOW, I bet there would be a lot more accountants in the world than, say, German polka history buffs. 🙂

  7. I agree with you, Steve.

    I chose an engineering degree that had the most potential of earning the most money out of college (it’s actually on your list!). As it turns out, the job market for my particular major wasn’t that great, but I managed to transition towards something related to IT and am currently taking advantage of my situation as much as I can.

    I still highly recommend doing engineering for folks who don’t know what they want to major in as it’ll give you an analytical mindset that can be applicable towards many situations.

    1. I think that’s incredibly smart, SP. An engineering degree can definitely apply to a great many careers, and in general, those careers tend to be very well paying.

  8. I think that is spot on, Steve. “Sustainable and Dependable” is a good way to put it. It’s about security. I value it much like you do. For me, my pursuit was a finance degree. About five years in I was at the 6-figure mark and my wife and I comfortably started a family, a priority for us. And another reason why sustainable and dependable is important!

    1. Thanks Green Swan. Getting to the 6-figure mark in five years is very awesome. It took me five or six years as well in my line of work. I certainly wouldn’t do things any differently…even if I could!

  9. Yes, yes, yes! Too many people do not get this!

    “Do what you love” is often a sentence to low income and life-long struggle. “Do what you LIKE” is much better!

    For me it was business. My MBA got me the right job at the right company and it was off to the races after that. I enjoyed it as well (as much as you can enjoy work).

    1. Thanks ESI! I was very close to getting a masters right after my bachelors, but I got a job that I couldn’t refuse. There are a lot of MBAs out there, but that degree can certainly open the right door for the right job. Congrats for actively taking control of your education and using it towards your advantage, my friend!

  10. As an IT major myself (and currently working in the IT field) the broad use of an IT degree makes it much easier to find a well-paying, but likable job.

    We all want FIRE, however it makes much easier to work at a job (and work harder) that we don’t despise going into every day.

    I hope that when my moment of early retirement comes, as I walk out of my job, it’s not a “get me the hell out of here!” But a “Man, this was fun and I liked it…Don’t worry guys, I will send you all post cards.”

    1. Totally, IH. An Information Technology degree is broad enough that you can almost do *anything* related to computers. It was a perfect degree for me – as it seems like it was for you. 🙂

  11. When I started college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in let alone what I wanted to do when I graduated. So I decided to take the most difficult route I could find. I earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.

    And by my senior year, I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to be an electrical engineer. But I found it easier to go into another field with the engineering background. So I decided to go back and get an MBA in finance which was comparatively easier than the engineering degree.

    My recommendation is to go with the most complicated in-demand degree you can handle. If you decide not to pursue a job in that field, it’s still easier to move into another field with that background. Whereas, if you choose something less intense, you have fewer options.

    1. Wow! Yeah, electrical engineering definitely isn’t the easiest degree program out there. I think there is a LOT of wisdom in your advice about pursuing a more difficult degree, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do. It’ll open more doors than choosing the easier route…on average.

  12. I definitely stumbled into my major: Communication. I chose it because it was fairly easy and it was something I’m good at (I’ve never been an IT/Engineering/Math/Numbers person). I’ve been able to carve out a pretty lucrative career with a “soft” degree, but it’s been awesome. Everybody needs marketing, no matter what industry you’re in. I chose this degree so I could work in any industry, just in case we fall into another recession.

  13. I think this is my favorite photo of Charlie so far. I live on the East Coast and I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be there that night. I can’t wait to visit that area.

    1. Thanks SR – it’s absolutely beautiful out here. I lived on the East Coast for many, many years of my life, and there’s just no comparison in my humble opinion. 🙂

  14. Going back in time, I ended up majoring in two degrees that really didn’t give me a lot of options – History and Economics. I love history, and if I could go back, I’d still do history. I picked econ because I thought it was a potentially useful major. Naturally, with two basically pointless majors, I ended up going to law school because that’s really all I could do.

    If I could go back in time, I would’ve majored in History and a hard science. That way, I think I would’ve had the most options. Majoring in just a liberal arts major really limited me in my choices since I only had the liberal arts background. In my senior year, I considered trying to go into optometry, but I found out that I didn’t have any of the science background. In order to apply to med school, dental school, PA school, optometry school, pharmacy, or any other medical field, I would’ve had to go back and spend another 2 years taking the science pre-reqs.

    My advice, pick a hard science major if you’re considering grad school. You’ll just have a lot more options. If you’re going to go to work right away, then engineering or computer science is the way to go. Just my two cents.

    1. That’s tough to disagree with, Financial Panther. Hard sciences are definitely bigger money makers, and they will help keep you employed. I agree that History and Economics might be tough degrees from a marketability standpoint, but economics is a GREAT subject to know.

  15. This is a great article. I was a Finance major in undergrad and recently obtained my Executive MBA. I’m glad I chose finance as my major as I enjoy numbers and finance in general. My studies in undergraduate definitely helped lay down the solid framework for me.

