Here’s a question: Is it worth pursuing degree programs in fields with statistically low salaries and high unemployment, even if you love the topic? That depends. How quickly are you looking to retire? Also, how strong is your love of money?
The wife, brother-in-law and me in Sayulita, Mexico (I’m on the far right!)

The debate rages on, and its a hotly contested one. Nobody wants to spend their entire working career in a field that they despise or do not excel at. But on the same token, who wants to struggle with unemployment and low salaries their whole life? What is the happy medium?

Research routinely indicates that science and engineering degrees provide much higher salaries and better employment prospects than other degree programs.

For example, according to, 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 at me:

MajorEarly career payMid career pay
Petroleum Engineering$96,700$172,000
Systems Engineering$66,000$121,000
Computer Science / Engineering$71,200$116,000
Aeronautical Engineering$63,000$113,000
Electrical Engineering$67,000$110,000

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, 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

Our Airstream, Charlie, under the stars

Here’s the point: Related degrees very often provide enough educational background to get your foot in the door for higher paying and more dependable positions. 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 I was considering my collegiate future in my late teens, 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. 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. 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. 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.

Choose a degree program to earn a living

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. Early retirement is plausible sooner.

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. 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 might 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:

Choose a career with a high income potential and low unemployment rate – relating as closely as possible to what you love.

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