Katharine Brooks Ed.D.

Career Transitions

Colleges, Careers and Salaries: Should We All Become Engineers?

Always consider the individual behind the statistics.

Posted Jul 22, 2009

1. What are your graduates earning? and

2. What do your ______ majors earn?

An article on college/career data released by Paycale.com attempts to answer those questions. It's an admirable effort, and potentially can provide helpful information, but it is also fraught with misunderstandings and faulty logic.

From an outsider's point of view the questions are quite logical and understandable. Won't surveys like this help us predict the best major to pursue to ensure a financially-secure future?

Usually asked by a parent who's getting ready to spend a lot of money on an education, you want to know if Jimmy majors in Spanish, let's say, will he earn less after he graduates than if he majors in engineering? Let's go out on a limb on this one: probably. Or another version, if Jimmy goes to Important Ivy League School will he have a better starting salary than if he goes to Big State School? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

And herein lies the problem with the questions: they reduce a complex situation (the "value" of a particular college or major) to a simple variable (income).  And the income associated with the college or major may not even be accurate. Because salaries are tied to career fields, career titles, and geographic locations much more than they are tied to a college, university, or major. So while the questions are logical and simple, the answer is not.

Not surprisingly, Payscale.com found that, overall, engineering majors earn the most money. OK. Now what do we DO with that information? Does this mean we should all drop what we're doing and enroll in engineering programs? Should Jimmy major in engineering to ensure a good job in four years? After all, if a major is shown to pay well, why not pursue it?

I don't know-- ask the students who chose a finance major four years ago (at the time a "hot" profession) and are now struggling to find a job. Or ask the aerospace engineers who saw the bottom drop out of their field when the government reduced the space program. Because, ultimately while all of these statistics provide interesting water cooler talk, and I guess, an opportunity for engineering majors to pat themselves on the back, their usefulness drops rapidly.

Career services personnel across the nation struggle with the best way to collect this data, and I can tell you that Payscale has taken on a daunting statistical task. Here are just some of the challenges to quantifying salary info related to colleges and majors:

  • Salaries are squidgy-sometimes they include bonuses or fringe benefits.There's no way to know if such factors were included.
  • The salaries are generally self-reported: I get to tell the surveyor how much I earn. Quite frankly, I can make it up and no one will know.
  • The response rate to most post-graduate surveys is very low (often under 20%) particularly if the institution can't afford to conduct follow-up surveys.
  • The data can be influenced by people who either want to brag about their great salary/title or those who are angry that they are underemployed or unemployed. Now in theory, sheer numbers of respondents will level that playing field, but if only a few respond the data can be meaningless.
  • Payscale based their information on data collected by the schools themselves and can't guarantee how it was collected.

One year I compiled salary data for a small liberal arts college, and only two philosophy majors responded to the survey: one worked for the Peace Corps and was earning about $2,000; the other was part of a tech-based start-up business and earned $80,000. This makes for a mean starting salary for philosophy majors of $41,000. And a totally meaningless figure. But nonetheless when included as part of a larger report, where individual differences can‘t be identified, that year the "mean" salary for philosophy majors was $41,000. You better hope you're not making any decisions based on that figure.

Low reporting numbers are an inherent problem with this type of research. The National Association for Colleges and Employers reports salary survey results quarterly based on findings from colleges and universities across the country, which are as accurate as they can be, but even then some of the salary findings, particularly for less-popular majors are based on only a few respondents.

And the data get even murkier when we look at the median salary for mid-career graduates. According to Payscale.com, the data they collected for mid-career salaries only take into account the graduates who did not pursue professional/graduate degrees. At many liberal arts schools, that knocks out around 40% of the population, and arbitrarily lowers median salaries by excluding most high-paying professions (like lawyer and doctor) which require graduate degrees.

Individual stories and situations are lost. The "underemployed" graduate working as a waitress often writes on the survey "I'm just waiting to start law school in the fall." But that won't be reported. The salary and job title will and subsequently pull down the ranking of that school.

So kudos to Payscale for trying to herd these cats. I hope that someday we'll have a better system for collecting the data.

But as a career counselor I advise you to read the statistics for general interest, enjoyment, or maybe even to see where your school ranks. Better yet, use them as the start of a more thoughtful conversation about what school to attend or what major to select based on other factors beside a starting salary.

  • What school or a major will help you shine?
  • What will you learn by pursuing your major?
  • What do you want to think about over the next four years?
  • What world do you want to immerse yourself in?
  • What type of problems do you want to solve and what major will teach you to solve them?

The answers to these questions can't be found in aggregate statistics; they are very much about you, the individual student.

By the way, according to the research, my institution, The University of Texas at Austin, is in the "Top 50 Colleges for Getting Rich." New graduates have a median starting salary of $50,000. Considering we have over 100 majors at UT, I'm still figuring out how to best use that information.

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Copyright Katharine Brooks