    I think this is interesting though– people who know they want to go to law school or med school– I’ve seen quite a few instances of those type of people majoring in areas such as Fine Arts, History, Psychology, etc. In those cases, these majors work since they are means to an end, namely graduating from undergraduate program so that one may move on to a graduate program.

    1. Interesting observation, MSM…don’t think I ever realized that. I guess they were majoring in something easier to begin with because they knew that the follow-on education would be much, much more difficult?

  16. Well said Steve, I couldn’t agree more!

    There are several schools of thought around finding a career. Some people say “follow your passion” or “do what you’re good at”, but I’ve never met anyone who had a passion for serving lattes at Starbucks. Those degrees for Underwater Basket Weaving just aren’t in demand.

    Your advice is more practical, and similar to the path I followed. I actually started out my college career in biology…and eventually found my way to a more technical degree program in order to graduate and get a job.

    I don’t regret it for a minute. Passion is for rich kids and romance novels. The rest of us had to work for our financial independence.

    1. Thanks Mr. Tako. I love your phrase “Passion is for rich kids and romance novels”. Sums it up perfectly. You need not do something that you HATE, but there is incredible wisdom in choosing a degree and career field with some damn income potential. 🙂

  17. I agree 100%. That’s what I’m planning to tell my kid. You have to be able to support yourself and build a financial foundation first. You can follow your dream later. Unless you are extraordinarily talented, then go for it. It’ll be interesting to see how our kid turns out. 🙂

  18. I’m right there with you Steve. I think far to often guidance counselor and parents don’t help connect these dots for college bound students. Colleges are being selected based on the vibe or prettiness of the campus, and degrees based on interest. The entire picture needs to be looked at, can I graduated with little to no debt and whats the perspective job market, salary look like when I do.

    1. I completely agree. It “sounds” all nice and fluffy to tell kicks to do what they enjoy, but that may or may not be a practical and marketable skill. Making a living should always be our top priority.

  19. The more I think about our current education system, the more I see it as ripe for disruption. Why do most colleges charge the same amount for every major when some majors are clearly worth more than others? Every coliege owes it to their students to put together some basic income statistics in every major they offer, so students can see for themselves what type of income they can reasonably expect. It might get students to think twice about taking on $50,000+ in student loans for a job where they will only be making $40,000/year.

    1. That’s a darn good question, NinjaPiggy. Income statistics with every major would probably make a big, big difference in how our youngsters select their majors. Great idea.

  20. That’s some great advice for a closing line, and it sums life up quite well. Sure, i’d much rather be playing music for a living, I just wouldn’t enjoy the really broke, still probably working in restaurants, struggling to make ends meet part of it. Good thing I also love the outdoors.

    I stumbled into geology from studying environmental science. I knew I’d have to go to grad school for any geology job that would pay more than about $60k/yr though. BUT, my grad degree was essentially free – I had tuition covered and a $20k/yr stipend to go there, and most geology grad programs that’s more the norm. Woohoo!

    I did start in petroleum straight out of school making $96k/yr and that was a shade less than my peers who started around $100k-$110k/yr. I haggled for more vacation and a better relocation package vs more money and that extra week of vacation was well worth not haggling for a little more to start with.

    I’m more of a computer monkey now, doing nothing outside except on the weekends away from work, lol. Things you are naive about when pursuing a geology degree – actually working outside. Soon, I can return to the outdoors, soon…

    I also forgot to mention the unemployment rate is low – when oil is high. There are a lot of unemployed geologists right now, so it’s definitely a gamble going into this industry.

    1. Funny thing is…I was fully prepared to major in geology when I was in high school because I wanted to become a “geo scientist”. But over time, I slowly began to realize that geology isn’t a money-maker and I’d probably struggle to make much of a living. I switched a couple times, first to Business Management and then to Information Technology and haven’t looked back. So glad I made the switch!

      And congrats on that income straight out of college. Super freaking impressive!

      1. Yeah, I wasn’t in it for the money as I was against “big oil and the man!”, lol. I still have a lot of music and ideals from my hippy days, and still rail against the man, and then i’m like, “Wait, am I the man now?”

        Then in grad school realized that “holy cow, petroleum geology is actually fun!” It helps that it also has a great pay check to go with it, especially when you realize “Hmmm, did I sell out or not?” Probably why I put so much of my allowance money towards environmental stuff, to assuage my conscience that I made my living from big oil.

  21. This is a great topic. I have a civil engineering degree, and I do believe that it helped me to become financially free sooner than if I had a different degree. (Thanks dad!) I actually enjoy my career and have had some really cool opportunities and experiences, so I won’t complain about that. But I don’t like my career enough to be stuck on a full time schedule, with the golden handcuffs. What I would tell young kids is to get the most technical degree while you are young and energetic. For example, I can probably get a good indication of how to be a successful artist or social worker by studying, observing and interacting on my own, but performing research at a particle accelerator… probably not. But, of course, if you need a license, then an accredited school is required, no matter how difficult the subject matter.

