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Matthew LeBar

What majors pay well?

It is common advice to pick a major that pays well. This leads to a fairly obvious question — what majors pay well? 

It is common advice to pick a major that pays well. This leads to a fairly obvious question — what majors pay well? The generic answers are typically difficult fields with clear applications: math, physics, engineering, computer science and business. But how true is that conventional wisdom? published a list of “Majors That Pay You Back,” where it ranks 129 majors based on average starting salary and mid-career salary. Not surprisingly, eight of the top 10 majors are some form of engineering (computer science and physics round out the list). While many of the liberal arts do poorly relative to STEM alternatives, some of them — like International Relations and Philosophy (a go-to major to attack as financially unwise) — actually do quite well. International Relations comes in at 28 with an average starting salary of $41,700 and an average mid-career salary of $85,700, directly below Finance (27) and above many reliable majors like Chemistry (30) and Biotechnology (32). Philosophy, ranked at 45 (directly between Advertising (44) and Marketing & Communications (46)), has an average starting salary of $39,700 and an average mid-career salary of $78,300 that is slightly worse but still quite good, staying above majors like Molecular Biology (50) and the surprisingly-low Accounting (52).


Top 10 Majors by Salary



Starting Salary

Mid-Career Salary


Petroleum Engineering




Actuarial Mathematics




Nuclear Engineering




Chemical Engineering




Aerospace Engineering




Electrical Engineering




Computer Engineering




Computer Science








Mechanical Engineering





These salaries suggest that perhaps the common advice about picking a major is misguided. Majors like Philosophy might not offer obvious applications, but they offer something that can be more useful: skills that can be applied in any field. Philosophy majors will not be able to get a job that requires expertise in a specific subject area, but those jobs are relatively rare. Most jobs value abilities like critical thinking and problem solving more than a Liam Neeson-esque “very particular set of skills,” and Philosophy offers development and demonstration of those more-general abilities. Meanwhile, Microbiology (54) majors who can’t find jobs within their relatively narrow field might have difficulty finding a job in a different field.

Majors that focus on those critical thinking skills also offer a long-term advantage that majors offering specific expertise may not. Petroleum Engineering is spectacularly lucrative right now, but as that market becomes saturated and we move toward alternative energy sources, those salaries could plummet as the knowledge the major offers becomes less valuable. Meanwhile, the versatility of rigorous thinking means that those liberal arts majors will reliably return at the very least a decent return on investment.

It’s also important not to put too much emphasis on major. The numbers are, after all, just averages, and individuals deviate from those averages. It is the student, not the major, who matters. A Computer Science (8) student barely pulling a 2.0 GPA in the least challenging classes he or she can take will likely do much worse than a Journalism (72) — typically a much less lucrative field — student who earns a 4.0 while undergoing a rigorous course-load.

None of this is to say that Engineering, Math or Physics are bad majors or that they won’t be lucrative. It’s just to say that majors well known for good pay are not the only paths to success. We should encourage students to take challenging courses and majors that will develop them intellectually, not push them into majors they’re not interested in because the skills they offer might be traditionally considered more lucrative.

Matthew LeBar is a senior in high school and a research assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Columns will be written by a different CCAP student from Ohio University each week. Email Matthew at

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