Not All STEM Jobs Guarantee Top Wages

Think a STEM track will guarantee a six-figure salary? A new report shows the degree isn’t always a golden ticket.

Not All STEM Jobs Guarantee Top Wages
[Photo: Flickr userUniversity of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment]

Not so fast, STEM majors–according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, your degree isn’t necessarily a golden ticket.


While it’s generally true that earning a college degree impacts the amount of money made over the course of a career (around $1 million more than adults who only finished high school), the survey, based on salary data from the U.S. Census, analyzed 137 majors and uncovered some surprising facts and a potential reality check for the class of 2015. The difference between the lifetime wages between the highest- and lowest-paying college majors is about $3.4 million.

This is important, because about 70% of graduates armed with a diploma are also carrying an average of $28,400 in debt from student loans. And according to the most recent data from the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate is currently 8.5% (compared with 5.5% in 2007), and the underemployment rate is 16.8% (compared with 9.6% in 2007).

The report, The Economic Value of College Majors, found that business and STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) are the most common and highest-paying majors overall, with STEM majors representing about 20% of all college degrees. The salaries in the report represent 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile earnings for their industries.

Among STEM fields, architecture and engineering majors are the most common, followed by computers, statistics, and mathematics majors; biology and life sciences majors; and physical sciences majors.


But not all STEM tracks are created equal.

Drilling down reveals a very different picture. In engineering, for example, the survey looked at 21 specialties, including chemical, electrical, architectural, and civil. Top earners are petroleum engineers, who can bring in as much as $243,000 by midcareer, while environmental engineers earn just over $100,000, and those in mechanical-related technologies and architecture don’t crack six figures.

Likewise, salaries in the sciences are scattered across the board. Social sciences, including economics, political science, and sociology, represent a broad range of salaries, from just shy of $120,000 for economists to around $75,000 for those who pursued anthropology and archaeology.

Not surprisingly, some of the variation even within the specialties comes from where the job is. Economists working in the (almost triple) than those in government positions, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

Mathematics, statistics (one of a few STEM fields where women dominate), and computer science also show widely varying median salaries by midcareer. Applied math is in a dead heat with computer engineering, earning about $100,000, while information sciences and systems come in just under that.

In biology and life sciences, wages hover around and under $80,000. Neuroscience, botany, and ecology are among the lowest paid among these majors, with salaries ranging from about $35,000 to $79,000.


The report’s authors point out that there are two major factors that influence wages in any field of specialty:

“A College Major Is Not Destiny.”

The authors say that while college opens doors to occupations, it’s the actual work experience that determines the salary outcome. That real-world impact can help those in less lucrative specialties earn as much or more than those with high median wages. For example, the report says, “The top 25% of education majors earn more than the bottom 25% of engineering majors.”

It Matters Where You Land.

“College graduates’ wages are also influenced by whether they work in the for-profit, nonprofit, or public sector; which industry they work in; and whether they pursue lifelong learning opportunities and employer training that further hone their career-related skills,” the survey authors write.

To better the prospects, the Georgetown University Center survey found that investing in a graduate degree (either master’s or PhD) can pay off over the course of a career. In applied math, graduate-degree holders can earn 27.5% more than the median college graduate, or $23,000 more. Computer information systems can crack the six-figure ceiling with an advanced degree. The survey found a 22% increase over the median, or an additional $15,000.

In the health sciences, biology and life sciences majors with graduate degrees earn 63% more than those with bachelor’s degrees, the largest graduate degree wage premium among the 15 major groups. A nurse with a graduate degree stands to make $22,000 more than the median undergraduate. Biologists earn more than 70% above the median, which represents a $40,000 wage increase.

The report found that 35% of jobs today require a bachelor’s degree or higher. And the report’s authors also note that overall, one-third of college graduates go on to complete a graduate degree.



About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.