    1. Thanks PP. I like that attitude – get a degree in something that you can’t just learn on your own. But then again, I taught myself the majority of what I used in the working world with IT, but at least that degree got my foot in the door. Technical degrees, whenever possible, will almost always improve the salary and job prospects.

      Good advice!

  22. I picked an accounting degree for two reasons: 1) income potential and 2) job security. With a little luck and hard work, it has paid off so far. I started making six figures around 6 years out of school and haven’t felt insecure in my job at really any point in time.

    1. Impressive, Fervent! And congrats on choosing a degree with some earnings potential and job security. Definitely looks like it is working out quite nicely for you. 😉

  23. 100% agree with you here Steve! Whether someone’s motivation is to have fancy things or retire early generally compromising early on can be a great way to kick-start..

    You could also say that if you pursue your passion, the flame we have for that passion could dissipate..

    Great post and hope you’re having a fantastic week!

    1. Thanks Jef, and I totally agree. When we pursue our passions, then our passions very often become our jobs. We begin to associate our passions with the negatives that naturally come along with the jobs that we hold, and that’s the last thing I want. I like my hobbies enough to want to keep them!

  24. Well done explaining this topic. I chose industrial engineering because of the starting salary, versatility, and high placement. In Iowa I started at 60K and by 30 was earning just over 100K without bonuses. I’ve had conversations with my younger cousins about needing to consider the return on investment on education. It’s a difficult concept for some to comprehend. I have one cousin I feel terrible for, she went to a private college to get a criminal justice degree and now works in a grocery store… at 12 bucks an hour…. I tried giving guidance along the way but it didn’t sink in and now she’s off to grad school… maybe I’ll send her over to this blog to learn a few things.

    1. Thanks Michael! It is only natural that we WANT to only consider what we love to do when choosing a major. But unfortunately, those majors mean something to employers and our overall job market. If we major in something that isn’t marketable, then it doesn’t really matter how much you love it…you’ll probably be doing blue collar work for a while. That’s life.

  25. Steve–you made such a smart move as a young man, planning how to maximize income without completely giving up comfort in your job. That advice would help so many young people who flounder when they have to make a choice that will influence their job prospects for years to come. They simply don’t have the experience or perspective yet to always make the best decision.

    Now, while I find this to be generally great advice, there’s another aspect to choosing a major beyond maximizing income potential. FIRE is all about having the ability to do whatever you want–early retirees happily report on what they’re learning, thinking, and creating with their newfound freedom. This is exactly what liberal arts degrees can teach you! My coursework was anything but easy, and my rewards are deep thinking, multiple language proficiencies, and the ability to step outside the mainstream when it makes sense. I don’t make a ton of money, but I will still be FI after working ten years or less.* For me, the trade-off is living a life of the mind now instead of waiting until I retire to delve full-time into the mysteries of the world.

    *A low salary is much less of a burden when you have access to early retirement advice.

    1. Thanks Basil! It’s true, there are definitely ways to retire early even if you aren’t in one of those high paying career fields. According to the numbers, though, it’s less common. But, it does happen! Good on you for making it happen. 🙂

  26. A lot of great points. I think it’s something a lot of people struggle with. I think in a lot of circumstances, a compromise can be made…like majoring a more economic degree (STEM, business, etc) and minoring in a topic you enjoy (music, art, etc). That way you can do both. When you graduate, you’ll be able to hopefully scoop up a decent paying job and still be able to afford to pursue your other passions and hobbies.

    1. Yup, I definitely think a compromise is a reasonable path to take. Focus on a money-making career path with good job prospects and try to include as much of your natural strengths as you can. Like you said, it’s super nice to be able to afford to pursue your passions.

  27. So true. My position is that you should choose a field you can tolerate, even if it isn’t exactly what you wanted. Life is all about making those kinds of compromises. If you’re clever, you can sometimes bring it back to your interests.

    Like, majoring in software engineering while you’re true passion is art. Well, why not try and create data visualization tools? Not the best example, but something like that. Then you’ll be able to stomach work long enough to rack up some savings, retire, and paint to your heart’s content.

    I mean, it is work after all. If people wanted to do those tasks, you *probably* wouldn’t have to pay someone to get them done.

  28. I am so far behind in reading blog posts (so apologies for the late comment) but honestly, I AGREE 100%. If you can retire in your 30s, chances are you can go back and do a degree in what you love, if you so choose (or become self-taught, or volunteer your way into a new career). I ended up in communications (social media manager) but my background is psychology and I wish I had taken a more lucrative degree. Don’t get me wrong, I am still doing well (88k/a) but that was due to all the other work I did, not my degree.

  29. That is an awesome photo and the stars are amazing. I could not agree more, Steve. While I didn’t possess the insight at the time to consciously choose this type of path, thankfully, I have been subconsciously money motivated from a young age. I went with a business undergrad and MBA. I took a few calculated risks which did not pan out too well and am still working to bounce back from them, but overall, it has been a good path to take. If I could go back, I would choose a more narrowed discipline for undergrad (i.e., finance or accounting) instead of getting a general business degree, coupled with a general business graduate degree. You know what they say though, hindsight is 20/20.

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